Sandy Velaz: Undocumented Immigrants Are My People.

 

IMG_1273

Growing up I had these images in my mind of helicopters at night. I thought it was a movie I had seen. No one told me the story of how I got here and somehow I knew I shouldn’t ask.  I didn’t find out until I was 18 and had to go back to Mexico to live with my grandmother. With her I discovered things about myself I didn’t know growing up.

I was born in Mexico City. My dad migrated to California soon after and for two years he saved up money for the Coyote so we could reunite with him. My grandma and grandpa were the ones who crossed the border with me and my four-year-old sister. We got on a raft at night and went across the river. Once we were over on the U.S. side there was a car waiting for us. They grabbed my sister and I and threw us into the trunk of a car!

Luckily I don’t remember this.

When we got to Los Angeles there was a huge party — celebrating being together again. All my uncles were there. We got some new clothes because we were in a America now! There are these pictures of me and my grandparents. I was teeny tiny, and so happy. I didn’t know how dangerous it was, how scared my grandma was for us.

I lived in Los Angeles until second grade. I look back at my L.A. school pictures and everybody looked like me. That was some of the best years for me because my parents were together. There was domestic abuse and we lived in poverty –my sister remembers that. I remember it was really fun.

I lived in Huntington Park. I have images, memories of drive-bys—the car coming through, guns, having to run inside and get down. We were there in 1992 when Rodney King happened. I was five. We couldn’t go outside. We didn’t have electricity. But we were all together. We had candle light. For a kid — it was fun! I didn’t know people were dying— the racial conflict that was going on. I’m sure the adults were scared too, but for me — it was a good time. My parents came home with a piano and food for us. So for me — I got a piano and it was awesome! Now I think — that was really bad.

In first grade I had a white male teacher who spoke Spanish to us, but we were supposed to write in English. I was confused about language and expressing myself. My parents didn’t speak English but they did their best to expose us to it.

In 1994 my parents weren’t doing too well. There were problems with money. My dad had a friend who had moved to Minnesota who told him, “There’s lots of jobs here.” Everything about that move happened really fast. I felt so confused and scared. In LA I had a pet turtle, my sister had chicks. We were living the kid dream. We had to give all that up.

I told my classmates “ I am moving to a place that is like Alaska — really cold.”

My mom, sister and I went first. We came on a plane — the first and last time I was on a plane until I was 18. We got to Minnesota at the beginning of winter. The first place we went to was the Kmart on Nicollet and Lake street to get coats. In L.A. buying and getting things was different. More bartering. I don’t ever remember going to a department store until Minnesota. I was scared. I looked up and the room was spinning with Christmas decor. I got lost.

We moved to the area around 33rd St. and 1st Ave.  A duplex. There were many people living with us. Family friends. For the next ten years of my life I slept on the floor and shared a room.

My dad took longer to meet up with us. My mom had to find a job. My dad’s brother came up. We pulled our money together and got an apartment on Nicollet Avenue and 33rd. Mom, us kids, her brother-in-law, and his wife and kids in one apartment. Mom worked night shifts, so for a while it was just me and my sister, alone at night.

My parents being apart, made my mom realize she did not want to be in the relationship. There was a lot of fighting over the phone.When dad came about a year later, we were together for two months before the apartment building got raided by ICE.

It was a weekend. Someone knocked on the door. We did not know we had the right not to answer. Now people are more aware of what to do if the police come to your door due to Know Your Rights campaigns — but not then. There weren’t close relationships within the apartment complex for people to tell us: “If ICE comes don’t open your doors.”  My dad opened the door. Four men came in. They didn’t take my mom, or us, but they took my dad. I think that’s lucky. Sometimes — then and now — kids go to school and come home and both their parents are gone.

Once again my sister and I were separated from my Dad. While he was back in Mexico, my mom found a new partner. It was a nasty divorce. I didn’t understand it. For many years I wondered, did I do something wrong? For me Minneapolis represented everything going wrong in our family. From my kid perspective, everything was good and we were all together before we came here. If we had only stayed in LA my parents would still be together. But Minnesota was also prosperity for us. It wasn’t easy, but the struggles that came our way all made us better people.

