The Trauma Of Immigrating Didn't Stop When I Crossed The Border

My parents destroyed our family when they immigrated to the US — but I'm still grateful they did. (An excerpt from The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.)

Nobody had to tell me who the man sitting on my grandmother’s couch was. I’d grown up looking at his photograph hanging on our wall. He’d put on weight and wore glasses now. Instead of being black and white like in the photo, he was in color, his skin like rain-soaked earth.

I had to stand before this clean, well-fed stranger while wearing a tattered dress, my head infested with lice, my belly swollen with tapeworm. I looked down at my dusty feet, the dirt caked under my toenails, my broken sandals held together by wire. “Go say hello to your father,” my aunt said, pushing me toward him. All I wanted to do was run away.

He had left eight years before, when I was 2, and had now returned to find his children — me, my older brother, and sister — just as he had left us: hungry, poor, vulnerable.

He hugged me too briefly, too hesitantly. And I realized that we were strangers to him, too.

This stranger, my father, had borrowed money from everyone he knew and hired a smuggler to take me and my siblings north to his home in the United States, where we were to begin a new life together. So, at the age of 9 and a half, I found myself at the US border and became an “illegal” human being by crossing without permission for a chance to finally have a family.

I remember so vividly that moment when we were trying to cross, crawling through bushes, jumping over rocks, my body burning from the heat of the unforgiving sun and the white-hot fear inside me at the thought of being caught and losing my chance of having my father back in my life. At 9 years old, I was too little to make the crossing, and I could not make my legs run fast enough. I prayed for wings.

At the age of 9 and a half, I found myself at the US border and became an “illegal” human being by crossing without permission for a chance to finally have a family.

Border Patrol caught us and sent us back to Tijuana twice. It was a miracle that we made it the third time, although my father had to carry me on his back most of the way. It was there at the US border where I got my first piggyback ride from my father.

My parents didn’t leave Mexico, they fled — not for their lives, but for life — seeking economic refuge from a country that couldn’t or wouldn’t give them the means to provide for their family. Mexico had failed them, and so they fled across the border to pursue the dream to give us a house and a better life.

Later I would come to learn that immigrant families who relocate together tend to fare better than those who go through separation. Unfortunately, my family couldn’t immigrate together. Financially, it wasn’t possible. Legally, it wasn’t feasible. We couldn’t come here as “real” refugees. Poverty, no matter how extreme, doesn’t meet any of the criteria for asylum. The term “economic refugee,” a negative term here and in Europe, doesn’t encourage compassion in the receiving country, either socially or politically.

Yet, what all displaced people have most in common, regardless of where we come from, regardless if we are “official” refugees or “illegal” immigrants, is our trauma. The trauma that propels us to this land, and the traumatic experiences that await us.

My first traumatic experience happened before I had the ability to remember. Due to a national debt crisis and subsequent peso devaluations, there were no jobs in Mexico, so in 1977 my father left his wife and children behind and became part of the largest wave of migration from Mexico ever, a wave that has only recently ended. I don’t remember his departure. In my earliest memories, he was already gone. My identity as a little girl was that of a daughter with an absent father — a father I knew existed only through that black-and-white photograph. While he was away, our relationship was the empty space he’d left behind in my life.

Then the second trauma of my life occurred. I was 4 years old when I watched my mother walk away from me to go to the land across the border — El Otro Lado. I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again. I stayed behind with relatives who didn’t want me, who treated me as a burden and made me feel even more unloved and unwanted than I already felt.

My childhood was defined by the fear of being forgotten or abandoned, of being replaced by US-born siblings.

As a child, I didn’t understand why my parents had emigrated. I believed that they had left because they didn’t love me enough either to stay with me or to take me with them.

Part of me didn’t blame them for leaving. Though only a three-hour bus ride from Acapulco, my hometown is no beach resort. Iguala, Guerrero, isn’t a place where you can thrive. You live a hand-to-mouth existence where all you think of is how to survive another day. Guerrero is the second-poorest state in Mexico, with 70% of the population living in poverty. Due to the so-called war on drugs, it is also now the most violent state in Mexico, which is the second-most-violent country in the world. In 2016, there were 23,000 homicides in Mexico, surpassed only by Syria, but our war — supported by the United States through the millions of dollars in funding, training of soldiers, and provisions of military aircraft, weapons, and vehicles to the Mexican government — isn’t considered a “real” war, so Mexicans don’t qualify for asylum. The United States considers persecution by a government a valid criterion for asylum, but not exploitation by criminal gangs or cartels.

