Dany Díaz Mejía, John Carroll University ’11, currently studying public policy & management at the H. John Heinz III College of Public Policy & Management, Carnegie Mellon University
Editor’s Note: This was originally posted in the Heinz Journal, student-run publication of the Heinz College of Public Policy & Management at Carnegie Mellon.
I wanted to tell you a story but I was not sure how to go about it. I began with an academic paper, but then the paper became a short story and the short story became a poem. In the end, nothing seemed to encompass everything I had seen, felt, heard or imagined. Everything seemed to lack flavor. The paper lacked feeling, the short story lacked playfulness and the poem lacked structure. Now, here I am writing you this piece, not knowing what it will become or what it will tell you.
I must first warn you I cannot speak of truth or objectivity. I can only say what I have seen, what I thought I saw and what I hoped to see. If you are looking for a serious public policy opinion with graphs and equations then maybe this piece is not for you. At first glance it may seem too disjointed, too subjective or perhaps even improbable.
My dear Heinzer reader, do not despair! This writing will be algebraic in some sense. Algebra comes from the Arabic “al-jabr”, which means to put together that which has been broken, and that is what I hope to do. I may not be a great writer, and to echo Shakespeare “I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts” (Julius Caesar). I simply want to tell you a story and share with you my questions. I want to share with you the reasons why being at Heinz pains me and gives me joy.
I will not tell you about the papers I wrote, but about the ones I did not write. I will tell you about the tests happening in my room at two in the morning as I struggle with my insomnia, my anxiety and my insecurities. I will tell you about the tensions of feeling simultaneously sad and grateful, guilty and lucky, bold and afraid of failure, all of which have dominated part of my life in graduate school.
In academic papers I have been graded for the logic of my argument, the objectivity of my position and my command of commas. But I was not impartial when I wrote them. I had a stake when I wrote about poverty, hunger, anxiety and injustice. The discussions in class were not just thought experiments but were connected to my life, to my experiences and to my family.
When I wrote about immigration I was not only thinking about preemption issues in the law. I was also thinking about my mom, my siblings and personal abandonment I have felt. I thought about the complexity of only being able to be there for one’s children by not being there. I thought about the silences in my family. We never talked about how much we missed our mom and yet we all missed her. When others talked of “illegal aliens,” I thought about my mother who only went to fifth grade, riding the metros of Madrid, smoking to cure her worries and hurt from being far away. I did not talk about my story when arguing in favor of immigration reform. It was too personal, too emotional and perhaps too strange.
This is not a position paper on immigration reform or a call to arms. I cannot say much that has not been said. I can only offer you two moments in my life. The first is about my mom and the second about a woman named Armida.
Moment 1: The day my mom left to Spain (six years ago)
I knew this might be the last time I saw her but I did not cry. I did not cry because I knew the alternative. We had dissected it for the whole month prior to her departure; it was a very straightforward decision. The alternative was a despairing sentence that read something like, “If my mom stays in Honduras then, she is not going to make enough money to pay for our house, send us to school, buy us shoes or feed us.”
As a family we decided to say good-bye to our mom and pretend we were happy she was leaving to an unknown part of Spain to set us “free” from poverty. From the moment she boarded the plane until the moment she came back, we were to freeze our hearts and not complain, cry, be upset or even mad that she was gone. It was just a year, she told us. I knew it was not true. I knew that if she became an undocumented immigrant in another country she could not leave whenever she wanted and would not be afford the same rights as documented immigrants. I knew it and yet she had to go. Six years have passed and the children have become adults. Some are waiting for an answer, an explanation and an apology that might never come. Others know it’s not fair, none of it. And I have come to love this woman even while she’s gone.
Moment 2: Armida crosses the US border with her daughter (2007)
You leave Tijuana and venture into the dessert. People walk many miles of land covered only by sand; dreadful and lonely sand. The idea of “dust you shall become” is nowhere as present as it is in the desert while evading the immigration patrol. The ugliness of such an idea intensifies when the desert is transformed into a cemetery where corpses’ only identity is dust, a dust with no story or excuse, an abandoned dust that only the wind will care to play with. And yet Armida crossed the desert with her daughter.
She left half of her heart with her mom in El Salvador and in the other half packed all her hopes of reaching “The American Dream” through her hard work. Armida brought her six –year- old daughter Andrea with her across the Mexican border believing she would find for her all that had escaped her own life: a safe home, education and money.
Armida has no home. She stays in her friend’s home where Andrea is often reminded she must not complain if the boys hit her because she is a girl. She wakes her daughter up every morning at 5:00am. If Andrea complains, her mother asks her, “Why are we here?” Andrea must reply, “For my education.” The thought of such a bizarre ritual has haunted me many mornings when I struggle to get out of my own bed.
They walk several blocks to catch a bus that will take Andrea to school. This is not the “path” for education Armida had imagined for her daughter. She had pictured a fair and smooth transition for her daughter into the American educational system; not a lonely walk before the sun comes out.
When I asked Armida what she did for a living, she told me she took care of children in the ‘good’ part of town. She explained to me that the pay was poor but enough to live on because it includes one and a half meals per day. I had never heard of the term “half meal” but I refrained from asking; maybe because I did not want to intrude in her misery or maybe because I was scared to find out. Before coming to the U.S., she thought hard work was all she needed to succeed in this land, but after working fourteen hours every day for three years she knows there must be something else to cross the fine line between living and surviving.
Most undocumented immigrants do not want to stay forever in the United States. Rather, most leave their countries thinking they can come back to be with their children after working a few years. In their absence, however, they are disconnected from the children’s lives and begin to wish they had never left.
Why does my heart beat fast as I write these stories? Why am I so anxious? Is it because I am not a great writer? Is it because I am afraid to tell this story? Is it because I do not want to accept its reality? Is it because I do not want to explain or defend it? Is it because I am sad?
I don’t know. What does it mean to be a good person? What do we do with so much privilege and so much pain? What should be our response to the suffering of others? These are the questions I will wrestle with this semester and look forward to sharing with you.