THE OPINIONATED: FEATURES | The American Dream & Reality With Shéila
For many of us, we'll never know the immigrant experience firsthand or even secondhand. This is why I wanted to highlight Shéila Mejia's story for The Opinionated: Features. As a child of Mexican immigrants, to say Shey has experienced a lot would be an understatement. While there's been great struggles, there has also been even greater successes.
Shéila and her family represent the American dream... and reality. This is their story.
Danielle: Introduce yourself. Give us a sentence about who you are.
Shéila: I am a twenty-five year old Mexican-American señorita, youngest of three kids (two girls, one boy -- all 2 years apart), raised in Farmington, CA.
D: You are a child of immigrants. Tell us a little about that -- where you grew up, where your parents immigrated from/how old they were when they came to America.
S: Farmington is located in the central valley of California, about 2 hours north of Fresno. The population there when I was growing up was close to 300. About a year before I was born, my dad landed a job as the ranch hand for a 1,300 acre farm. He then moved our family from Fresno, where my two older siblings were born. That farm is all I knew, growing up. The owner, whom still to this day I refer to as Grandpa, gave us a home to stay as part of the compensation for my father’s work.
Both my parents came to America in the early '80s. My dad started coming over on a work visa for seasonal jobs in the Fresno-Tulare area in California, when he was 16. My mom was 24 when she walked into America through Tijuana, with the help of a coyote (a person who smuggles immigrants into America -- almost always strangers). My mom and aunt’s case were no different. My aunt was actually six months pregnant when she and my mom made their very first trip.
The second and last time my mom crossed from Mexico into America, my sister was a little over a year old, and this time, they crossed on a tire through the Rio Grande in Texas. My mom wanted her parents to meet her first born and get her baptized in Mexico. Little did she know, it would be her last trip home in over 20 years.
D: What brought your parents to America? What were their initial hopes?
S: In the early '80s, border patrol was little to none, the demand for seasonal field workers was high and the supply coming from Mexico was abundant. Both my parents came to work in search of a better quality of life. The hope came from the motto: "It’s better to live poor in America, than live poor in Mexico" -- a phrase that to this day, is still seen as fact by many Mexicans, and I believe other immigrants alike.
D: Overall, do you think they're happy with their choice to come here?
S: Yes, despite the struggles they have faced, I do believe my parents are happy with the choice they made to come to the United States. I believe they learned a lot about the world around them and they are proud of the life they were able to create for us, their children. They know had they stayed in Mexico, our standard of living, as well as opportunities, would have been much different. The poverty they faced their first few years in America was worth it, for them to see the fruits of their labor continue to blossom through us.
D: Growing up, what struggles did you face that might've been different from your friends who weren't children of immigrants?
S: There are many struggles which come from being a child of immigrants. This list I could write for days! The biggest factor, however, has always been the language barrier. To this day, my parents do not speak English. They sure tried to take classes and have asked us for help; however, it's one thing they were not able to pick up on. I truly cherish the wisdom my parents hold; however, when it came to technicalities and knowledge of certain things such as rules, laws and other American regulations and customs, it has always been a challenge. Learning what questions to ask and who to ask became very important -- we couldn’t turn to our parents for help with our homework or research papers. We grew up in a time before Google search and smart phones, and we had to drive thirty minutes to the closest library. I learned to seek knowledge and understanding, due to a huge fear of being lost.
D: What struggles or challenges do you still face today, in your young adulthood?
S: I would say it is the same struggle. Being a young Hispanic woman working in corporate America, I do not always know what to expect, what to ask, or exactly how to get ahead in the game that is my career. I can’t always turn to home for all the answers or to find similar experiences, because I am the first in my family experiencing a lot of things.
D: Tell us about a specific incident or situation that happened to you, as a result of discrimination.
S: I have either been blessed, naïve, extremely forgetful or all of the above, because no one situation comes to mind where I have been in such a situation of discrimination that I can specify, and for that I am definitely grateful. My parents have taught me not to hold hate in my heart and had I had a life filled with these situations, that would be much more difficult.
D: What about your parents? What discrimination have they faced?
S: The most common statement people love to tell immigrants is to go back to their country or to learn some English. It’s the saddest thing to experience. Sad, because you realize how ignorant some people can be and how hurtful words really are. It makes me angry to see or hear this said to my parents -- my mom, especially -- because it always makes them feel like a failure and/or dumbass right afterwards. Imagine how frustrating it would be to be unable to speak a language you can actually understand (because you have heard it for so long and picked up on so many things).
My initial reaction is to ask these people for who or what the demands were that let them into and kept them in this country?
My parents have these sorts of stories. Before I was born, my mom was working at a retirement home with her sister and childhood friend, when one day, new management came in, and fired all the immigrants, because they didn’t want Mexicans working there.
D: Do you ever feel "stuck in the middle," identifying as Mexican-American?
