Fighting to be seen

After leaving life behind, undocumented workers face disillusionment

Alejandro, wearing a black sweatshirt, puts his arm around his son, who is wearing a read, plaid patterned jacket.

Tori Hoffman | The Falcon
Alejandro hopes that his 4-year-old son can find a happy future in the U.S.; the two are pictured with their faces concealed to preserve anonymity.

By Manola Secaira and Athena Duran

After sunset, when students are studying or sleeping in their dorms and much of Seattle Pacific University’s faculty and staff have long since gone home for the night, Alejandro wakes up.

As he gets ready for work, he says goodnight to his two sons, a 4-year-old and a newborn, leaving them in the care of his wife Maria who’s returned home after working all day as a cook at a fast food restaurant.

Sometimes, Alejandro’s 4-year-old calls his dad at work to remind him to wear his jacket because it’s cold outside. Most nights, however, they’re asleep while Alejandro works.

He’s had the same job for the past 10 years, a job where he first met his wife and a job that’s been a cornerstone in financially supporting his family.

When he arrives at SPU, his place of work, he grabs a bag of cleaning supplies and gets down to business, cleaning buildings on campus.

Alejandro is a janitorial worker in his 30s who works for one of SPU’s contracted companies and who is a member of an often unseen workforce; he’s one of 130,000 undocumented Mexican immigrants in Washington State according to a 2016 Pew Research study — a drop in the bucket of the 5.8 million undocumented Mexican immigrants who live and work in the United States as a whole.

He approached The Falcon back in March to share his story.

Over the course of a few months, Alejandro and Maria spoke with Falcon editors about their experiences as undocumented immigrants in the United States. All interviews with Alejandro and Maria were conducted in Spanish, and the quotes are translations from those interviews. Names have been changed in order to preserve anonymity.

Even if the typical SPU student doesn’t personally know any undocumented immigrants, they’ve enjoyed the fruits of their labor when they wake up to clean buildings in which they can study and go to class each day.

SPU Facilities Director Dave Church oversees the maintenance department and handles contracts with roughly 45 different companies that SPU contracts for various jobs on campus, some including maintenance and the cleaning of facilities.

According to Church, companies that SPU contracts with are companies that an outside consultant has suggested SPU make an offer to, an offer otherwise known as a bid.

SPU looks at companies as a whole and does not look at the individual workers when making the decision to contract with them, he said.

Church also said that when selecting companies to contract, SPU asks the companies if they are hiring undocumented immigrants and that they check in regularly with these companies.

Alejandro says that like many other immigrants, he came to the United States for work or a new life. Speaking for himself, he says he came from a poor, small town, otherwise known as a “pueblo,” in Mexico and grew up in a bad neighborhood, which made it hard for him to make a life for himself.

Life in the United States seemed to offer him a chance he couldn’t have back in his hometown, but life here brings it owns challenges as well.

“Many try to do good things and behave well, but sometimes you wonder if it’s all worth it,” he says. “You left everything behind, you don’t see … family for years, you get to the place without the language, you don’t know where you’re going to live.”

Alejandro is wearing a backpack vacuum and is vacuuming the floor of Beagle Hall.

Chris Yang | The Falcon
Alejandro cleans various buildings each night at Seattle Pacific University.

Crossing a desert

Recalling his initial journey to Seattle, Alejandro seems ambivalent. He speaks casually of the events of his journey across the desert and the Mexican-American border.

Like many undocumented immigrants before him and many since, he crossed into the United States with a group of strangers, aided by the “coyotes,” human smugglers who help immigrants like Alejandro cross the border.

The journey took him an entire month.

“Nobody knows how it really is out there,” Alejandro says, reflecting on how he’d felt upon arriving in the states.

He said that often times, there are robbers that mug travelers as they cross the desert. His group also had some run-ins with Border Patrol, making their journey longer than usual.

Initially, Alejandro joined one of his brothers in Southern California in 2001 before moving to Seattle in 2007, where two of his brothers currently live as well.

Though he misses his family, Alejandro is grateful for the opportunities he has had since coming to the United States. At first, though, he says it was hard to find someone who would give him a chance.

“People assess you and if you can do the job, and you have to do it better than others,” Alejandro says. “They see how much labor you can endure and work you hard until someone who works harder comes along.”

For his wife Maria, who’s originally from Southern Mexico, it took a week to enter the United States — but, unlike Alejandro, she left her hometown alone and arrived in the country without any family waiting for her.

The days crossing the desert were unbearably hot, Maria recalls, and the nights unbearably cold.