When I started second grade me and my sister were placed at Bethune Elementary on the North side even though we lived on the South side. I liked the school bus, seeing the whole city. The school was a culture shock. My little classmates in L.A. were all Latino. Bethune was African-American. They thought I was weird, but we soon got along fine. Before the end of the year my sister and I were transferred to Holland Elementary in Northeast.

Before I knew Brown, I knew Black. At Bethune and Holland I had all this exposure to African-American artists and writers, slavery in America. It wasn’t just in February that we learned about it. All year long we had plays about civil rights. In choir we sang freedom rider songs. We sang the African-American anthem. I loved it.

Holland Elementary was a small community school. It was the same elementary that Prince went to and we had the same music teacher he had. She was a great teacher. They all were. Compassionate. They weren’t afraid of administrators. They just taught us, took care of us. The ESL teacher was a Latina with two educational assistants who were Latino men. It was a great place to be. The teachers exposed us to material that was relatable. I remember watching a movie about a kid who grew up in the Projects and he finds a cat. His mom gives him money to buy food and he buys cat food too — on credit. I could relate to that.

When my dad returned from Mexico, mom already had an apartment and a new partner. It was nasty between them. My mom, was one of those adults that didn’t really want to be a parent, they just happened to be a parent. So my dad got full custody of me and my sister. That was interesting growing up in a female body without a mom. My dad said. “Its OK. I’m going to do this.” We lived in a house on 35th and Nicollet – Central neighborhood — with my dad and a friend and his wife and kids. It was fun. We played backyard baseball, went to the Hosmer library, chased after the ice cream truck.

My Dad worked two shifts so we didn’t see him much. When we came home from school, no one was home to give us a snack. Dad would leave us an envelope with money in it and we would go down to the corner store. After a year someone from the neighborhood complained. They were going to call the cops on us because they noticed we walked to the corner store everyday alone. That had to stop. As a kid that didn’t make sense. I thought, “we are just getting food.” So then my dad had to find someone to take care of us. Single parent struggle.

Holland Elementary was filled with working class families, single parent families, kids in poverty. We were normal. You couldn’t pick on anyone because they only had a mom or a dad. Everyone was from different backgrounds. I had Native American, White, African-American friends. I had an Afro-Latino friend. I would say to him “You’re Black! — but you speak Spanish!” It was trippy. He was from Panama.

I feel lucky that I went to Holland. I have heard horror stories of kids being put into ESL even though they spoke English, being put back a grade. None of that happened to us.

I moved to a duplex in the Powderhorn Park area. That was the period when people were talking about Murderapolis, you know. I saw gun violence three times.

  • We were pulling up into the driveway – near Wilder Elementary and there was a girl peeking out at the corner store, then shooting a gun and running.
  • Another time I was at the playground and someone pulled out a gun and everyone just scattered. All kids.
  • The third time I was in my dad’s car on the corner of Lake and Chicago and it was a green light but nobody was moving. Two cars were in the middle the intersection shooting it out. I said “ This is like a hollywood movie!” I guess you become desensitized. To me it seemed normal. It reminded me of LA. No big deal. We still enjoyed the park.

Later more family came up. Dad bought a house with his cousin in North Minneapolis and then I took the bus from North to South to attend Folwell Middle School. Before making that transition my teacher told me, “Your English is at the highest level. It’s up to you if you want to do ESL in 7th grade.” I decided to do it so I could be with my Latino friends. I didn’t realize there were so many Latino kids at Folwell.

Staying in ESL meant  I didn’t get to have music or other enriching classes. When I tried to get out of it they put in a remedial reading class. It was a little degrading. In the long run though, my reading level in 8th grade was above average and I thought maybe I needed that little extra boost. I didn’t want to be sad that I never got to learn an instrument.