S: I have never heard of an American-Mexican, it’s always been Mexican-American and I wouldn’t have it or say it any other way. My roots come from Mexico. I am first generation American-born Mexican; however, all my traditions, my first and preferred language, value and culture, come from Mexico. I think the isolation of growing up on a farm with my parents makes it easy to identify with our Mexican culture. Every day, I am learning and experiencing American culture and it’s always harder for me to understand and relate to it, compared to the Mexican culture.
I feel way more at home and at peace in Mexico, even though I grew up in America. Despite being American born, everyone in Mexico always welcomes me with open hands and an open heart; they don’t seek to take or steal from my identity. On the contrary, they always hope to learn from it and are proud when they can relate. America is much different, especially under the current administration. Now more than ever, I feel more attacked, more unaccepted and undervalued.
D: What has the current political climate been like for you and your family?
S: The current political climate is devastating. My dad was deported 8 years ago. After failing an interview for obtaining his permanent residency after his work permit expired, he was under probably the most pressure he had ever been in in his entire life. One sentence changed our family’s life.
D: Tell us more about how your dad failing that interview changed your family.
S: My mom wasn’t allowed to work until I, the youngest, started school. My dad placed and kept the pressure to be the breadwinner, until the day he failed that interview and failed to see how to continue to be such. The Trump administration would see my father as a criminal, because he became an alcoholic when he lost his job as the ranch hand, a job he held for the first 15 years of my life. He had an addiction that he needed help with, and rehab centers would not take him in. They would turn him away because of his legal status and lack of insurance.
As his wife, my mom helped until the last day she could, and as his child, I did the same. I had my first job at fifteen, to pay the bills my father no longer could. I remember one day, he did not come home and I knew the authorities had caught up to him. We visited him in jail for 8 months after a DUI, until he called from Arizona, right before they dropped him off in Mexico. I still remember answering that call like it was yesterday; after his last court visit, I believed he was coming home.
When he failed the interview, he was given a 10 year ban from being able to appeal for re-entry into the US. With the current political climate, it may be possible that we reach those 10 years and still are not able to successfully appeal to bring my dad home. I have several friends and family who are also affected by the decisions being made by the current administration.
D: How do you feel when you hear of other immigrants (or people of Mexican decent, especially) talk about their support for President Trump?
S: I do not understand the rationale from immigrants or other Mexicans on their support of the Trump Administration. They've allowed themselves to be clouded by other issues and have neglected to see the ones that would directly affect them, their status, and their families. I find it very confusing and exhausting to try and share my points of view; once they learn about my family’s situation, they tend to no longer want to talk politics.
D: What do you think is the biggest misconception about immigrants currently, in the US?
S: Immigrants are highly belittled and unrecognized. The biggest misconception about immigrants, I believe, is that they are here to rob and cheat their way to success, when in reality, it is all the contrary. They come seeking knowledge on how to rightfully be successful. They want to take pride in their accomplishments and in overcoming the many obstacles they face. When taking a leap of faith coming to the United States, I think they know exactly what is cut out for them and how hard it will be. They do not expect to get here and get anything for free.
Immigrants know they will have to find their way, and often times, make their own way, due to the lack of aid and resources. They often are the first of their families and know no one here to help point them in the right direction. Like my parents, they couch-surf with friendly strangers, until they can find a steady job to buy their own bed to lay their heads at night. And, not only do they have to make ends meet here in the US, a majority of immigrants always have family to support in their homelands, and do just that, every time they can. I always see a deep sense of pride, family values, and enduring work ethic among immigrants and that never fails to go unnoticed.
D: What have been some of your greatest accomplishments, ones which those who have negative views of immigrants and their children would be "surprised" to learn?
S: The number of jobs, education and skills on my resume make for some tangible accomplishments. I never would have imagined that at twenty-five, I would have Bachelor’s of Science in Business Administration, be on the end of an MBA, beginning to pursue certifications relevant to my current career path and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, making almost three times the salary my parents combined have ever attained. I hate to throw numbers on the board, but it’s said they never lie. The odds were always against me -- I can tell when people are surprised I don’t have five kids, four jobs and an absentee baby daddy. So to me, my biggest accomplishment has been making the most of every opportunity, because they were made available to me through my parents’ sacrifices. Making my parents proud and home owners have been my goals since I was a little girl. I hope in their eyes, I’m at least half way there.
D: What would you tell other children of immigrants?
S: I would tell children of immigrants how valuable they are. How it does not matter how low others try to make them feel, just because they are foreign. How they have so much to offer the world. How vital their endurance and the love in their heart is, for this world to become a better place. And how they should always stand up for what they believe is right, even when people are telling them their mere existence is wrong.
My family's struggle has been unique; however, our goals for success, for being better humans, and giving something positive to this world do not have to be.
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For more of The Opinionated: Features, check out Arden's story here.
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