Since Donald Trump was elected president, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my family came to the United States and how stories like ours were disparaged and misrepresented by Trump on his way to the White House.
Those feelings intensified last week when the matriarch of my family, my dear aunt Aurora Flores, was laid to rest after passing away on Dec. 9 at the age of 95.
My tía – aunt in Spanish – was a petite woman who was raised in northern Mexico and whose voice could climb a few octaves to sound like a chirp when she was happy or excited, which was almost always.
Tía was the most optimistic and selfless person I knew. In fact, I live in the United States because of her optimism and selflessness.
My bloodline intersected with my country through an act of love: My uncle Armando, my mother and Tía’s younger brother, wanted to be a doctor but my mother’s family didn’t have the money to pay for his education. So my aunt decided that she would go to the United States and earn money as a farmworker to help send uncle Armando to medical school.
My late mother, Elodia, was the eldest child of the family and she decided that she would not let Aurora – the second eldest – go to America alone.
So off they went – two women in their 20s – to work in the harvest fields during World War II. They traveled to the United States by truck with other family members and friends. They had permits under what was then known as the Bracero Program, a guest-worker pact established between the governments of Mexico and the United States. The idea was that Mexican laborers would work in the fields and do other blue-collar jobs to plug the gaps caused by wartime manpower shortages.
Loosely translated, “bracero” means “one who works using his arms,” but that description was as inaccurate as Trump’s campaign rhetoric about people from Mexico. My mom and my aunt put their backs into their work as well as their legs and shoulders. Their bodies would ache from being stooped over picking fruits and vegetables in Midwestern states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.
Ironically, those two states helped swing an Electoral College victory to Trump – but more about that in a moment.
Mexican workers made 30 cents an hour during wartime. My aunt and mom would pool their money to buy necessities for their many siblings back home. They sometimes slept on mattresses on flatbed trucks covered with makeshift canopies. They would cheer each other up by telling family stories or by singing songs they loved from back home. It was arduous work, it was sometimes dangerous work, and it was full of homesickness and loneliness.
But guess what? My uncle became a doctor. My mom and aunt provided for their family. And this point can’t be overemphasized: They were young women in the 1940s who assumed roles normally reserved for men. They did so though they were from a culture that remains highly paternalistic. Somehow, this all happened without any outward recriminations. My grandfather always was revered even though he needed help from his daughters. My mom and my aunt never expressed anything but love and pride as my uncle’s medical career flourished, and he achieved status and wealth.
Oh, and my aunt and mother would return to the United States before finally settling there – my mom in California, my aunt Aurora in Wisconsin. Tía fell in love with Wisconsin since when she worked there in the 1940s. By the early 1970s, Tía bought a house, then another. Some of my aunts and cousins followed her lead.
In my generation – the children of our family’s first American settlers – we became the first college graduates for the family. We became professionals. Younger members of our generation have achieved advanced degrees. Homeownership became common, as did voting, paying taxes, and contributing to our communities in various ways, including though our churches. My Wisconsin relatives are passionate about the Green Bay Packers. Every single time the Packers beat the 49ers, my phone blows up with bilingual trash talk.
Somehow, my relatives even love the Wisconsin cold. There were snow flurries on Friday, the day of my tía’s memorial Mass. All of my cousins were connected via Facebook on that day, exchanging old family photos and retelling old stories.
Those of us who live in the United States are Americans now. Before Trump, I had thought that the demonizing of Mexican immigrant stories was over. Trump proved me wrong. His words on the campaign trail evoked stories that my mother and Tía would tell about the harsh words and treatment they sometimes experienced in 1940s America.
During the Great Depression, thousands of Mexican workers and their families – including some American citizens – were subject to mass deportations. It happened again after the Korean War in an Immigration and Naturalization Service initiative dubbed “Operation Wetback.”
Trump has rekindled the idea of mass deportations, addressing the issue this past month on “60 Minutes.”
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said in June 2015 when he kicked off his presidential campaign. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
I could introduce the president-elect to many good people who’ve made the journey to the United States from Mexico. I could point to statistics showing that border crossings from Mexico are at historic lows. I could say that his inflammatory language has heaped scorn on people with Mexican roots, whether they are undocumented or not. It’s not that border security shouldn’t be an issue – it should. It’s that Trump inflated it beyond reasonable proportions to fire up his voters.
To that end, Trump concluded his xenophobic statement about Mexican immigrants with a coda that “assumes” there are good people from Mexico. That puts the idea of “good people” from Mexico in doubt, as if it’s still not fully proved. Coming from the president-elect, those words encourage large-scale antipathy and divide our nation.
My tía didn’t live to see the day when her journey to the United States wasn’t maligned or misrepresented – most recently, by the president-elect of the United States. Maybe I won’t live to see that day either. At 54, I’m starting to doubt it. But because of the strength and courage my mother and my tía, I remain hopeful for the future. My family, and my cultural experience, has faced down words like Trump’s before. We’ve done so while claiming our rightful place in this country.
On Friday, we celebrated the lady who made this possible. She was more than my tía – she was a life force, an example to emulate, an endless source of love and inspiration.
We are sad she is gone but we are going to honor her legacy in the way she would want: by being happy, by loving each other and by loving the country that her love made possible for us.