At Folwell I began to pay more attention to race. In elementary school, watching Roots and learning about the underground railroad and singing freedom songs, Black was all I knew and it was amazing. In middle school I realized there was Brown and there was Different. There was racial tension between the Asian and Latino students. If someone had a beef with a Hmong student, we were all together, against them. I tried to be neutral and have all kinds of friends and activities.

I had an English teacher who had a white savior complex. In her journey to teach us about social justice topics and Native American culture, she was coming at it from an angle of “I’m sorry.” I saw through it and I didn’t like it. It was interesting to start noticing those things in 8th grade.

In Highschool I decided I liked the open program at Roosevelt so I applied. Otherwise I would have gone to Henry or Edison. But I got in. So I was taking a long bus ride again. I always liked the school bus.

In my dad’s cousin house in North Minneapolis, in the Camden neighborhood, close to Folwell Park.  We lived in the basement. That part of North was pretty safe then. There was a Kowalski’s and a Target in the area and a charter school across the street. Eventually the stores went away. Today it’s a very dangerous intersection.

My dad’s cousin had a lot of kids. He felt that pressure to provide and do better. He had been in trouble in Mexico. His nickname in my grandma’s pueblo was the Diablo — the Devil. My dad decided to give him a chance, but he eventually got involved in selling drugs.

My dad would tell us “We are not involved. Stay away from that.” But we would see it. We would see guns and my uncle doing drugs. Overnight they would suddenly have material things. It was interesting, but eventually the police were on them. One night, a swat team came in. I saw my little cousin standing behind the door and there was a cop with a gun to her back saying “Put your hands up.” Because it wasn’t an official rental, the basement was considered part of the drug house. Everyone in the house was searched. We sat in the living room all night long while they went through everything. By then I had a step mom and she had just given birth to my brother. She had a baby shower and got a lot of cash. They took the cash and she never got it back. There was no way we were going to go and claim that cash.

That was the second time my dad got taken away. I was in 9th grade. They confused him with a fugitive and for three months he was in a detention center until they figured it out who he was.

It took him sixth months to come back.

All my life my dad has been my super hero. He is taken away, and somehow he comes back! He just shows up. Recently, more and more he has been willing to tell me about crossing. He told me about seeing some young kids with an elderly grandma. The grandma couldn’t do that walk, across the desert, with a crying baby. “I wanted to help her but we had to keep moving.”

Those experiences that people hold onto about crossing the border — I think about the mental health aspect — everything they carry.

During the raid all of the adults got taken away somewhere, except my 21-year-old mentally ill cousin who had been under guardianship. She wasn’t fit to take care of us. It was her and ten minors in the house. We were lucky to be able to stay home. For a week none of us went to school. We were all fending for ourselves. I wanted to stay home and take care of my newborn little brother. No one wanted to come near the house because they were freaked out about the raid.
Our teachers didn’t know. No one knew.

Eventually my step mom, my step brother and I moved back to the South side with our Aunt and Uncles. We had four families in a three bedroom apartment. It was fun — all my cousins and Powderhorn Park to play in. When we made breakfast it was breakfast buffet— so much food and community; everyone watching out for each other. We lived there for a couple of years before my Dad came back and we moved back to North Minneapolis to a big house, with the entire extended family.

My senior year I had to face the fact that I was undocumented. I really wanted to go to school. A teacher of mine, Jehanne Beaton was a good mentor for me — she was my social studies teacher in middle school. When I went to Roosevelt she did too, so she was my social studies teacher all through high school. We had a close relationship. She wanted to help me figure out how to get to college. I was doing “Admission Possible.” I got accepted into St. Thomas, St. Kate’s, the U, … all these awesome schools, but I knew I couldn’t afford any of them, especially with out-state tuition. There were some legislative campaigns for Dreamers at the time – but nothing had passed.  Jehanne found me a free legal clinic. Since my parents got divorced, my mom had married a white guy— A U.S. citizen. She had become a resident. I hadn’t been in touch with my mom for about a decade. Now I realized that through her I could have been a citizen!

I understand now as a woman, that my mom’s relationship with my dad was abusive and she did not want to reach out, so I don’t have any resentment about that. People gotta do what they gotta do.

