Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Our Stories in English
Jesús Villicaña López
I Left Moroleón at Daybreak, with Great Sadness
[Jesús Villicaña López is from La Ordeña, a village near Moroleón, in the state of Guanajuato. He was 16 years old when he did this interview, 6 months after coming to the United States.]
I made the decision [to come North] on my own because I wanted to find a new way of life or a future for myself. I wanted to be self-reliant and also to help my family—my mom and my brothers. I have four siblings, all younger than I: my sister is 8 years old and I have one brother who is 14 and another who is 12. Because I am the oldest, I have a great responsibility to be with them, to protect them and my mom. It’s my duty to give them the best, to create opportunities for them so that they can get ahead. I am responsible for showing them how to live life.
In Mexico, I lived in a stone house patched with clay that had a dirt floor—it was tiny, with only one room for the entire family. We made our living growing corn and beans to eat—this is a staple food of the region…. My mother insisted that I go to school…I know that school is very useful, but I didn’t have the resources to continue my studies and neither did my mom or my grandparents. So I decided to leave school and come up here. I believe that by doing this work here in the US, I can help my brothers and sister get ahead in life and provide them with a better education, a career, so that they won’t have to make the same sacrifice that I made when I came here for them. I send my family four or five times as much as they used to earn each month. Every three or four weeks I send around $1000 to Mexico.
I left Moroleón for the North at daybreak, with great sadness. I was with a group—my uncle and some friends of his, all older. I was the only young person in the group. The night before I left I tried and tried to get to sleep so that I could leave easily in the morning, but I couldn’t sleep the whole night. I stayed up all night with my mom and then it was time for me to prepare to leave. My uncle came to the house and said that they had come for us. I left with my suitcase and then, with the blessing of my mother, I climbed into the car and we left. Crying, with great sadness, we left our families and the village where we lived behind. We left focused on our future, with the intention of finding a new way of life and confronting new problems. But, then, at the same time, it was a risky and very dangerous adventure.
I am one of the younger people in the camp. When I first came here the truth is that I felt an enormous fear inside of me, since I didn’t know where I was and I knew no one except my uncle, who came with me. At night I felt this profound loneliness because I was in such a big place without knowing anybody.
Actually, I was very surprised at the conditions here in the camp. When I left Mexico, I thought that I was coming to a place where we were going to be, well, free, with a big living space. But when I got here, I realized that it wasn’t that way—it was a small place where many of us were cramped together. At times we really have toan effort to get along, since there are so many of us—we are 16 now, and in the summer there will be 20. The camp is one long room, an open dormitory, without separate bedrooms. Each of us has our own space where we sleep, but there is no real private space. We make sure to respect each other’s things, though. With so many people living together, there are bound to be conflicts sometimes, but we know that we have to try to avoid them.
I get up faithfully at daybreak, at 2:00 in the morning. Before I leave for work I eat a little. If I want to, I can rest one or two days a week, but since I’m not that tired, I figure I should put more energy into work. So I work seven days a week, 12 or 13 hours a day…It’s piecework—they pay me by the box—so if I want to make more money, I have to force myself to try to harvest more mushrooms. They ask you to pick an average of six boxes an hour—they pay $1.00 a box. Each box holds ten pounds of mushrooms. There are times when I fill eight or ten boxes an hour— so I pick 80 to 100 pounds of mushrooms each hour.
I would like to say something to all the people who might think that being here in the United States is easy. I want them to know it isn’t that way because you don’t necessarily know what you’re up against. You think you will come here and find happiness, a new world full of marvels—but it isn’t that way. You will face tremendous loneliness with a great many problems, large and small. And you have to be responsible for yourself instead of expecting to rely on others.
I would advise all who are thinking of coming here to think carefully about things. First, think about what you will do when you are here, who might accompany you on your trip, and if you are mentally and physically prepared, if you are strong enough to face your personal and social problems. Because if you are not prepared to face life, to face new challenges, it will weigh very heavily on you over time. Often it is misfortune that makes us unable to bear this burden and that gets us into trouble. And everything that you hoped for when you came here can turn out quite differently than you planned. You can succumb to temptation, like alcohol or drug addiction, and all the desires and dreams that you came here with can so quickly disappear into oblivion. If a person comes with desire, with interest, and if he knows why he’s coming, what he’s coming to and what he intends to accomplish here, then, yes—it’s worth it.
