We are privileged middle-class Mexicans. But there’s something that always brings us back to a subject we can never get away from — immigration.
I floated on the waves of the Rio Grande before dirt defined my future as a Mexican or an American.
I’m an anchor baby.
A person baptized into a world of immigration. An overwatered seed meant to grow into a version of the American dream. The pressure to become a person of importance has always been enforced by a memory of struggle — “Remember what your parents had to go through for you to be where you are today.”
A source of motivation for me is a story from 1991, when my mom was pregnant with me on a hot summer day.
She was walking along the muddy edges of the Rio Grande, on the Mexican side, with her brother, who had just given her instructions, “Get on the tire.”
My nervous mom climbed on the tire, dug her nails deep into the rubber and took a chance on the river, hoping to see her brother’s helping hand on the other side. The current splashed against her and knocked her over. She fought her way back to the top, not letting go of her goal — American soil.
That perilous trip was the second of three my mom would make to the United States as a desperate pregnant woman, allowing most of her children to be born American citizens even before she could afford to live there. They were dangerous journeys that have served as emotional fuel for my siblings and me. We have all aimed to live lives worth her sacrifice.
My older siblings live in very nice houses, in very nice neighborhoods. The kind where you know they’ll have good Halloween candy. And while I’m a single millennial who can’t afford a house yet, I do enjoy my trips to Starbucks in the Mercedes-Benz I bought for my 29th birthday.
We are privileged middle-class Mexican Americans, ready to pass along our first batch of generational wealth.
But there is something that always brings us back to a subject we can never get away from — immigration.
One afternoon over the Easter weekend, the youngest one in our family said something that triggered everyone: “I want to apply to become a Border Patrol agent.”
I stayed silent, feeling sorry for my little brother because I knew an uncomfortable conversion was about to start. Someone immediately chimed in, saying, “Really? How could you do that after all your parents have gone through?”
My confused brother responded with, “Como?” (“What do you mean?”)
Same family, different lives
My mom had named him Israel, but I named him Rilin, and we still like to bond during weeknight car rides when one of us has a craving for a good and greasy burger at 2 a.m.
During the drive, Rilin and I often find ourselves debating whether some specific event we experienced was racism or just an encounter with a very rude person.
“OK. How exactly did she hand over the ketchup?” I will ask, and I’ll listen hard as he fights a frustrating stutter, going between English and Spanish, to try and make his point.
I’m the brother who helped change his diapers. I witnessed him talking to imaginary friends, and I’m still curious to know how his mind works.
So when my brother announced his decision to join the Border Patrol, I patiently listened. I wanted to understand. How could my family see it as something morally wrong while Rilin simply saw it as a job with a starting salary of $49,508 to $78,269 a year?
After some reflection with my mom, who took a neutral stand on this, I realized my siblings and I had lived through different experiences, being of different ages, that might explain in part why we didn’t see things the same.
When I was 7 years old, my dad made $120 a week mowing lawns in middle-class neighborhoods. When Rilin was 7, my dad made $800 a week working for wealthy ranchers.
When I was 8, my family would go live in Mexico for months at a time because we couldn’t afford the American rent. By the time Rilin was 8, my parents were homeowners.
When Rilin was 9, my mom became a legal U.S. resident and my dad became a U.S. citizen. I was in college by then, reflecting on the tough years my parents had lived through before achieving those milestones.
The anchor baby struggle
Rilin is the fulfillment of the dream our parents had for all their children. He has lived more of the average American lifestyle, with this whole business of immigration being more of an afterthought. And the fact that he didn’t feel the need to worry about the politics of this job with the Border Patrol? That’s a good privilege to have.
On another one of our late-night car rides recently, I asked Rilin again about his Border Patrol job application. He said he had reached a decision.
“I thought about having to stop a family and sending them back to a place that they were trying to escape from,” he said. “And I don’t think I can bring myself to do it.”
I smiled and thought about the Rio Grande. It just can’t let us anchor babies go.
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Ismael Pérez is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.