I talked to an attorney and they said, there is nothing I could do, but another attorney said “There must be a way.”

My sister — a teen mom— was also working on it. My dad did not want to help if it meant reaching out to our mother. But my sister did it. She contacted mom, who was living in Anoka. She was willing. She would pay for the attorney to get status. We started the paper work, but the process wold take time, and I was about to turn 18 and start to incur fines for my undocumented status. So I had to leave.

In August 2005 I returned to Mexico. My dad paid the plane fare. It was scary because I knew I might not come back. But I was 18 and ready for adventure. Besides, by then I resented the system, inequalities, the lack of opportunities for me. I told everyone indignantly, “I’m leaving this place! I am going to TRAVEL.”

Even though I had grown up in bad neighborhoods my parents had done a good job of sheltering me — keeping me at least feeling safe. Mexico was such a culture shock. The homelessness, the kids without shoes, people with disabilities on the street. The most exposure to that kind of poverty was in Chicago one time when I was sixteen and seeing people cleaning windshields for money.

Mexico City was shocking. The air was different. It smelled like sewage. There wasn’t much green. One thing I struggled with the whole time I was there was people’s ability to become numb to other people’s suffering. There would be little indigenous children with no shoes on, trying to sell you things on the train. I thought “Why does nobody care?”

I spent 2 years and 8 months in Mexico City with my grandma. My first year I was pretty depressed. I didn’t leave my neighborhood much. But I was getting to know my family and what had happened to me when I was two. I knew it was a gift for me, to be able to spend that time with my grandmother, to hear about how I crossed, about my parents and their relationship and the hardships they went through.

The second year I started to travel more. I went to my grandma’s pueblo and saw mangos growing on trees and beautiful green mountains. I went down the Yucatan peninsula and Cancun. All these beautiful magical places. Chiapas, Chetumal, Playa del Carmen.  I thought, “I will never be able to come back. I need to see it all.”

I started working at an outsource call center. We were lien collectors and our calls were to the United States. Because I spoke English I got the job. It was fun because my co-corkers were all these college-aged English-speaking Mexicans. It didn’t even feel like a job. We would joke all the time.

I found a couple of jobs teaching English. The first was a grueling. It was run by Protestant Christians. We had to start the day reading the bible. They threw me in a classroom after a week and I was supposed to give the students a test – kids and adults. I was supposed to assess them. I was 19 and had never accessed anyone. I quit and got a job as a tutor with a small company. I was a popular. I would have these conversation clubs where I would give them a theme and they would have to converse. I enjoyed teaching. I had a student who wanted me to help him translate a YouTube video about levitating. He said “I know levitating is weird. But don’t argue with me, just translate. I want to levitate.”

When I got my letter about my immigration appointment, I got my grandma on the smallest plane and we went to Ciudad Juarez.. The whole process was scary. They did a medical examination and questioned me. I was ready to cry,  holding on to all my tears the whole day.

We were there for about a week. I didn’t want my grandma to stand in line with me but the letter said Tuesday 8Am and 100 other people had the same time. So we got there and there was already a super long line. Eventually we entered the building and I turned in my paper work. I went to have my medical exam. I heard all these rumors like that if you have piercings or tattoos they do a mental health evaluation. They asked me if I was pregnant. Luckily I went by and didn’t need any extra examination. But then I went back to the main building and just sat there. It was like a bank with rows and rows of chairs. I sat there  waiting for my name to be called watching people shouting “Yes, Yes!”, and others walking away crying.

When my name was called I went to the teller window.  I had to turn in my passport. The interview was about five minutes. Just a guy shuffling through my papers. It was intense. The guy’s first and last name were Latino. He looked like me, but he spoke only in English. I was there by myself. He looked at my paperwork and asked me. “Where is your mom?” I said “She couldn’t come. She’s sick.” He said “Look out there. All these people are sick. Go sit down.”

I thought “Shit — I messed up.”

For an hour I sat there. I made eye contact with other people in the room. I knew they were feeling the same way I was. Gut churning.

