Alice Anderson. From 40 acres in Northern MN, to “Beautiful Activist” of South Minneapolis.

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Migration story of a Black family to Northern Minnesota in the 1920s.   

My parents grew up in Kentucky. My father and my mother were married in 1916 and my father went off to war — the first World War. They divorced because my mother thought my father was a playboy — I’ll just say it.

My mother’s sister and her husband had come up from Kentucky  to mine coal in Iowa. When that job ended they came up to Minneapolis to work on the railroad.   They had one child. Their marriage wasn’t going well.  My mother came up to Minneapolis to take her niece back to Kentucky until they settled their differences.  When they divorced my mother and cousin came back up to Minneapolis and stayed with my aunt.

My mother joined the AME Church  that is now over on Snelling Ave. The minister had a nephew, Mr. Withers, living with him. My mother and the nephew married.  Mr. Withers was a delivery man — delivering coal and ice in a horse and buggy. He kept his horse at a transportation station — a forerunner to Greyhound, that ran a bus up to Canada. Mr. Withers like to hunt and fish so he took several bus rides up north.  The bus owner convinced him to open up a bus-stop near Virginia, Minnesota  in a place that used to be called Albina. It’s called Gheen now.

He bought 40 acres. It had a white frame house on it.  They opened the bus-stop at an intersection of Gheen and Highway 53.  In the road about a mile was the railroad tracks. Diamond Match Company had an outlet there and the executives from the Duluth area would go back and forth so it was a good corner to have a bus stop. In addition to the bus stop, Mr. Withers opened the Butterfly Inn. There you could buy a half fried chicken, some potatoes, a vegetable in season, and a scoop of ice cream for desert.  It became a place for the community. The young people couldn’t wait to come over to get their ice cream cone there. It  was the only store around. Mother and Mr. Withers ran it for 4-5 years until Mr. Withers got ill and died. Peritonitis. So my mother was alone, running the place. She wrote to her ex mother-in-law  back in Kentucky that her husband died and she wasn’t sure what she would do.  My grandma said to her son, “Go up and check on Jenny.”

My parents remarried in 1929. I was a loved child — born in 1932.  It was the depression. The store fell on hard times. They sold the business and my father worked on road construction, developing Highway 53.   But my father had been a haberdashery in Illinois. He liked being independent. So he became a farmer on the forty acres.  We grew everything: corn, peas, green beans, wax beans, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, potatoes, lettuce, radishes — a truck garden. There was no refrigeration then. People who went to their lake cottages would buy their food from us for their dinner. They’d say “I’d like some green beans.” We didn’t weigh it — just gave them a handful. My mother raised and sold chickens. We would kill them right there when they came and they would take them home and fry them.

That is the way  I grew up as a child. I hated digging for potatoes. It was always after September.  Your hands would get so cold digging them out.  A lot of times we just bartered the potatoes, a couple bushels  for my school shoes or some fabric to make a dress — my  school clothes.  We butchered with the neighbors. They would come and help you and take some of it. We had a man who would come and de-horn the animals and castrate them. We would pay him in chickens. That’s how people survived.

It was a multiracial community — you name it, we had some. We were the only Black family, but there were Jews, Greeks, Italians, lots of Scandinavians –Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian – and everything else in-between.  Everybody got along, everybody had their own culture and you learned to share all that culture. I really feel good about that.

We had two Greek families.  The men worked on the railroad. In one family the children had long thick black hair.  Their mother used to braid it — two long braids and everyone would say — “how do your children have such long black hair?” People didn’t know about different cultures. She’d say “All I do is yank it and it gets that way.”  They used to make goulash on a fire outside — people didn’t have ovens.  She’d put it on the fire on before church.  Often, after church on Sunday, we’d go to her house for goulash. They’d come to our house from something else. Nobody was invited — we just kind of went.

I went to high school six miles north in Orr.  There were 17 kids in our class. I was a good student. Not valedictorian, but close. We still own that land. It still enjoy going up there and seeing my old friends.

