September 14, 2008
Millions of Americans point to Ellis Island as the place where their family was first introduced to the United States. Others trace their ancestry to ships that dropped anchor centuries ago in New England. Still more greeted Lady Liberty by way of airplanes and a visa. My father? He fondly remembers the comfortable space in the trunk of a Chevy Bel Air that was his ticket to the American dream.
In 1968, Dad left his dying village of Jomulquillo, in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, to join his three older brothers in East Los Angeles. Eighteen years old, impetuous and with a fourth-grade education, Lorenzo Arellano would have had to do months' worth of paperwork to enter the United States legally -- and there was still no guarantee that he'd be allowed to enter. Youth and a growling stomach have little patience, so my father paid a white woman -- a U.S. citizen -- to sneak him into the United States. In Tijuana, he squeezed into the Chevy's trunk alongside a cousin and another man and prayed.
The Bel Air passed across the U.S.-Mexico border with no problem -- the agents just waved it through. It sped north on Interstate 5 for an hour until it came to the Border Patrol checkpoint just south of San Clemente. The car slowed to a crawl, then stopped. A moment of tension. The migra gave the Chevy the OK to leave.
That wasn't the only time Papi entered the United States illegally. Twice, he climbed a fence from Tijuana and ran through the desert east of San Ysidro. Once, he spent a month in jail for using false documents. Perhaps Dad's most dramatic border crossing was when he crawled through a sewage-filled pipeline for about an hour to San Ysidro, in total darkness and with others ahead and behind him. The sewer emptied out near a McDonald's -- insert your own Big Mac joke here.
My father, now a naturalized citizen, never tires of telling these stories to anyone who'll listen -- his eyes light up, he gestures wildly and a smile always cracks wide. And, frankly, neither do I. Although millions of Americans might consider Dad a repeat violator of national sovereignty, I see in his borderland adventures the pluck of the Pilgrims, the resolve of a homesteader, the type of pioneer ethos that has fueled this country for so long. Frederick Jackson Turner was wrong; the American frontier will never close, not as long as there are people like my father who were and are willing to cross deserts, stuff themselves into cars, float across water -- just for the chance to establish themselves in this country and thrive.
Almost every Mexican family I know has followed the same trajectory we have: illegal entry, rough times, hard work leading to success and assimilation for the kids, with the 1986 amnesty helping mucho.
Twenty-nine years of living among illegal immigrants and their American-born children has taught me this truism. And that's why my father's example is crucial and I'll retell it again and again. His story isn't important because it's special; it's important because it's the rule rather than the exception, a rule few want to believe and that therefore must be repeated as often as possible.
I'm glad that my father entered this country illegally. If he had come "the right way," our family's success would've been chalked up as just another example of immigrant can-do. But as an illegal, his accomplishments (as well as mine and my siblings') contradict the conventional wisdom regarding undocumented Mexicans that's been prevalent for this decade. My father's repeated breaking of immigration law is further proof that this country can and does rehabilitate all of her huddled masses, whether legal or not.
Personally, his stories motivate me. If my father could leave his life back in the rancho and risk everything at age 18, I have no excuse to whine about anything. And his stories reward me with the pleasure of watching anti-immigrant loons stumble for words when I ask them to explain how my father and my family could've excelled considering that we come from alien stock.
Does my pride in Dad's outlaw past mean I support a free-for-all at the border? No. We deserve an accurate account of who enters and leaves the United States. We deserve immigrants who don't cheat the system, don't commit crimes against others, who better their communities and don't become burdens. But the traits embodied by Dad and so many more immigrants that spurred them to enter this country illegally -- courage, an indomitable spirit, the ambition to seek a better lot in this country -- are to be lauded and copied. (And spare me the letters about the illegal-entry bit; the Sooners did the same thing, yet we don't flinch when Oklahomans celebrate their spirit). To say this isn't traitorous or even an endorsement of the Reconquista, it's the truth.
We recently celebrated Dad's 57th birthday in the Anaheim home he's just a couple of thousand dollars away from finally paying off. His brothers were there, no longer scared teens running from the law but middle-aged U.S. citizens who want Barack Obama to win the presidential election but hate L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (ever since his extramarital affair was uncovered). Their children -- my cousins, almost all children of former illegal immigrants -- sat alongside the pool, feasting on carne asada and keeping an eye on their kids, who don't speak a lick of Spanish. My dad told his tales again, with my uncles corroborating each detail. When we brought out the cake, everyone sang "Happy Birthday" in English. Somewhere, Lou Dobbs cries.
Gustavo Arellano is a contributing editor to Opinion and author of the ¡Ask a Mexican! column in the OC Weekly. His new book, "Orange County: A Personal History," comes out Tuesday.
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