[A few months after this interview, Jesús’ father died. Jesús was not able to return to Mexico for his burial. In the Spring his mother, two brothers and sister moved into their new three-room house in La Ordeña—paid for with the $10,000 that Jesús had sent home.]
I left Half My Heart There
[Margarita Rojas is 32 years old. She grew up in the town of Zacapu, Michoacán, and came to theUnited States when she was 18 years old. This interview was completedone week before her final deportation order was to go into effect.]
After I left high school, my dreams were always to be a kindergarten teacher, to have some money—which we didn’t have at home…. But the economic situation didn’t make my dreams possible and, afterwards, the man who came into my life—the father of my children—ended my plans. I discussed with him that I was going to continue studying, but tradition dictated otherwise. It was more like, “Women shouldn’t study because eventually they get married and never practice their profession.”
It was very difficult for me to bring myself here because I was leaving my heart there—my land, my family—but I knew that I had to struggle to make a better life. I thought that it was going to be better. For me, it was very difficult to change countries, to change customs, to change everything. I remember that when I went to say goodbye to my parents, my house was very sad—it seemed as if somebody had died, everyone was crying. I had to hug my parents and tell them that I was going. My parents cried, but they didn’t stop me—they always believed that we should make our own lives. But, I tell you, I left half my heart there.
All those five years [here in the United States with my first husband] were full of abuse, violence, mistreatment and daily insults. And all this time [my daughter] Adriana saw how we were living—she was frightened and crying. She was six years old and was very traumatized. She didn’t love him. She would tell me that when she would see her dad, her stomach would hurt—she was scared of him because he also beat her, he abused her. Then, I remember it well—it was December 30, 1994—he beat me over and over, viciously, without feeling, without reason. He just went crazy. I thought, “The moment will come when God will grant me a chance to leave because today I am leaving.” Then, throughout the early dawn hours I stayed up to make sure that he would be sleeping. I kept my children all dressed up, including their jackets. When I heard that he was snoring—that was about 5:00 in the morning—I took my Richie in my arms and I woke up Adriana and I told her, “Big girl, let’s get out of here.” She was suddenly happy and my daughter left quickly, like a little kangaroo, without making noise. And we got out, thank God.
I dedicated myself to working hard to help my children get ahead so that they would be able to have nice clothes and good shoes, and I was succeeding. In the morning I cleaned houses ‘til 12:00 or 1:00 pm. After cleaning houses, I took a bath and went out to do demonstrations, selling clothes, gold jewelry, beauty products and lingerie. I was the owner of three businesses; I had a chain, an enormous network, like you can’t imagine, of people who depended on me—they were selling and they paid a percentage of the sales to me. I was popular. I was able to have an apartment for me and my children. It transformed me. My life changed after I started living alone and then I was happy. I wanted tranquility and peace. I wanted to help my children get ahead by myself, so that no one would tell me, “You and your children eat because of me” or “Because of me you all have a place to sleep and to live.” That’s why I had cried so much. I wanted to say “I can do it by myself, I don’t need anybody.” I stopped crying then.
Finally, I started a very beautiful relationship [with a man called Pablo, who is Mexican and an American citizen]…Pablo wasn’t the typical macho that I had known. He gave me a lot of courage to be able to be free, to be able to make my own decisions, and he was never going to oppose them. In September 2000 we got married officially before the judge. I tell you, for me, all of this was very beautiful because now I felt protected, I felt loved, I felt very supported and respected. He wanted a family and I gave that to him. I wanted happiness, attention and support and he gave all that to me.
[I applied for a work permit at INS, but] the only thing that they gave me was a deportation order…. I feel very bad, I feel like they have me tied up and I can’t do anything—I feel like a criminal. I say it’s unfair, after so much struggle, because I am married to an American citizen, with two children who are citizens and one who is a resident. I feel very frustrated because I think, “What will happen to my children, with their rights, the dreams that they have?” I feel worse for them, worse that they will lose everything that is their life here. Right now, I feel like they have me in a plastic bag and I can’t breathe, like I am drowning. I wish they would let me breathe, let me be free.