My junior year I came down to Minneapolis and went to Central high school (now Green elementary).  I lived with my aunt and helped her take care of her ailing husband while she worked.  I returned home for my senior year and graduated up there.

On her own in Minneapolis, 1949.   

After I graduated I came to Mpls. I rented a room. I never heard of anybody living in an apartment then. We had kitchen privileges for an hour a day.   I think I got a rash from eating so much tuna fish.  An hour is not long enough to make anything.  I worked at two family department stores, Jackson Graves and Roy Bjorkman’s.  They sold furs and high-end clothes. They displayed their furs on rocks “– the natural habitat for fur.”  I wasn’t old enough to sell. You had to be a mature woman. I was a “runner.” I would take their money back to the cashier, bring them change and gift wrap.

I got to know the families who owned those stores. It was better money than food service or working for newspapers  — the other available jobs. I could get a big discount on clothes –25% — and dibs on damaged goods. I was wearing Hanes hosiery before anybody else knew about them. Even Daytons did not sell Hanes hosiery then — I’m talking 1949-50.

From there I went to Northwestern hospital. (Abbot and Northwestern eventually merged). I was really interested in food. I wanted to be a nutritionist, but you couldn’t get in the University to study nutrition at that time. I wanted to work in dietary. I could say the hospital was profiling me way back then. I don’t know. They put me in pediatrics.

As it turned out, I was so good in pediatrics that the doctors said they wanted me to work with them in the treatment room.  I didn’t know a darn thing!  They trained me –showed me how to open sterile packages and everything. One day Doctor Plato went to the director of nursing and said “I have a potential nursing student.” So they called me down to see if I wanted to go to the school of nursing.

I still wasn’t interested!  But I thought — my folks don’t have any money. I don’t have any money. At least I’ll learn something. I should take advantage of this opportunity. So I went into the school of Nursing at Northwestern Hospital. It was a three-year program. By the time my first year was up,  the three hospital schools merged and they had enough students so that we went to Macalester for our basic classes. So we were Mac students. We did our chemistry and math foundations there.

A boy from my hometown, who went to high school with me in Orr, was at Macalester.  He was two years older than me. He was involved with foreign exchange students and the Young Republican Club on campus.  He got me involved in everything. I said “We are not Republicans!” he said “Never mind. It’s a learning experience.”

I got chastised on campus because Eisenhower was running for President and I was going everywhere with the Young Republicans. I even got to go on a whistle stop where Eisenhower was, at that time.  One boy came up and said to me: “Don’t you know Eisenhower wants segregated troops?”  I didn’t know how to answer him because I didn’t know!   My Orr friend said, “Don’t worry about what anyone says to you. If you have any problems just come to me.”

He and his friend were student body president and vice president. They sheltered me. I had a wonderful time and I learned so much about how to be involved in things, how conventions and political delegates worked.

Joan Mondale  — she was Joan Adams then — was a student at Macalester. She dated my Republican friend. She went up to Orr and slept there. When Mondale was vice president, my friend was going to put up a plaque “Joan Mondale slept here.”

(The Mondales used to live on 48th and Park Avenue. Walter Mondale used to be President of the Field School PTA. When he became State Attorney General they moved over to Lake of the Isles.)

I graduated from the school of Nursing. When people ask me if I was a nurse I tell them,  “Yes. I was a damn good nurse.” I quit while I was still up — 20 years ago. Even to this day when I walk through the halls of the hospital I get cordially asked “Why don’t you come back?”  When I was sick, and people came to visit me they said “I feel like I’m in the hospital with a celebrity.”  I feel honored.

I worked at Abbott Northwest, in the school system, at Park Nicollet, doing cholesterol screenings for corporations and factories. I’ve also done private duty nursing. I had one client who lived to be 102.

My husband was in the military — the Korean War. I was dating someone else before a whole group of them went off to war. A  friend of mine wrote to all the guys and let them know what us girls were doing. When he returned I wasn’t dating anyone. We started dating. We were married a year later.

