The Burden of Survival
I brush my mother’s hair, which is soft and thinning. We sit on her couch late at night watching a Spanish dubbed Steven Seagal movie on Telemundo. Her arms are small and I can feel her bones at every touch. Five months left before she leaves. I brush her hair with care as we both laugh at Seagal with his quick action camera angles and infamous pony-tail. The explosions in the background, twenty years after the movie has been released, seem faded and uneventful, almost as if Seagal himself, with his emotionless face, is aware of the dim and fuzzy filter he’s seen through. If the lights were on, and if I were looking at her for the first time, I wouldn’t help but notice the physical deformities of the car accident that nearly killed her in 1996. Scars run down her neck where the hood of a 1984 Thunderbird sliced her open. Just below her skin lay small pieces of glass lodged too deep to extract, too large to dissolve into the rest of her. The doctors said the shards would come out by themselves, unexpectedly and years later, with “minimal pain”, like a slow bullet traveling out of her, like in a film with an outdated actor looking into the camera as he recites one-offers: “I’m a bad motherfucker.” I imagine the glass making its uneventful entrance into the world, in the background of someone’s conversation. Or maybe I’ll be there to witness it, something that’s been part of my mother’s body for so long, it can hardly be defined without it. I wouldn’t know how to hold it if it fell in my hands as it left her body.
She never has many knots in her hair, but I continue to brush because we’re at a point of surrender and it doesn’t really matter anymore. She’s decided that, after a lifetime of struggling with immigration, various deportations, separation, and attorney fees, there’s nothing left for her in the US. She is resolved to return to Mexico to join my father who was deported 12 years ago and whom she hasn’t seen since. She’s lived in the US longer than she’s lived in Mexico, but has decided to give up her fight. I’ve given up as well. I feel defeated. Throughout my life, my family has suffered in private. My mother insisted that no one needed to know our business or our pain. And when the inevitable happened, we tried to heal in private. But there is danger in that.
Now that all her children are grown, she’ll leave without ever returning. My father needs her as he gets older and she will only work manual labor if she stays in the U.S. But why does this have to feel like a failure, as if we should be faulted for giving up? As if it’s our fault for not wanting to exhaust every emotional and financial resource we’re capable of. My mother paid her dues, she has worked and raised five children mostly by herself. She doesn’t want to end up like Doña Esperanza, her friend from the kiwi factory, who worked for 30 years before getting tossed out when she was deemed too old to work. My mother wants to leave on her own terms and with dignity.
In 1996, a public notary scammed my family and set their deportation order in motion. On their way back home from their deportation hearing in San Francisco, a drunk driver blindsided my parents. I remember how strange she looked when I saw her in a wheel chair in the hospital after she had regained consciousness, with staples holding her skin together as if she were a stack of paperwork in a clean office where men and women in suits come in and out. In spite of this car accident, they were deported. My mother left me and my younger brother in the care of an aunt and uncle. She promised she would be back soon, she promised that I would barely miss her now that I had my cousins to play with.
I missed her most because I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go with her, I didn’t know why my mother would want me to stay. I was too young to understand that she wanted me to have an opportunity denied to her. In her absence, I decided, as most kids do at that age, to run away. I climbed out of my uncle’s house and snuck out. Like most kids, I didn’t get far and eventually returned. I didn’t have anywhere to go. Unlike most kids though, I wasn’t returning to my mother, I was just returning to another life of waiting. Eventually, and only after a few failed attempts at the border, she returned.
The years passed but my mother’s pain continued. For an undocumented woman, pain is relational to the burden of survival. She needed to work so pain was/is secondary. My father was mostly out of the picture, coming in and out for a few months at a time. It was up to her to pay rent, pay bills, buy us clothes, and make sure she raised her three boys as well as she could. What kind of job could she get other than manual labor? She was resolved to work through her pain. She didn’t have access to a doctor and even if she did, she would probably be told to quit working, but that wasn’t an option.
The mainstream idea of pain and violence is contingent upon visibility and spectacle. For people of color, however, there is a very narrow definition of suffering that monopolizes the dominant culture’s notions of sympathy and empathy. These categories of pain rely heavily on historically inaccurate stereotypes of what the brown or black body can endure and thus even the slightest deviations from these categories of pain are dismissed as hysterical. When our pain doesn’t look like the pain of a white imagination, it is discounted and inevitably forgotten, or worse never acknowledged. Black and brown pain is not seen as fragile as white pain. Take the recent attacks in Paris for example, when the entire world colored its body in the French flag over something that would have seemed common place and “uneventful” had it happened in Palestine or Syria. The narratives of pain that are seen and acted upon in the cultural discourse usually revolve around at least one aspect of white experience and so black and brown pain is always in relation to something else. Empathy for POC pain relies on a mostly white imagination because those in power, those controlling the dominant discourse cannot fathom and can’t relate to a kind of systemic suffering that spreads multiple generations, that doesn’t always have quantifiable causation, and is a suffering which they objectively deny their role in causing. We are always told that we have not suffered enough, or worse, that we are exaggerating our suffering, that we don’t have it as bad as we say and so nothing is done to remedy what we have gone and continue to go through.