My dreams are for my children to be able to go to college, to fulfill their lives as professionals, and not to have to depend on anyone the way their mother did. I wouldn’t want them to have to do the kind of jobs that I did—I don’t want my daughter cleaning houses or my son running all over the place looking for work. As I have said to Adriana, “I would be so happy to see you working, helping a lot of people, lending your hand to whomever needs it because you remember how we were in need and how we had many people who helped us.”
I feel very bad because my husband and I finally found happiness and now a law is going to separate us. The only thing that I ask God is that when we go to Federal Court the judge turns out to be a just person. If I had the opportunity, I would tell the judge not to act as a judge, but rather as a normal human being with feelings. I would say to him, “I am not a criminal. I didn’t murder anyone—why are you judging me this way? Think more about the welfare and rights of the children. Have compassion—we all have children. Don’t pay so much attention to what I did by violating this law to re-enter the United States—millions and millions of people do it, almost every Mexican who is here has done it.” I am a proud person and it’s very hard for me to ask for forgiveness—it’s like I am stooping down and humiliating myself, but I will do it for my children. I would tell the judge, “Maybe I don’t show it, but my heart is broken. Now, I no longer cry—for a very long time I did cry, but I don’t want to cry anymore. The only thing I ask of you is that you do not destroy my family.”
[Margarita Rojas decided to fly to Mexico with her children on January 25—the day before she was to appear before INS and face deportation. However, at the last minute she chose to stay in the United States and appeal her deportation order one last time so that her daughter, Adriana, could receive the medical treatment she needed. On January 26th she said good-bye to her children and appeared before the Immigration Service, prepared to face detention in jail pending an appeal of her deportation order. Her deportation was postponed and she was allowed to return home to care for her children. Her case is still in the courts.]
This Green Card Represents Years of Sacrifice
[Salvador García Baeza is 54 years old and is from the town of Moroleón, Mexico. He came to work in the mushroom industry in Kennett Square in 1979 and got his permanent residency card in 1986. He brought his sons to Pennsylvania in 1996 and his wife and daughter in 2000.]
I think that our family survived the separation because above all there was communication through letters, when they were little ten-year-olds, twelve-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds. There were individual letters for each one, giving them advice. I think my wife has maybe 300 letters—all those that I sent during those 22 years, she has them all. Each month I sent one letter. There was a lot of communication by telephone, asking about everyone, talking with them for 10 or 15 minutes. I gave them advice. I felt happy after talking with my wife, with the children. I felt renewed energy to begin work another day.
Of course, it was difficult being separated from my children. I didn’t see them grow up. Now I know how they are doing because I see them. Well, I can say that I feel proud of how they’ve behaved and also I’m proud of my wife, that she knew how to take charge when I was in the United States. There are families that aren’t like that.
In my present job] they pay me $7.20 an hour and I have worked there for eight years. Nowhere do they pay overtime. I’ve been working 13 hours a day for a month and a half—70 to 80 hours a week—and they still don’t pay time-and-a-half. They say that they don’t pay overtime because it’s “agricultural work.” I think that after 40 hours a week, you should be paid overtime, it doesn’t matter what you call it—“agriculture”—or whatever kind of work. I think the important thing is that we do our jobs.
Where I am, it’s not easy to complain and band together because people have a horrible fear—they’re very scared to defend themselves. They fear that they would be told, “No more work for you because you’re a troublemaker.” I think they’re afraid because most of them don’t have papers—maybe 10% have papers. Of the 80 Mexican employees where I work, 15 have work permits and proper papers and I think that 65 are illegal…. But, also, it’s true that undocumented Mexicans aren’t very afraid of being deported. Let’s say that one day INS comes in and rounds up the 65 illegals. Suddenly the factory is left without people. The 15 of us that are left will not do the work of the other 65, isn’t that right? [Laughs].