She couldn’t pack much more than the necessary food and water, and she often slept on the ground, sometimes huddled beneath a tree. When she ran out of water, Maria drank from puddles.

When they were close to the border, the “coyotes” would warn them about Border Patrol.

“We would run when they said ‘hide, hide yourselves, or here they come,’” she says.

Women who travel across the border alone are frequently violated and sexually harassed, usually by the “coyotes” who are helping them in the first place. Maria says she was grateful it didn’t happen to her.

Maria, now in her late 20s, was just 19 when she decided to make the trip to the United States. She originally asked her family for permission to go, but they said no. They warned her that the trip would be hard and that it wouldn’t get any easier in the states either.

But Maria says she wasn’t afraid, so she went on her own.

“I had fantasies of coming here, to see what it was like to work here,” she says.

Back in her small pueblo, Maria says women were expected to stay at home because joining the workforce could be dangerous. At most, women “could work very closeby … [but] if not, in the house, with animals, with food, but there at home, not outside.”

Maria laughs when retelling this part of the story, remembering herself urgently thinking, “I have to get out of here.”

Stories of the money made in “America” commonly circulated through Alejandro and Maria’s pueblos; it was thought of as a land of luxury and endless opportunity. A life where she could work and have more opportunities beyond those available in her pueblo back in Mexico suddenly seemed possible for Maria.

But arriving in Seattle as an undocumented immigrant who didn’t have any local family or local friends, who couldn’t speak English and often didn’t know who to turn to for help, she was hit with a different reality.

Alejandro recalls a similar experience, one in which he started a new life with nothing.

“You need to know how to [gesture] because they don’t understand you,” he says of past experiences where he has acted out movements with his hands to communicate with some employers.

“The reality is not so beautiful,” Maria says.

Learning to endure

On a larger scale, Alejandro says he understands that being an undocumented immigrant in the states has been brought to more immediate national attention since President Donald Trump’s presidency, especially as there have been increased efforts to detain undocumented workers.

“We came here with a dream, and we know the reality, that we are not always welcomed in this country,” Alejandro says. “I mostly worry for my sons.”

While Maria and Alejandro are aware of the current political climate toward Mexican immigrants, to them, discriminatory attitudes of some Americans are not news.

Maria says there are two types of people she’s met in the United States.

“There are some who treat [you] with respect, who help you and explain things to you and who don’t see you as less,” Maria says. “There are others who are very racist … and they treat you like nothing.”

Alejandro and Maria met working nights at SPU, cleaning buildings together. They bonded over a shared past, and when they began to date, Maria thought it’d be best to keep their personal and professional lives separate and left her SPU job for another.

Now, Maria works at a fast food restaurant with a primarily Latino staff.

“Our boss doesn’t speak much Spanish. He knows phrases like ‘hurry up,’ ‘get a move on,’ and that’s it,” Maria says. “There are some who have work permits, but I don’t ask around about that sort of thing. I keep to myself.”

“You have to do double the work than most people here,” Maria says of the American workplace. “Many Americans who have citizenship, they don’t endure as much.”

Maria reflects on those who may feel immigrants in the United States come to steal jobs from Americans.

“You want to get rid of me, but who’s going to clean your house?” She asks rhetorically, “You want to get rid of me, but who’s going to take care of your kids?”

“And after they accept you, you still have to be better than the other people they have,” Alejandro says.

“And endure more,” Maria adds.

Because they didn’t have the opportunity to receive an education, Alejandro says that he and Maria often work with their bodies instead of their minds, which is physically taxing. Alejandro comes home from work with an aching back and Maria with burns on her hands.

“I don’t want [my sons] to have burns on their hands,” Maria says. “They have to study so they can have opportunities.”

Now, the two live in a one bedroom apartment in South Seattle with their two sons.

While Alejandro and Maria are both undocumented, their sons were both born in the United States, thereby granting them citizenship.

The two have recently considered the reality of deportation. However, since they have children and no criminal records, Maria doubts that they would get deported.

While Alejandro is inclined to think the same, he feels more concerned. He says that if the worst were to happen, he hopes he would be the only one forced to go back to Mexico.

“The bad thing is for my son, I wouldn’t want to bring him,” he says. “I want him to study here … I’d like him to study; over there it’s a lot harder.”

Alejandro is raising his arm up to a window to clean it with a paper towel. He is wearing gloves and a blue t-shirt.

Chris Yang | The Falcon
Alejandro has worked at SPU for 10 years while his wife, Maria, works at a fast food restaurant to support their family.

Finding a new dream

Once, Alejandro forgot his wallet at SPU, so he brought his 4-year-old along with him to pick it up. It was the first time the boy saw where his father works.