Iguala is surrounded by the poppy fields that feed the US drug epidemic, and the city bus station doubles as a distribution center for the cartels. Mexico supplies 90% of the US’s heroin, and Guerrero grows 50% of the poppies for the heroin trade. In this city of dirt roads and shacks, many locals survive by working in the poppy fields or in the US-owned garment factory in my old neighborhood. The factory pays the workers $5 a day, but a pizza in Iguala will cost them $10. Iguala is also a place of special infamy — 43 college students were taken and disappeared by the police working together with the cartel in 2014. To this day, we still don’t know what happened to those students.

Unfortunately for us immigrants, the trauma doesn’t end with a successful border crossing.

What sustained me through the years of separation from my parents was my dream of having a family again. I clung to it through the birthdays and Christmases, Mother’s Days and Father’s Days. I clung to it through the three attempts to cross the border and the drive along Interstate 5 to the front door of my father’s home in Northeast Los Angeles.

I wish I could tell you that this is where and how my story ends, with this long-awaited reunification. With my siblings and me arriving at our father’s house and starting a new life together in this great land of opportunity. I wish I could tell you that we got our happily-ever-after, and the trauma ended with the border crossing, and as soon as we overcame that barrier the psychological wounds began to heal. Unfortunately for us immigrants, the trauma doesn’t end with a successful border crossing. I believe that for the rest of your life, you carry that border inside of you. It becomes part of your psyche, your being, your identity.

Even beyond being undocumented and fearing deportation and having to live in the shadows of society was the dawning realization that there was a mismatch between how I had imagined my new home and the reality of how it actually was.

After so many years of separation, we didn’t know each other. Though physically we had crossed the border, we’d missed so many years of each other’s lives that emotionally and psychologically there was still a barrier between us. Immigration had turned my parents and me into strangers. The family I once had in Mexico no longer existed.

As time went on, the separation continued. As I grew up and assimilated, my assimilation became another barrier between me and my parents. When I learned English at the expense of Spanish, language increased the separation. The day I started junior high, I surpassed my parents, who had only gone to elementary school, and so my education further separated us.

Our emotions became a barrier as well. I was the daughter they left behind, and for most of my life, my relationship with my parents was filtered through that lens. Anger, resentment, and shame tainted how I saw them and interacted with them. My father dealt with his own psychological pain by drowning it in a can of Budweiser. Alcoholism helped him numb the suffering caused by his low-paying job, his limited English skills, his alienation in US culture, but it also led him to a slow, painful death.

Thirty years would pass, and I would become a mother, wife, and successful writer. Yet when my father died in 2011, he was as much a stranger to me as he was when I first met him in my grandmother’s home.

It is the central irony of my life that my parents emigrated to try to save our family, but by doing so, they destroyed it.

I know my experience isn’t unique. Eighty percent of immigrant children in US schools have been separated from their families during the process of migration. Complicated family dynamics add to the burden these children are already carrying, and schools that serve these children need to consider the trauma created by separation. Nothing is more counterproductive than the goal of rapid integration of immigrant and refugee children into the community. Assimilation and acculturation add to their post-traumatic stress. Immigrant and refugee children need time, patience, love, and psychological help to heal from their experiences. Trauma follows them into the classroom as it did me, and powerfully affects performance and the ability to learn.

Immigrant and refugee children need time, patience, love, and psychological help to heal from their experiences.

My education in US schools was almost as traumatic as being abandoned by my parents. When I started fifth grade in Los Angeles, language was a barrier. Because I spoke no English, I was put at a corner table and ignored by my teacher. I felt voiceless. I sat in that corner, on the outside looking in, marginalized, excluded, “othered.” Months went by, and for my teacher, it was as if I didn’t exist.

Once I learned English, I still felt invisible when the books given to me by my teachers and the librarians had nothing to do with my experience. While I was fascinated by books such as Sweet Valley High, which gave me a glimpse into a world that wasn’t mine — white, middle-class America — I knew that life could never be mine. Through the years, I’d often wonder, Where am I in these stories? Invisibility became another barrier to overcome.

At 13 years old, I understood that I would have to write my way into existence.