Eventually they called my name. He gave me my visa and said “You gotta go get it stamped at the border.” That was it. Two years and 8 months and now it was done.

The whole time I was in Mexico I was homesick. Some people might say — “Well, you were home.” But I wasn’t. I really missed Minnesota. Even though I had made the best of it in Mexico, I was so ready to be home.

When I came back. I had two new siblings. My sister had another baby. Life had happened. Yet some things were the same. Many members of my family (even to this day) were still undocumented. I got to go and they didn’t, and when I came back I had a status and they didn’t. It was difficult.

But I was happy to be home. I got a job as legal assistant, and in 2012 I enrolled at MCTC. I wanted to go to college with people who look like me. I could have gone to those other schools but I didn’t want to be the token. One thing about Minnesota is it’s so White and it’s easy to be the only one. I decided to do the Urban teacher program at MCTC. Every choice I’ve made since, I have been intentional about doing it here in the city, working with people who look like me. Whenever I have volunteered or interned it has been with communities of color.

I think all these experiences have made me stronger but I still don’t know what to do with those years in Mexico. Every thing I saw and everything I learned. I haven’t found a good outlet for all that frustration — all the inequality.

I still consider myself a part of the undocumented community and anytime I have a chance to be that voice — to say — “hey this is my experience,” I take it. I don’t do it to teach others. I do it so that they are aware that we exist still. When I do things like healthcare, I think about undocumented folks — what are the opportunity gaps. Because it still affects my community.

Now I am a citizen. In 2016 the question is “who am I going to vote for?” The ability to vote is super heavy and important, but when I think of my choices and my intersectionality — a person of color, an immigrant, a woman, an undocumented person — voting is picking my poison.

I have learned so much from people in Minneapolis:

  • My wild music teacher who had us singing freedom songs.
  • Jehanne Beaton, who was with me in the school system who came from the perspective of — the system wasn’t built for you —so how are you going to beat it?
  • My sister, who is really strong doing everything she could to help me get to where I wanted to be.

I feel a strong sense of having to give back — to do what those people did for me.
My dad still lives in North Minneapolis so that neighborhood is still on my mind. Now I live in St. Paul. I am discovering this whole other side. My professors have done a good job of teaching me about African-American Rondo, the immigrant East Side, the Latino West Side and its history of dislocation.

I recently graduated from Metro State University with a BA and people keep asking me “What are you going to do?” Right now I answer “I’m doing it!” I work for Planned Parenthood, teaching sex education to Latino youth. I do two projects — an internship rooted in social justice work, and STD and sex education for students who want it.  I partner with kids from El Colegio.

I am conflicted sometimes about how to tell people where I work. The organization comes with a heavy history of contributing to oppressing the reproductive health of Women of Color, but I think that by doing the work I do I am turning that around. Latinos are going to have a healthy community. Young people are going to know their choices. I hope the students who work with me feel like — if she can do it, I can too.

***

Recently with all the police violence  I am reminded of all the great things I learned in school about the African-American resistance and liberation movements, but I understand that people are still not free.  The murder of Philando Castile affected me the most.  At this moment  people of color are seeking platforms to be heard– not remaining silent about the injustices we face. With Black liberation there will be Latino liberation, Asian liberation, GLBT liberation and so on.

This weekend — September 18-20 —  I attended the We Wont Wait Summit in Washington D.C. bringing together more than a thousand activist women of Color.   We talked about economic justice, defining family, immigration reform, reproductive rights, gun violence, state violence and building solidarity across these issues, and how to fix them for ourselves.  When I returned to Minneapolis I attended the Navigate gala with Rosa Clemente addressing anti-Black sentiment in the Latinx community. She said we need to recognize our race because the state has already racialized us. It was powerful for me because I am a person that has always wanted to keep race at the forefront, but other people in my community have wanted to get away from it. Rosa Clemente gave me inspiration and a blessing to continue to speak up.

 

One thought on “Sandy Velaz: Undocumented Immigrants Are My People.”

Leave a Reply