It is a privilege to be able to forget or to not have known at all the suffering of marginalized groups. Cultural amnesia is afforded only to those who encounter oppression tangentially and in fleeting spurts usually initiated through interactions with marginalized people or worse still, only when it directly affects their personal lives; only when it inconveniences them. How quaint to only have to think about racism when you are locked in traffic due to a street protest over another state sanctioned murder of a black body. People prefer not to be burdened until they are forced to deal with their history at which point, they decide it’s better for their comfort to forget, to not have to think about it so much, to abstract the consequences of the past as irrelevant to the present.
People of color, however, are not afforded the luxury of forgetting, of thinking of the past as immobile or static. We remember not by choice, but for survival. When we raise our voices to define our own pain, we are quickly shut down and told that we shouldn’t look too closely at these things.
My mother cannot forget each of her deportations and the consequences that came with them. I am constantly negotiating how to navigate the world as a brown man in America. I am constantly aware of where my hands are positioned, how long I’ve lingered in a store, whether to reach for something in my pockets, or what would justify running in public. These are things that a lot of people do not have to consider. Growth doesn’t happen in comfort but rather in discomfort and most people do not like to admit that. Most people prefer not to come to terms with the fact that they are either willfully or unknowingly contributing to a system of oppression and their inaction and contempt over “other people’s problems” only reinforces and strengthens their privilege at the cost of others.
Eighteen years after my mother’s accident, the abscess on her wrist continues to grow, the glass continues to move through the pathways of her body like small stones on a trail to a murky pond, and the plates bolted to her bones are a daily reminder of what this country thinks of her, of the value it has placed on her body. After decades of living in this country undocumented, what is left for her to do? There is no hope for her to ever secure legal status so she has decided to leave.
But there is a hope: My family recently discovered a form for my mother to attain legal status through a U-visa, created to protect victims of violent crimes “who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse.” Before applying, however, a local law enforcement agency must certify that they consider the applicant to have suffered “substantially.” These local law enforcement agencies are endowed with complete discretion in their decision. The police create their own definitions of pain and decide for themselves, through their own bias, if my mother, or any other immigrant has suffered enough. She applied three times through the DA’s office, the presiding judge, and the police and was rejected across the board. Immigration forms are riddled with language that requires “proof of extreme hardship or suffering,” but they determine what counts as suffering and will do anything to discredit one as much as possible. To them, my mother’s pain does not constitute what they would deem “real suffering,” and so my mother has lost hope. It is increasingly important that we are given the power (because we already possess the ability) to define our own pain and for it to be recognized by those in power.
The idea of “slow violence” that Rob Nixon delineates in his book “Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor,” is a fruitful framework in thinking about definitions of violence in immigration. Our ideas of violence, according to Nixon have been corrupted by the age of a spectacle driven society thirsty for a specific and narrow definition of violence. He says:
“Falling bodies, burning towers, exploding heads, avalanches, volcanoes, and tsunamis have a visceral, eye-catching and page-turning power that tales of slow violence, unfolding over years, decades, even centuries, cannot match…In an age when the media venerate the spectacular, when public policy is shaped primarily around perceived immediate need, a central question is strategic and representational: how can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making…” Indeed, if the problem is representational, it is also one of translation: how can we represent and attend to a pain not readily identifiable or categorizable and how can we translate that into action and sympathy? The “sensational and instantly hyper-visible image” is the currency that brought the U-visa into law in the first place but is also the reason why its basic framework is problematic.
Definitions of violence in the cultural discourse exclude the immigrant condition regardless of how visceral and “spectacular” its suffering can be. A longer and slower form of violence, one that accrues over time, one that is less sensational yet no less damaging is regarded as insufficient to warrant action. A slowly corrosive effect on the bodies of immigrants due to years of hard labor, sexual abuse of women in the fields, and anxieties of separation among other traumas hardly stand a chance to gain public sympathy. Our suffering is one that is intergenerational and inter-continental. The government refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of our pain and insists that we endure much more than what we currently do in order to intervene. Our pain is secondary to their ideas of “legality,” and their rhetoric is one that always challenges our thresholds for pain. How do you quantify a mother’s separation from her child or the continual fear of deportation? If our pain is not our own to define, then what is stopping the government from increasing its requisites for sympathy? Being locked in a car trunk to die is not enough, being split open by the hood of a car is not enough, being disabled and still having to work through your pain without compensation is not enough, being raped by a field boss is not enough, being beaten by your husband is not enough, being separated from your family for decades is not enough, living an entire lifetime in fear is not enough. When will it ever be enough? Immigration and the dominant culture wants us to slowly forget all the wrong that have been done to us only to blame our suffering and shortcomings on us.