Even though the bosses are very aware that it’s against the law to hire illegals, they do it anyway—because they can pay them cheaper wages, right? It’s a type of exploitation—they increase their profits by using illegal workers. The US government says that the illegal is a burden for the United States, but I don’t think so. Because if the illegal makes $300 dollars a week and they take out income tax, they take out Social Security and local taxes, state taxes, then how is the illegal a burden? If the government is thinking about kicking out those illegal people, sending them back to Mexico or El Salvador or Guatemala or to Argentina, wherever, tell me, who will do the work? Who? Americans will not work for $6.50 an hour. The people who work in factory jobs or picking mushrooms or construction or who work in hotels or restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s or Chi Chi’s—most of them are Mexican. I think the US government should do what they did with me and all of the Mexicans in 1986—give us amnesty and residency.
I remember the day I got my green card, in ‘86. I went to an Immigration office in a town called Lima. They asked me questions—if INS had caught me, if I had problems with the police. I told them no. Then they asked me if I was a Mexican, and I said yes. They said, “If you are a Mexican, sing us the song ‘La Bamba.’ How does it go? If you sing it and we see that indeed you know it, then you are a Mexican. If not, you are lying to us.” So they had me singing “La Bamba” and there I was, showing them that I was indeed a Mexican.
♫ Para bailar la Bamba ♫ To dance “La Bamba” Para bailar la Bamba To dance “La Bamba” Se necesita una poca de gracia You need a little bit of grace
I feel great pride for having gotten [my green card]. This green card represents years of sacrifice—not being with my family, living and working with men only, suffering. It’s hard.
When I die, I would like to be remembered with affection. I want people to remember what I gave them in my life—the little things. What I am most proud of is the people that I know—friends and neighbors, in Mexico and here. And coworkers I have lived and worked with. I am proud to have fulfilled my obligations to my family, my children. I always took care of my family when they were in Mexico and sent them money so they would have enough to eat. Even though I would drink a few beers, it was never more than six or so. And I didn’t spend all of the money that I earned on myself. I always thought of my wife, of the children. I wanted to make sure that they had a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat, and an education. I tell my wife, I tell her, “You got lucky when you married me.”
Mayra Castillo Rangel
I’m Trying to Find a Midpoint Between Both Cultures
[Mayra Castillo Rangel is 22 years old and came to the United States when she was 12. She is a graduate of Chestnut Hill College, where she majored in French and Communications. She has worked in the offices of admissions and financial aid for minority recuriting at Arcada and LaSalle Universities.]
We arrived here on July 14th, I think, during the summer of 1993 right after I graduated from 6th grade, primary school, there. When I entered school here I entered an all-English school, although I had some bilingual teachers and classes. Before I started I remember my dad bought my brother and me a blackboard, chalk and an eraser and lent us his English books to start preparing for school. He said I had to learn all I could alone and at times he would help with what he knew, which I now realize wasn’t a lot—but even though it was little, that and the encouragement all helped. He showed me the alphabet, the numbers and some basics. He also took us to a Puerto Rican friend of his at the mushroom plant where he worked so she could help us too. She read books for us and my first English book I read was by Dr. Seuss. I think it was something like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. I felt very proud because by the end I could read the whole book by myself, even if it was from memory. I could recognize some of the numbers and colors and other words and I could tell I had good pronunciation.
I think entering school was very difficult. I was very afraid…I had to present myself at the main office to get my schedule and be advised on how classes were going to work… I was so happy when I learned that [the principal], Mr. Carr, spoke some Spanish. That comforted me, but I still couldn’t help but cry in front of him… I was very, very nervous and afraid and couldn’t help it…[I felt] grief and shame and more fear and then I cried even more.
I think my family continues to be very ingrained in the Mexican traditions. I’m between the Mexican and so-called “American” traditions myself. I like that and work it to my advantage, to understand the two different worlds. Living in the US, I think I understand the culture and the language, but I try not to stray too far from my Mexican culture. I am still proud to say that I’m Mexican, but I’m happy to live in another country where I’ve had to adapt myself to the new culture. As a Mexican I love to dance the cumbia, a little quebradita and, of course, our folkloric traditional dances. I love the food and although I don’t know how to cook the traditional dishes I still have my mom and I ask her from time to time to make me un molito, or un pozolito or maybe some enchiladas or even her own gorditas. Of course, I love my language, the Spanish that we speak at home. I forget some things from time to time since I don’t speak it a lot. Since living in the US, I like the liberty, my freedom. I’m no longer a submissive Mexican woman, meant to be only a wife and a mother. That’s what I’ve come to conclude about myself now that I live here.