When we first got married, after the Korean War, there was a housing shortage in Mpls.  There was a lady who lived at 40th and 3rd Ave with an apartment on top. We lived in that apartment. It had outdoor stairs. Icy in winter.  Terrible with the baby…. and hotter then heck in the summer. We decided we had to move. We moved 4329 4th Avenue — another apartment but with inside stairs.

When we saved enough to buy a house we went to look at one on 46th and Clinton. The realtor told us “Oh, I’m sorry that house was just sold.” We knew it was because we were black. We got a different realtor and a house on the 4500 block of Clinton, contract for deed — couldn’t touch it until you paid it off. We lived there for 17 years, before we bought the house on Oakland and 45th. We bought that house while the owners — a friend of ours — was still in it, directly from him. We had ten years to do financing with him before dealing with a bank.   It was a five bedroom house. We had my mother live with us, and our five children.  It was good for us.

Having a small business. 

In 1961 a huge tree in the vacant corner lot on 46th and 4th fell down. Kids in the neighborhood were upset because they liked to play in it.   Mobil gas purchased the land the neighborhood had a big protest.  They were upset about a service station going in there. They hardly knew us.  My husband saw the sign saying they wanted an operator of the station and he applied. Mobil had an office at Midway.  He took training there on how to be a Mobil dealer.

I had three small children.  I told my husband,  “What are you going to do with a service station?” “You are not going last a day — you don’t know where your dip stick is” and that was the honest-to god-truth. He didn’t know how to change his own oil!

The deal was, you operated the station for the company for six months. If you couldn’t make it, they took it back.  I knew how to do books. I loved math. So I did his books.

We stuck it out — 46 years!  It was hard. If someone came and said they needed a starter, we would order it and then they wouldn’t come back and we would have to absorb the cost. I told Kirk to get some money up-front, but he never would. Now they want $90 to put you on a scope. We never charged to put you on a scope.

Then we had that underground storage tank leak. Mobil went around and pulled all their tanks. We took a vacation. Because we didn’t stay around and watch while they pulled the tanks, the Petrol Fund wouldn’t reimburse us. County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin came to our rescue a little bit, but he never could help us get the money. We spent all our savings on attorneys.

Some neighbors said they could smell oil in their basement. Mobil had to finish the clean up, but we were never able to recover from the cost of that.Then we were told we had to remodel the store at our cost — “do it or you’re out of business.” We upgraded and it put us out of business.

During those 46 years we were honored many times — by Mobil, the neighborhood organization, the Minneapolis City Council — for being good stewards for the neighborhood. You could leave your purse with us and pick it up later. People left packages with us.

Activism

It was through the gas station and the schools that I got involved in neighborhood organizing. All my children went to Field except my youngest, Keith. I was on the Field PTA.

Integration/Equity in the Schools 

I was involved with the pairing/integration  of Bryant, Ramsey and Anthony Junior Highs.  I got pinned against the wall and threatened for being involved in that. It was pretty tense. Richard Green — who lived on Portland Avenue — was the superintendent at that time. He was smart.  He knew if you paired  just two schools, parents would be  calling you day and night. Do three or four schools at once, no-one would be able to get on the line. Do it  all at once and you are done.

When they had the riot at Washburn in 1971, it was really something.  Raleigh Delapp was the principal then.  There were very few Black children at Washburn. Those who were there excelled.There were White children who were not excelling who were the trouble makers of the school.  They had inferiority complexes and it came out racial. Their attitude toward the black kids was  “You think you are so smart….”My kids took Latin at Washburn. One daughter  had one lower grade and they said she didn’t qualify.  I said “You are excluding people who were not good in one subject, but might excel in another.”

They created a task force after the riot. Superintendent Richard Green was in charge of it. Grace Harkeness – who lived over by Lynhurst — and I and some other ladies were part of this task force.  Grace and I conducted a mandatory workshop for the teachers at Washburn. It was downtown at the North Star hotel.  We explained how they were profiling kids and not understanding what they needed, how they were catering to the kids on the other side of the Creek — the elite who wanted ski clubs and such.  We showed them that they were partial in sports, practicing favoritism.

