An estimated six-and-a-half million Mexican-born citizens live and work in the United States without legal authorization. Many have children who were born in the United States and consequently are citizens although their parents are not. Employment statistics reveal that undocumented Mexican male immigrants have a higher percentage of fulltime employment than any other ethnic or social group. Money sent by legal and undocumented Mexican citizens and U.S. citizens of Mexican descent exceeds that of revenue generated by oil exportation or any other source of revenue that Mexico achieves. For many years Juan Gelacio was one of those six-and-a-half million indocumentados. He since has returned to Mexico where I conversed with him. A majority of my questions and his answers I’ve transcribed from tape recordings, others from notes I made at the time. I’ve edited, condensed and rearranged the material to flow in an orderly fashion.
Juan Gelacio: You see, the situation [in Mexico] was very bad. The government was breaking up the ejidos [properties granted to rural families] and drought had dried up a lot of the land. No longer could one make a living from the soil—a decent living that is, people lacked everything. Medicines. Milk. Fertilizer. My mother worked—where we lived was both our house and a little store and besides packaged goods she made jellies and salsas to sell and embroidered pretty shawls but hardly anyone had any money and we never earned enough to pay for the things we needed. She wanted me to stay in school but I felt that I had to work, to earn at least something. My father sent some money—he worked in the city and had another family there—but it never was enough and my mother was often depressed. Some of the men I worked with had returned from the United States and were going back and I decided to go with them. My mother didn’t want me to leave but I convinced her that on The Other Side I could earn much more money and send it to her so that when I came back we wouldn’t be so poor.
Robert Joe Stout: How did you get from Oaxaca into the United States?
JG: It wasn’t easy. We rode buses for two days to get to Tijuana. No sooner did we get off the bus than people were grabbing us. For this amount or that amount they’d get us across the border. “Ignore them! Ignore them!” my compañeros insisted. We stumbled around for hours until we found a place to stay, a crummy hotel that smelled like an open sewer, and went searching for the contact one of my compañeros had. Finally one night, cold, overcast, we bunched together—there were sixty, maybe seventy of us—and broke through the fence. It wasn’t a reinforced wall like it is now. Running, running, we spread out. The migra [border patrol] saw us and came after us but we were so many they couldn’t catch us all. I was one who got through. Now there were maybe twenty in my group, men mostly, but three or four women. We went across a canal waist-deep in filthy water, through a huge drainpipe, crouching along, our backs hurting, resting near the exit all through the day, sharing what little food we’d brought with us, the next night moving again, getting to what they call a “safe house.” There we slept on the floor, maybe fifteen in the room, one of the three us, me and two of the compañeros I’d come with, staying awake to guard our things while the other two slept. After I don’t know how long—three or four days, it seemed like forever—a Chicano agreed to get us through the check points to Los Angeles.
RJS: And in Los Angeles you found work?
JG: We were “streetcornerers.” There were certain places on certain boulevards where indocumentados looking for work gathered. Pickups would come by, a guy would get out, shout, “I can use three! Five! Eight!” and we would scramble to be chosen. Sometimes a few hours of work, sometimes a day or two or a week.
RJS: It would seem very precarious, uncertain, never knowing when or if you would find work.
JG: Hay que entender—you have to understand. One is always on the lookout. We Mexicans are very social. When we are working we talk to each other about jobs, where to find them. When we’re not working the same. Talk to storekeepers, ambulantes [street peddlers], cooks, delivery guys. So huge is the Mexican population in Los Angeles that one doesn’t have to speak English—one needs to learn it—but among paisanos one can find work. For a long time—a year, more I think, I was doorman for a club. Not a bouncer, I’m too small for that, but I don’t drink much, hardly at all, and I have sharp eyes. So even if I worked all day, I worked at night, too. That’s what one has to do.
RJS: You were doing this all the time that you were in Los Angeles?
JG: No, no. After that I worked in a hospital. At the same time I did accounts for a little businesses, immigrant businesses. First part-time, then full-time for a construction company. The owner was a Chicano. He did business mostly with Chicanos and I kept track of supplies, hustled up extra workers when we needed them, checked on wages, payments, ordered things, always trying to get the best prices, make the best deals. If there were complaints the owner said, “Talk to Juan.” Usually I could iron things out. Be a go-between for lots of things.
RJS: And all this time you were undocumented? You never worried that you’d be apprehended, deported?
JG: One always worried. Being undocumented—illegal—is like having a disease. Like my mother, she has diabetes. She has diabetes but she still works, she does all kinds of things for herself, but the diabetes is always there. Sometimes it’s worse and she can’t do the things she’d like. Other times it’s hardly noticeable but it’s always there. It’s always a preoccupation. She always has to be careful, to not expose herself to something that would make it worse. That’s the kind of disease that being illegal is, a limitation, one has to be careful, to live with it, to not do anything that might make the disease worse.