Growing up, however, I didn’t know I was traumatized. I didn’t have the words to describe what I felt: anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder. These words weren’t part of my vocabulary, so I never used them — I described my feelings through stories.

And yet, I know I was lucky. If I arrived at the border today seeking asylum, I would have the door slammed in my face. I would be told that I haven’t suffered enough, that I should go back to my country and suffer some more. Even if I was seeking refuge, I was not a refugee.

Three years ago, there was a surge in unaccompanied child immigrants, most from Central America, who came seeking refuge from poverty, oppression, and violence created by criminal gangs. Their migration continues, though their arrival at the border is no longer in record numbers because the United States is now paying Mexico to catch and deport these children before they reach the border. But for the ones who do arrive in the United States, after all the trauma they’ve endured in their countries and during the long journey to the border, they’re thrown into detention centers and forced to face federal immigration judges to plead their cases in court, often without legal representation.

At 9 and a half years old, the same age my daughter is now, I broke US law and became a “criminal” for daring to aspire to a better future. I ran across the border seeking refuge from abandonment, desperate to leave behind me those feelings of being unwanted and unloved. Once across, I thought I was done with borders; I didn’t know there would be more. Yet, in the past 32 years that I’ve lived in this country, I’ve had to cross cultural, language, legal, gender, and career barriers, and more.

I was a victim of a consequence of migration that is often overlooked or given little importance — the psychological violence of watching your family fall apart.

Writing continues to be an act of survival. As an immigrant or refugee, there is no end to trauma. You’re always the object of hostile acts and political rhetoric that accuses you of being a criminal and a rapist. And it takes a toll. But I’m grateful that my experience was not as grueling and horrific as that of those coming today. Unlike these new immigrants and refugees, I did not experience the terrors of war; I did not have any family members killed or disappeared by criminal gangs or narcos; I did not have a gun put to my head to force me to join a gang. I did not travel alone to the border: I did not ride the deadly train, La Bestia, across Mexico; I was not robbed; I was not raped; I was not attacked by gangs, bandits, or corrupt Mexican officials along the way. I was not a victim of sex trafficking or child labor.

I was a victim of a consequence of migration that is often overlooked or given little importance — the psychological violence of watching your family fall apart. Family separation and disintegration is the price my family paid for a shot at the American Dream.

My story in the United States was full of abuse and instability, and it was hard to find my way in this country, to try to earn my right to remain and find a place to belong, but lucky for me, I finally did. Under an amnesty signed by Ronald Reagan, my family became legal residents, and eventually US citizens. Despite psychological and emotional distress, I went to college and became the first in my family to get a university diploma. I became a teacher, a published author, a homeowner. I have won awards. I married a good man and have two beautiful children. I accomplished every goal I set for myself and have been more than lucky.

With children of my own, I have come to understand my father in a way I could not have before. I look at my children and try to imagine what it would be like to leave them, to walk away from them because I cannot provide for them. I look at my 9-year-old daughter and try to imagine endangering her life by taking her across the US border. Would my own child survive what I survived? I don’t know. What I do know is that if I were put in my father’s place, I would do the same. I would risk everything for my children.

I bear witness every day to the trauma of our loss, suffering wounds that will never heal. It’s a price I would pay a hundred times over because one of my father’s greatest gifts to me, and indirectly to his grandchildren, is this: His decision to immigrate has allowed me to be the parent he could never be. Unlike him, I will never be a stranger to my children.

I now get to be the parent who stays. ●

Born in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico, Reyna Grande was 2 years old when her father left for the United States to find work. Her mother followed her father north two years later, leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico. In 1985, when Reyna was going on 10, she left Iguala and entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant, and later went on to become the first person in her family to graduate from college. Now, she is an award-winning novelist and memoirist. She has received an American Book Award, the El Premio Aztlán Literary Award, and the International Latino Book Award. In 2012, she was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Awards, and in 2015 she was honored with a Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature. Her novels, Across a Hundred Mountains and Dancing With Butterflies, were published to critical acclaim. In her latest book, The Distance Between Us, Reyna writes about her life before and after immigrating as a child from Mexico to the United States. It is now available as a young readers edition from Aladdin Books. She has contributed an essay to The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, which was published in April 2018. Her new memoir, A Dream Called Home, will be published in 2018 by Atria.

More information about The Displaced here.

Skip to footer