We got some good reactions, some bad. Mr. Beck, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Potter who was math department, all welcomed us.  They needed our outside intervention. They couldn’t change the system from the inside.  The social workers were also glad we intervened.

I got WISE  — Women in Service for Education  — into the high schools. We got 60 women to read the required books on tape and we put a lab together where kids who were slower readers could listen to the books.

Neighborhood Activism  

Some people got into neighborhood activism, to solve their own personal problems. Let me give you an example. There was a man who did some work on his house and ended up with a pile of bricks outside his house he wanted hauled away.  He organized a neighborhood clean up and made sure it started at his house. He was done once the work was finished at his house.

I started those neighborhood clean ups. We hauled out tons of stuff.  We’d have hamburgers at our house for all the volunteers after we were done. When I was president of the neighborhood group there wasn’t a business in the area I didn’t know. Everyone from 42nd to 48th.

We had two neighbors who turned 100 –about 25 years ago. We made their birthdays the theme of the annual parade, with a horse and buggy and birthday cake float.

Southside Clinic

I volunteered at the Southside Clinic as an unpaid nurse.  We served people on a sliding scale. We depended on in-kind service, — like gifts from the hospitals of extra bandages, syringes, or office chairs.  We got a lot of stuff like that. At one point they were going to pull those gifts because they thought we weren’t doing enough. I went to petition the hospital administration and pulled strings. I said “if we have to go out of business, you people are going to have more on your emergency doorsteps.”

We did fundraising for the clinic: garage sales, bake sales, barbecues on the lawn. Paid the electric bill. Then we started getting donations. When I was “Nurse of the Year” at Abbott,  they honored me by  giving a donation to the clinic. I was asked to join the board of the Southside Clinic 30 years ago. One day it was snowing. The doorway was clogged with snow. I went out there with a shovel.” The doctor saw me out there and said “if I ever see you shoveling snow again you are off the board! I became  president of the board. I spent the most time trying to convince people who had never been on boards to join.  I had never served on a board. None in my family had ever served on a board. I never heard of a board meeting in Gheen Minnesota. I didn’t know how to do it.  I learned a lot. It was a labor of love.

Running for City Council. 

“I ran for city council against Brian Herron. There were several Black candidates running for the position. We were all friends. Someone at the DFL said — “Why are Black people running against each other?”  I told him that was racist. There are many wards where White people run against each other!

When Elizabeth Glidden became the councilwoman, she was told to go find me and learn about the neighborhood. She had started to have town meetings which I thought was smart. I told her she should have meetings somewhere above 42nd as well as below. It’s really two wards.

People look at the little picture. They don’t look at the big picture.  They want government out of their business until they have a flood or something, then it’s “Where is the government? We want our aid!” I  always try to look at the big picture so that, hopefully, I don’t close my mind in.

Racism

There was a riot on Portland and 43rd when Black families started moving in. They egged their cars. We never had anything like that happen to us in the neighborhood.

For my volunteer work I was honored by the University Women as a “Beautiful Activist.” My picture hung down in the window of Daytons. Some guy saw my picture and name and wrote the Star Tribune saying they were upset with my husband for marrying a Black women. People expected Alice Anderson to be White. At the hospital, patients would ask: “How did you get a name like Anderson?” I’d say “Best way I could figure out was to marry one.”  This is the kind of subtle racism I experienced all the time.

Once  I was clipped in the intersection right in front of our house. My husband [who is Black] came out. The police were really nasty to both of us.  I had just gotten my license renewed and I had the paper they give you before they send you the new license.  He gave me a ticket  for “driving without license.”  I went down and got it cleared, and told the Police Chief what happened to me. I said “This kind of  behavior is what is precipitating these police/community issues. Three weeks later I was going across Lake Street and Chicago, I had another fender bender. The police started to shame me: ” Its bad enough you had to hit someone — but you removed their fender! ” I said “You gave me a hard time a few weeks ago. I am going to run you in.”

