Little did I know that the issue of immigration was going to be as strong when I was six years old as when I was sixty years old. The story and issue have become a nightmare that haunts me still.
"Orale muchachos!" is what I heard the foreman say as we saw the border patrol van stop by the side of the road where we were picking cotton. I heard the scurrying of feet of the young men, but I couldn't see where they were going. I really didn't understand what was going on. I saw two men getting out of the truck. They were wearing beige hats, dark glasses, black boots and khaki green uniforms.
"Mom, who are those men?" I asked, puzzled by the activity.
"Ignore them and pick cotton. Tell them you are from the United States, if they ask," my mother whispered back to me.
I was confused and scared because I had no clue what was going on and everyone's behavior had changed to one of quiet fear. I was used to the conversations going back and forth between the groups as all of us picked cotton.
I looked toward the cotton trailer and could see one of the young men underneath the cotton.
"Mom, why is that man underneath the cotton? Won't he find it difficult to breathe? Why is he doing that?"
"I told you to be quiet and pick cotton. Do not say anything to anyone."
I lowered my head and continued to pick cotton even though I kept wondering what those men were going to do to us. I wondered why everyone was behaving so differently.
I could hear the men in the green uniforms asking different people if they were U.S. citizens and wondered why they were asking that question. Everyone was responding yes. In some cases, one of the men in the green uniforms would ask for a birth certificate and inspect it while the other man looked around at all of the cotton pickers.
It was difficult to pick cotton as I worried about what the men in green were going to ask me and what would happen to the young men that had disappeared from the cotton fields.
I saw a black boot right beside me, and I had to look way up before I could see the man's face. The man bent and patted my head, "And, how are you doing? Aren't you a little young to be out here picking cotton? he asked.
I continued to look at him and thought "How can I answer two questions at once?" I knew how to speak English, but fear made it impossible for any words to come out of my mouth.
"You sure are a cute little girl," said the man with the boot. The other man in uniform continued to look all around the cotton field as if he was looking for something.
The man beside me continued speaking, "Are you a U.S. citizen?"
My mom answered for both of us. "Si, somos de los estados unidos."
"Thank you, man," said the uniformed man and continued walking through the rows of cotton speakin to the different cotton pickers.
After they had spoken to everyone of us they went back to the foreman who was picking cotton. I could see that he stopped picking as the uniformed men were talking to him. He removed his cotton sack from his shoulder and headed toward the cotton trailer. I watched, trying to figure out what was going on with the uniformed men.
I saw the young man who had been trying to hide come out from underneath the cotton and jump off the trailer. The uniformed men asked him some questions, but the young man just cast his eyes toward the ground and placed his hands behind his back. One of the uniformed men placed handcuffs around the young man's wrists and they both escorted him to their van. As they drove away, everyone started speaking at once.
"It's okay, he will return within a couple of weeks," hollered the foreman.
"He could have died underneath all that cotton and the heat is unbearable," said a woman beside us as she made the sign of the cross over her face with her fingers.
Everyone began to laugh and rejoice as three of the other young men who had hidden re-appeared. They had not been taken away.
"Who were those men in uniform?" I asked my mom with my hands on my waist.
"That was la migra, mija," answered my mom as she picked cotton.
"I don't know what that word means, but why did they take that man with them?" I pestered my mom with a frown on my face.
"They took him because he was not born in the United States," my mom told me.
"How did they know he was not born in the United States?" I persisted with my question.
"Well, he could not speak English and he did not have a birth certificate to prove that he was born in the United States," my mom answered patiently.
"But Mom, you don't speak English and neither do the majority of the people in these cotton fields!" I said in exasperation.
"I don't speak English, but I carry our birth certificates with us to prove that we are U.S. citizens," she explained.
The whole experience had frightened me terribly. Even though I was six years old, this was the first time I realized that people were not free to travel wherever they wanted. They had to prove they had been born in the United States; and the English language proved that you were a U.S. citizen.
This just did not seem fair to me and I let my mother know that I did not like the men in the green uniforms. My mother informed me that I had better get used to the border patrol visiting the cotton fields or any other field we were working.
At about 6:00 in the evening, the foreman announced that it was time for us to go and everyone began to climb on to the back of the truck to head home.
I could see two young men picking cotton. They had hidden from the migra and would be able to stay in the United States to pick cotton.
"Why aren't they going home?" I asked my mom.
"They don't have a home here. They live far away in Mexico, just like your dad did before he died," my mother answered sadly.
"But mom, what are they going to eat and where are they going to sleep?" I asked in desperation.
"Don't worry, mija. They will have extra hours to pick more cotton to make more money to help their families in Mexico. I am sure that they have some food with them." My mom was trying to reassure me that everything would be fine, but at the same time, I heard her say a brief prayer for the young men.
Because I was six, I did not fully comprehend what had happened, but the little I did understand did not seem just or fair to me. As human beings, shouldn't people be free to walk on whatever part of the earth they wanted? Who had made these laws and why? It was a difficult lesson for a six-year-old to learn.
As a child in the cotton fields, I was petrified that la migra would take me to Mexico. As an adult, far away from the cotton fields, I carry my birth certificate in my purse at all times.
Discussion and Writing Prompts:
1. Why was immigration an issue in the 60's and why is it an issue today, 2016?
2. Are you familiar with a situation like the one in this story?
3. Why are immigrants getting hired in the U.S. if they do not have the proper documents to work in the United States?
4. Why can't people travel wherever they want?
5. Why is there a wall between the United States and Mexico? Is this the answer to the issue of immigration? Compare and contrast the Berlin wall that President Reagan was responsible for removing and the wall between Mexico and the U.S. How are they different and how are they alike?