Immigration is gendered and gender conforming. The same law created to help women is rampant with misogynist language that tells women how they should suffer, and provides a “checklist” for correct forms of suffering. Immigration policy, and specifically the U-visa is white supremacist neo-colonial voyeurism. Women are the most affected by immigration because they are held to multiple and impossible standards by various structures of power both outside and within their own communities. They distrust authority for good reasons, and yet, when they finally find the courage to “out” themselves, they are discredited. I understand my position as a man myself and do not want to perpetuate the same kind of violence of speaking for my mother, or other immigrant women of color, that has already been enacted. And yet, I find myself in a problematic cycle in regards to my own male privilege. My mother’s pain, or any other woman’s, is not for me to define either.
In order for immigrant women to overcome these extreme obstacles, they have to occupy multiple, often contradictory identities at once. Because they already face the barrier of being perceived as a strong Black/Asian/Latina woman, fragility is not reserved for women of color. Instead, fragility is reserved for the heirs of white privilege. My mother’s body is being examined, carefully scrutinized for signs of a specific kind of trauma, one that will always evade her. The idea that these mostly white men in power have of pain and what constitutes pain is different than what my mother has lived through and because of that difference, they find no remorse in denying her application. My mother will be deported by a male-driven institution, she was beaten by a man (my father) for decades (he driven by his own ideas of masculinity), she was nearly murdered by a drunk man in a car, the car accident was deemed relevant only because a male off-duty police officer was there to validate and testify for her, and a male judge deemed her pain unworthy of his approval. This kind of control over the woman’s body, and here specifically the immigrant woman’s body, is never questioned because it is assumed that these men know more about the female body than the women experiencing that pain. And still nothing is done, and still my mother is saying goodbye to those of us who won’t be able to go see her.
The sun has set and we are still on her couch in her bedroom. I have stopped brushing her hair. It dries quickly because it’s thin. She tells me to close the door. The draft is too much for her. Steven Seagal is still squinting into the camera. I wonder how many bullets he’s fired. But the movie ends and a dubbed version of Tarantino’s classic, Pulp Fiction, begins. It’s an action packed weekend on Telemundo rife with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, Seagal, and now Samuel L. Jackson in flip flops eating breakfast in an LA diner. He is indeed a “bad motherfucker,” as his wallet says. He quotes the book of Ezekiel and blows the shit out of a man with his 9mm Star Model B. Most will think that that’s what violence should look like: a Quentin Tarantino film full of Bad Motherfuckers, not a scene of a boy brushing his mother’s hair. To most, violence doesn’t happen on paper, it happens on the body. But what if we expand the body? What if we expand our definitions of the body to what is outside the body? And so, what can hurt us, what we suffer from, can be attended to in non-traditional ways, through legislation, through public policy.
When we are oversaturated with image after image of violence, we have to work harder to see how one person’s pain might not necessarily look like another’s. Many people expect to define violence by how it’s looked in the past and expect it to look the same today. They don’t understand that violence changes shape and a community’s response to that violence will also change how they express their pain and how they heal.
My mother changes the channel because she says she’s bored. I guess I’m bored too. After a few hours of talking on her couch, watching explosion after explosion, we too have become kind of numb. We don’t say much in front of the glow of the television. She has to work early the next day so I kiss her forehead and leave the room. Her birthday is in a week and I’m planning a gathering with our family. It will be her last birthday with us. We don’t know when we’ll be together as a family again. I’ve been thinking of the day she will leave for about a year now and it has only gotten worse as the day approaches. I trust that she will be happy with my father but I am always reminded of the kind of abuse he had enacted on her. I have to wonder if people can change, if my father will no longer be the controlling husband he used to be. I have to wonder if she will be happy being back in the country of her birth, a country she’s been exiled from for so many years.
My mother will board a plane and she will see the world from above for the first time in her life. Of the two times I’ve flown over the border since gaining legal status, I’ve always been fixated on looking for physical evidence of the border from above. Wondering if I could actually see a line. Once I was almost positive I did notice it, but I can’t be sure. Everything looks different from above. I want her to see how meaningless all of this is from up there. But eventually we’ll have to land and take a bus to our hometown of Tepechitlan Zacatecas, where my father will be waiting.
Violence doesn’t have to be seen, it doesn’t have to be eventful, it doesn’t even have to have a definite beginning or end. It can be smaller than what we can perceive, or are willing to perceive, but nonetheless it is present, nonetheless it will slowly carve its way into our bodies.
It’s difficult to think of all the glass still lodged in her body. How it will make its way into the world perhaps in another country. I’ve heard you replace all of the cells in your body in a matter of a couple years. To think that the glass in her arm and neck is the only constant; the only thing in her body that hasn’t gone through that transformation. I want to be there with tweezers when it decides to leave my mother’s body. If you could be there to witness it, you wouldn’t see a boy leaning into his mother with a piece of glass in his hand, you would see a woman breathing profoundly for the first time in her life.