I think that in part, my mom has been my role model, perhaps without wanting to be or without her realizing it. I have heard my mom talk and seen how hard she has worked all her life, sometimes at two or three jobs, plus she is also a mother and housewife, all at the same time. We Mexicans tend to believe or always say that the man is the head of the household, the one that contributes the money, the one that works more, yet my mom has shown me that I can go forward and I can do what I want because she has done it herself.
I just graduated from Chestnut Hill College], where I studied French. That is what I chose as a career, although I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do with it. People say I have a gift for languages, and maybe I do, but the toughest part is figuring out what to do with this gift. At times I have thought about being a school counselor because I had one in high school who really helped me when I was going through a tough time. I had two college professors who gave me a lot of support and believed I could do a lot with my life—they said I would go far in life. When they told me that, I believed it and little by little I got the courage to look for and ask for more in life. If anything, that is what I would like to do with the youth from our community and others—encourage them, make them see that we are in the land of opportunities and more possibilities than what our parents had in Mexico and that if they really want something, to go ahead and grab it. It is tough at times, but it can be done.
I wonder if my family has accomplished the American Dream—in part, yes, and in part, no. Our dream was to have a better life than we had in Mexico and we do have it, in a way. My parents have a home, a job, my dad has some benefits, we have food on our table and some other amenities that have come along the way, like cars—not luxury cars or even new cars—but what we need for transportation and to feel accomplished in one way or another. I have an education that I know I would never have had in Mexico. I have traveled to many places around the world—something I don’t think I would have done if I had stayed in Mexico. I actually think I would be married with children now; there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m just happier where I am now, single. Yes, materially we are better off, but we have all suffered a lot. We have lost the comfort of feeling at home when we go back to Mexico because we have become Norteños [Northerners] and have lost part of our Mexican identity while gaining a new one in the US. We have all suffered racial discrimination in one way or another and felt inferior at times and that was definitely not part of our dream.
Read the entire stories or Jesús, Margarita, Salvador and Myra, as well as the stories of eight other farmworker families, by ordering Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, at
The book is in Spanish and English. A Teachers Guide for the book can also be downloaded from the website.
Mark Lyons is co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which uses digital storytelling in their work with teens and adult learners in summer workshops, computer courses and ESL classes. Participants write stories or interview others about their immigrant experience, record, edit and mix their stories, and create short audio stories. He also does workshops with teachers on doing community oral histories. He is the co-editor of Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, which is published in Spanish and English. He developed a theater piece from the stories in the book, which was performed by local people at the Border Book Festival in New Mexico.
He has worked in the Latino community for the last twenty five years, as a health worker and community organizer. For eight years he was the director of the Farmworkers Health and Safety Institute, a consortium of grass-roots organizations in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The Institute trained farmworkers to use theater and other popular education methods to train other farmworkers concerning health and safety issues such as pesticides, field sanitation, housing, drinking water, HIV/AIDS and workers’ rights. He also worked for several years in a community health center, as a provider and health planner.
Mark’s collection of short stories, Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines, was published by Wild River Books in 2014. It was chosen as a Kirkus Reviews Book of the Year. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is a recipient of Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships for 2003 and 2009, and the J.P. McGrath Memorial Award from Whetstone Magazine. In addition, one of Mark’s stories was performed at the Writing Aloud Literary Series at the Interact Theater in Philadelphia.
ARTICLES BY MARK LYONS
Dreams and Nightmares: Notes from the Editor, working with Liliana Velasquez
Dreams and Nightmares/Sueños y Pesadillas
The Ecuadorians of Upper Darby
Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Nuestras Historias en Español
Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Our Stories in English
My Power Ranger Had One Leg: The Open Borders Youth Radio Project
The Youth Radio Project: Transcripts of Audio Stories
Welcome to Open Borders
Wild River Books
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines – Arnold’s Roadside Café: Route 80, North Platte
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines – Holy Roller
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: Security Risk
A Celebration of Shrines
Introduction to Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: The Borders That Divide Us Are the Places We Find Each Other
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: Tlaxcala Red