RJS: And were you ever in situations where “the disease” got worse?
JG: They would happen. I remember one time I was returning from a construction site and my cell phone rang. It was my boss. “Stay away!” he said in a low voice, “Don’t come here, I’ll call when it’s okay.” See, what had happened was there were some government people there, I think from ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], checking on social security numbers. Another time my car broke down. It was night. I called a friend to come help me but while I was waiting for him to show up a police car stopped. Two cops got out; they had guns. They wanted to know why I stopped. They checked to see that the car was broke down, that the radiator had no water in it. They checked my driver’s license. They wanted to know what other I.D. I had. They wanted to know where I worked, how long I’d worked there. I heard one of them say something about my being an “illegal” and I got very nervous. I tried to stay calm, to look like I was in control, but inside I was bowl of quivering Jello. They were talking to each other when my friend showed up. The cops told us we would have to get the cars off the side of the freeway and we said yes and my friend called a tow truck, one owned by Chicanos. Even though it was from farther away and cost more we didn’t want to have the car hauled off to some part of L.A. we didn’t know very well. The cops moved on but they came back to check on us, driving past slowly. Finally the tow truck arrived and we followed it to a radiator shop. Even after I got home I could hardly sleep. The cops knew my address from my driver’s license and for weeks I was afraid the migra would be coming for me. I told Normela that because the cops know where I lived that we should move but she said no, she didn’t want to move. Besides, she said, the cops also knew where I worked. Was I going to quit my job too?
RJS: You probably felt safer living in a predominantly Hispanic area of the city? Associating primarily with other immigrants?
JG: I think that’s true. Just like people with diabetes understand and sympathize with others who have diabetes. But also it is circumstance. You see, when I came, speaking only a little bit of bad English, I felt like I had to be among paisanos. To get work. To learn.There are mexicanos, for example, who marry Anglos. Or Negroes. Often they have problems because they are split between two communities. They say that the United States is a great mixing pot but really it isn’t—it’s very difficult to mix. Not so much for children. They go to school—they integrate somewhat. But the parents—the immigrant parents—not so much. Many like living in America but don’t want to lose their Mexicanness. The children don’t feel so Mexican. They feel like Angelinos—natives of Los Angeles, Chicanos. One of my partners—we were together a long time—when she was a teenager had married a Mexican, a legal. He treated her badly and abandoned her but she never filed for divorce. When one is illegal one can’t do legal things and to get a divorce one has to go through the legal system. One is visible on the streets but invisible on paper. On paper one doesn’t exist.
RJS: This “not existing on paper” prevents one from accessing social services? Or for example contacting the police in case of an emergency?
JG: It’s very confusing, what one can do and what one can’t. For a while the law was that police—local police—could not stop one just because he or she looked Mexican. They could not ask for your I.D. unless you were suspected of doing something illegal. Most had enough to do without looking for indocumentados. There were a million of us, maybe two million, it would take a huge army to round all of us up so they didn’t try. But the federals, the migra [immigration police] sometimes would raid workplaces. Like the neighbors of friends we knew. They had lived in L.A. for fifteen or twenty years—their two children were born there. That made them citizens. The result was the two parents were arrested, held in a detention place for months, then deported. Neighbors took the kids in but they didn’t get along with the neighbors’ kids and ran away. They got into selling drugs, hooking up with a gang. So instead of a hard-working couple paying their bills, supporting their kids, contributing to the economy, the law made all four of them criminals and cost the country thousands and thousands of dollars to process and deport them. This is a good law?
RJS: There has been a lot written about Hispanic gangs in L.A. That they prey mostly on the Hispanic community itself.
JG: Sí. There are really bad areas. Several times I moved from where I was living because areas weren’t safe or weren’t pleasant. In one place, in an older neighborhood—single houses close together—a place a block or so away became a drug house. There were calls to the police but they did nothing. The druggies were noisy, garbagy, bad people coming and going all the time. So the neighbors—the men, most of them part of a baseball, maybe a softball, team went to the house and told them to get out. Those in the drug house laughed, mocked, spit in the neighbors’ faces. Two days later the neighbors went in with baseball bats, bashing everything, furniture, TV, legs and shoulders. Accidentally they even knocked over something and caused a fire, a small one. The druggies left—they never returned—and the neighbors fixed up what damage they’d done. A vigilante thing but they had to care of themselves. Their neighborhood. What they did was a crime but if you’re already a criminal for being in the country without papers you define crime differently.