The police were inciting trouble.

I went to a meeting over here when we first opened our business. We had a break in. We knew who broke in. We tried to tell the police who it was. They told my husband to “keep his mouth shut and mind his own business.”  Ten years later the police  came to the neighborhood group to get us to help with some local crime.   I said “You are ten years too late. Some of these crimes could have been stopped long ago if you had listened to us.”

Becoming an elder. 

When my mom got old, she was still living in Gheen.  I brought her down here.  Her friends cried when she left. She lived with me for ten years — died when she was 92 years old.

When my husband was sick, I sold the house and bought a condo downtown. It got too expensive. When he died, I went up North to my land to see I could find a place up there to live. I got an apartment and lived there for a year.  My daughter Kathy said, “You know mother, if you get sick up there, I don’t know what we will do.” I didn’t want to have them quit their jobs to take care of me. So I moved to be close to them. I have a daughter in Salem, North Carolina and two sons in Charlotte. I was going to live in Charlotte, but it was too busy for me, too mentally challenging, so I went up to Roanoke, Virginia. I heard on the radio that they were renovating an old hotel, not condos, but apartments. That sounded good to me. A historic hotel with brand new renovations. I’ve been there four years.

For Kirk’s funeral, Fred Steele did the music.  He asked me what he should  play.  I said “You pick. Kirk was not that religious.” He decided to sing “Charity.”  Fred said “I remember when I was just starting out and I didn’t have any money. Kirk would say,  ‘You can’t get back and forth from  North Minneapolis without a working car.’  He would fix my car for free, saying,  ‘When you get some money, bring me some.’  I never forgot that.”

My Church is gone — St. Thomas Episcopal on 44th and 4th Ave — sold to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Two summers ago, I went to see Joe Minjares. I made my arrangements with him.  When I die —  if my kids are willing and can afford to come back here — I’m having my service in the Parkway Theater. I  don’t know any place I feel closer to than there. When the service is over, I don’t want anybody crying. They  will walk over to  Pepitos  restaurant and have a joyful repast.

 

 

Sandy Velaz: Undocumented Immigrants Are My People.

 

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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.

 

Just Apples. A New Year’s Resolution.

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New Year’s is one of my favorite holidays. Not the debauchery.  I love making resolutions.  I find personal maintenance challenging so my list begins with things like sleep, exercise, and healthy food.  I tend toward isolation so I make rules like: if you spend one day alone you have to get out and be with people the next day.  I am happier outside, but I forget that easily so I make it a rule: spend time outside everyday.  I even tell myself to breath. Basic maintenance.

I can usually hold myself to a resolution for a week, but that does not mar my enthusiasm for the process. In my heart of hearts however, I know such individual efforts at self-betterment, without social structures that support our human welfare, are of limited value.  I know that thinking we can be “good” all by ourselves, or that every success is a result of personal fortitude, is not only false, but dangerous.  It leads us to categorize ourselves and others as inherently good or bad, to think we can eliminate the bad apples without upsetting the apple cart.

In the United States the number one personal resolution at New Years is to lose weight. It’s always at the top of my list.  Yet the Blue Zone folks have incontrovertible evidence that creating healthy community structures, not individual will power, is key of solving obesity.

Same goes for everything else we want to do as a society.  It’s not about rooting out bad eggs or apples and encouraging individual will power.  It’s about creating healthy, equitable social structures, systems and policies that encourage all of us to do better.

We are not the good guys if we resort to bombing the “bad guys.”  We won’t solve domestic gun violence by mental health screening because all humans are susceptible to mental dis-ease.  We won’t create a just policing system by routing out bad apples; the cart is rotten.

We are all just apples, capable of sweetness, permeable to worms.  As a society we need to develop the structures that encourage us humans to take good care of ourselves and each other, to share our collective wealth, to care for our earth, to mete out equal justice.

This year I resolve to meditate every day. My mantra will be: I am just an apple.   I look forward to joining all you other apples in 2016, to make a better cart for all of us.