By Jaime Bugarin*
To a 10-year-old child, alien to electricity, running water and television, coming to America was a whole new world. America, to me known as “El Norte,” was romanticized by those who had gone and come back to Mexico with new-found riches, mostly made up of the brand-name clothes on their back and a small pile of American dollars. I had not traveled farther than the major city 20 kilometers away.
But the day came sometime in 1978 when mother announced we would be making that trip. My father, who was already in America, had raised enough money for the trip and to pay a human smuggler known as a “Coyote” to bring us across the border. Judging by our three-day stay in a Tijuana motel, before we attempted to go across, it took careful planning and strategy to smuggle us in. I was too young to know specifics.
The first attempt failed. While attempting to cross with fake American passports, a lady known as Rosa and my 8-year-old brother were detained. They were imprisoned for several days in holding cells where both endured trying moments. My brother was burned by other inmates with lit matches all over his body including the bottom of his feet. His shoes and shirt were taken away. Plus, two days after he was jailed, my mother attempted to get him released but failed. He saw her walking away from the building thinking she was abandoning him. This impacted him an unimaginable way. Concerned for my brother, my father and uncle from California drove to Tijuana. My dad finally got my brother released. When my brother was brought back to the motel, I saw profound sadness in his stare. I look at him today and, in spite of his success and beautiful family, that sadness remains in his eyes.
My uncle, a legal resident of the US, and my father both concluded that we would all cross together. Now in Tijuana almost two weeks, they set out to find a Coyote experienced in terrain crossings. The $1000 dollar deposit to the first Coyote was deemed a loss. Inevitably, while talking to people walking along the Tijuana plaza they found someone who they trusted would bring us all to California. I do not remember many details of that night traveling on mountainous terrain or the injury I suffered, a cut on my arm deep enough for stitches. My father put a hand full of dirt over the cut and patched it with a handkerchief. That scar on my arm now and then awakens memories of that journey. We walked most of the night and stopped near a dirt road where we waited for hours until a camper truck picked us up.
We then drove along a winding mountainous road to a place called the Rumorosa. That evening, now somewhere in California, we were brought to a house filled with other illegals. In spite of the stench of urine and sweat, the bread and milk we were fed was welcomed. My father was released so he could go out and bring back payment. The rest of us were captives for the time being. The Coyote in a joking manner advised my father not to take too long; waiting made him nervous.
Discovery of the American landscape, its diverse people and the comforts of running water and electricity, lit me up like the kid in the candy store. We lived in the city of Rosemead, a suburb of Los Angeles, where most people from my end of the world migrated. A city made up of a mixed population of mostly white and Hispanics seemed like a great place settle in but, once I began school, the taunting, name calling and beat-downs by my peers were no fun. For years branded a wetback, I was ashamed to be Mexican. School, a safe haven for most, was a tormenting, confusing world for me. The ESL classes were a fast track to the basics of the language enough to hold a simple conversation, but the accent was never shaken. As I moved on to middle school, things did not get any better. My bruised inner ego made me fragile, lacking confidence. I became an awkward loner who did not fit in. To my Mexican peers, my blue eyes and light complexion led them to believe I was Anglo. I was introverted and would not speak unless I was spoken to. When the Anglo kids spoke to me assuming I was white only to find out I was Mexican, it would unleash more name calling and sometimes physical altercations. My skin by then had thickened and I could hold my own in a fist fight, so I was usually left alone.
High school in San Gabriel, California seemed to have a pull of students from better economic back grounds. Many who live in the north east part of that city and parts of San Marino, California came from well to do families. The school population was less confrontational, yet for me it was more of the same with the exception that I managed to find other misfits to call my friends. With them I engaged in mind altering substances like alcohol and marijuana. My English teacher, one of the few people who gave me any confidence, discovered I had the gift of writing. She recruited me for the school paper. That opened doors to new friends and possibilities. My beat was always a struggle but I armed myself with dictionaries and a thesaurus. I spent a lot of time perfecting my stories, seeing my name on the byline on print made it all worthwhile. In spite of the new found social acceptance, I became conflicted. Caught in the middle of three life styles, I was the hardcore Mexican at home; the marijuana and alcohol user, as well as the popular newspaper man on campus. Due to bad grades and lack of attendance, my high school career was lengthened to five years. Not until that fifth year of high school did I become more serious about graduating and so I did. At the bottom of my class but nonetheless, it was done.
By now I had a good social life, a decent paying job and I got my hands on a fake ID that made me 22 years old. In that element at the time the fake ID was a big deal. It opened doors to LA’s 21 and over bar and club scene where the women were fast, the alcohol and recreational drugs were abundant and people were carefree. My life was better but I was still living in two different worlds. I had my American friends with names like Todd and Skyler. Then there was my Mexican side with Chuy, Pancho and Roberto’s brother, Sotelo.
By way of amnesty at 21 years old I became a legal US resident. The accidental impregnation of my girlfriend and the birth of my son was when I realized this was now my permanent home. Paternal instinct and the values my folks had instilled in me during the years back at the farm took over. I left my social life and its drugs and alcohol behind and started a new chapter in my life. I have seen many highs and lows. I have even climbed the corporate ladder a couple of times on in to middle management.
In June of 2008 at the Los Angeles Coliseum in a ceremony with roughly 3000 others, I was sworn a US citizen. At the end of the ceremony, as the song “God Bless America” played on, and while almost everyone stood waving a small American flag that was given to everyone as we walked in, a teary eyed Asian woman to my right turned to me and in broken English said, “We are American now! We are American now!” She then proceeded to tightly hug me, as I hugged back. I too felt a river of tears floating down my face.
Still today I live in two worlds: my first love, my Mexican, hardcore Spanish side, where I answer to Jaime; and my proud-to-be-American side where I answer to Jay. I’ve learned to make them both me.
*After living in California for a couple decades working in the automotive retail industry, Jaime Bugarin now resides in Phoenix, Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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