“He says, you work here? Wow!” Alejandro says. “That’s what he says, and then when you ask him where his dad works, he says ‘Seattle Pacific’ … he always says that.”

His oldest son doesn’t speak much English, but he’s learning in school. Alejandro says that his son’s teacher told him there are six different languages spoken in his classroom, as many other students are the children of immigrants as well.

After giving birth earlier this month, Maria has taken maternity leave and stayed home to take care of their newborn. However, before the birth of their newborn, Alejandro would often come home from SPU when Maria and his 4-year-old were leaving for work and school.

He slept. If he woke up while the one bedroom apartment was still empty, he says that he’d feel lonely. Alejandro has come to realize working through the night and sleeping through the day has its costs, too.

“Sometimes [my 4-year-old] asks me, ‘why do you leave every night?’ And I tell him I need to work,” Alejandro says. “And he asks, ‘why do you work?’ And I [say], ‘well, I have to pay rent’ and all that.”

Rent is something Alejandro has to think about often.

“It feels like all the money just goes and goes, and I don’t get to see it,” he says. He hopes that one day, he’ll have his own place, sometimes thinking about a house or even just a mobile home.

“I would like to have my own mobile home, my own, not pay rent anymore,” he says.

Through the difficulty Alejandro has encountered in the United States, he says that he and Maria find enjoyment in some of the novelty.

Living here has made him think about things he didn’t have back in his pueblo, like constant access to telephones or exposure to pop culture. And there’s diversity here as well; he says that he is “trying food of everything, listening to different music, learning about African and Asian cultures” that he hadn’t been able to encounter before.

In some ways, he says, “we’ve gotten used to living here.”

Sometimes, he thinks that if he and Maria had came to the United States when they were younger, they could have gotten a university education as well. To Alejandro, it seems a bit too late for them now.

But when he looks at his two sons, Alejandro says he knows why he came to the United States in the first place.

He hopes his sons will stay in school and study, giving them a chance to build up toward a career that he himself hadn’t had. Most of all, though, he hopes his sons can find happiness; however, Alejandro says “it’s hard” to do so.

“I would like it if he could be, firstly, happy,” he says, speaking of his 4-year-old. “And that he doesn’t get sick. After that, I hope he’d have a career and that he does what he likes.”

“He’s going to have a very different life than me,” Alejandro says. “I hope so.”

One thought on “Fighting to be seen

  1. I find this article to be sincere, realistic, and enjoyable due to the shifts in time and between Alejandro and Maria.

    Like them, growing up was not the best part of my life. I lived in poverty, through abuse, and pushed beyond my learning disabilities to get a college education. I have been an educator for 20 years. Like this young couple, I have become a graveyard custodian at a nearby state university. I am not proud of this work, but I am willing to do it for myself and family. The university provides important opportunities due affordable health insurance for my family, continued retirement contributions, employee training classes, career counseling, continued education for $5 a credit, or I can transfer my education benefit to my sons for 2/3 of their tuition.

    I think those lucky to be born in the United States have little to know idea what simply surviving requires of many other peoples of the world. Or what it is like to be born American, but in a circumstance of less. It seems like the general and privileged populations wonder why the lesser don’t pursue a second language and education in order to create a better life.

    Why was it easier for me to seize educational opportunity than Alejandro and Maria?

    The answer is that I started with more assets. The assets that gave me a leg up cannot be ignored. I had English speaking parents and grandparents, family help for housing when moving from state to state; an extended family that provided emotional security, social role models, and farm labor jobs; intermittent access to public assistance, and a parent who could assist my navigation through FAFSA and college application.

    When I graduated from high school in 1984, circumstances immediately required that I be 100% financially independent. That summer, my aunt and uncle provided I had room and board, a job in their business. That fall my formal education began at a small liberal arts college funded by scholarships, government grants and loans, and part-time jobs within walking distance of campus. After seven years of struggle, some times to the point of eating food left on the plates I cleared as a fast food employee, graduated with a BA in Elementary Education. My husband and I have provided a stable home, adequate food, clothing, and medical care, educational support, and personal development opportunities that are tempting for our children to take for granted. Ironically, if not for my story, they would be part of the general public that lacks an understanding of what it is like to be born American, but with less.

    Why is my story worth writing? By sharing one’s personal journey to become the American Dream, those born with less can be validated and inspired. Others can peer through the veil of a chrysalis into the struggle for transformation, and emerge with fragile awareness that becomes empathy and respect. Like freshly laid eggs, appreciation and gratitude for one’s assets has the potential to develop.

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