RJS: Violent crime, you mean?
JG: Not just violent crime. All kinds of little things. Cigarettes for example. The law says you have to sell a whole pack, not just one cigarette at a time. But a guy, like, hasn’t got money enough for a pack. So in the barrio the little stores, the street vendors, sell him one cigarette. They even light it for him because he doesn’t have a lighter. Lots of things like that. Someone needs to have extra money so they start to sell burritos. Roasted corn. They don’t have licenses. They don’t report their earnings. There are places that have cock fights. Places where you can buy tequila or whiskey in little bottles without labels. Or a marijuana cigarette. Places that sell used things—bicycles, car parts, TVs, cell phones. Maybe they were stolen but they are cheap so people buy them because they can’t afford new.
RJS: And probably they don’t have credit cards or bank accounts? All transactions are in cash?
JG: For many yes. They are paid in cash so they buy with cash. But, for example, I had credit cards. The banks don’t care if you are an indocumentado, they just care if you have money. The same is true of stores, like department stores. I had a bank account, driver’s license, cable TV. I sent money every month to my mother here in Oaxaca. It’s a way of life and there are hundreds of thousands doing that same thing.
RJS: But you didn’t have all that immediately. It was a long process, no? Starting from nothing, or almost nothing. There were setbacks along the way?
JG: Well, yes. But in Mexico too there are setbacks. A young man, seventeen or eighteen, young like I was, trying to find work, trying to build, he runs into deadends. He works for a week, two weeks in construction and the boss doesn’t pay him. Or pays him half of what he should. Here in Mexico they only pay one hundred, two hundred pesos a day—often less. On that you cannot have a house, a car. You want things that other people have but there’s no way to get them. There were times my first years in L.A. that I had no job. I scrambled. I helped out in a taquería just to have scraps of food to eat, I plucked chickens, I scoured the beach for things people dropped, I washed cars. It was hard but in L.A. you always look ahead, you don’t stay stuck. You get a break and you build on it.
RJS: But it can’t be all work. One has to have diversions, a social life.
JG: A lot of times they blend together, just like here in Oaxaca. I met my first partner, the one whose husband had abandoned her, where I was taking classes to learn English. There were like a group of us, five or six, all just nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, we would study together, go to McDonald’s together, joke around. I was the least outgoing—I never had brothers or sisters—but I felt included, we got to know a lot of things about each other. One time Normela—Norma Elena, we called her Normela—got to talking about her husband. Usually she was very positive but talking about him she got very tense. Anxious. I noticed it and she noticed me noticing it and we wound up talking for hours, just the two of us, and we started being together, doing things together, then living together. We didn’t talk about getting married because of her situation but we shared things, it was like we were married. Many people thought we were.
RJS: How long were you together?
JG: Seven, almost eight years. I think if we had been married we would have stayed together but there were problems, problems that got bigger. I remember she accused me of being married to my mother, which in a way I guess was true, my having grown up with just her, no father, no brothers or sisters. That’s another myth, you see, that for Mexicans family is more important than anything. It’s true for some—for many—but in L.A. it wasn’t so true. So many of us lived differently. I had friends—one in particular; he had a wife, children, in Mexico but did not want them to come to the U.S.—too dangerous, he said. But he was lonely, he hooked up with an Angelina, she got pregnant. So he had two families, two families he was supporting. There were many like him, many variations. Like Normela and me, not married, not going to church. That’s another thing that immigration does, it creates different combinations, kids switching from family to family, being abandoned, all kinds of things.
RJS: And after having spent how long in L.A.? Most of your adult life, you returned to Mexico. Why?
JG: My mother was ill—her diabetes had gotten very bad—and she was alone. So was I. My second long-term partner and I had ended our being together and I felt my mother needed me. Besides, I had saved money—quite a bit, quite a bit that is by Mexican standards, and I thought I could maybe enlarge my mother’s business or set up something of my own. I don’t earn much, but enough, and my mother is better with me here in Mexico. But it’s a different life. I was born here and grew up here but I feel like a stranger now that I’m back here, living here. Despite being, like they say, “illegal” up there I feel like I’m an Angelino, that my heredity is being Mexican but in all my habits, in the way I think, in the way I do things, I’m an Angelino. Not an American, not really, but a part of that stupid big city, a tiny part but a part I don’t want to lose, don’t want to have taken away from me. Things are strange to me here in Mexico, it’s not like up there. Not that things are bad here for me but I feel like a foreigner, an [he laughs], an immigrant! All my life I’ve been an immigrant, never really belonging to one place nor the other.
Return to table of contents for Issue 12 Winter 2018.