• When Privilege Confronts Its Past: On the Mexican-American Dream

    From Coyote to Maid and Back Again

    When Angelita arrived on our doorstep, she’d been living in the United States for only a few days—hours. I could not have imagined, at that time, her perilous journey and its resulting trauma, nor could I have appreciated the fact of her survival on that uncharted river of migrant travelers, with its snaking tributaries and unpredictable waters, particularly dangerous for a young woman traveling alone.

    Angelita would later tell my mother about how she’d boarded a bus somewhere in central Mexico, transferred to another bus, and another bus after that, until she reached downtown Tijuana, where she hurried, head down, to the nearest pay phone. She dialed a phone number that a friend of a friend had scrawled onto a scrap of paper. For the whole trip, she’d kept it stashed deep inside her jeans pocket, this little paper being her ticket to a job; and possibly to an American husband; to a little brick house with its own patch of grass and flower garden; and two or three or four fat-wristed baby boys, all nicknamed Gordo; and possibly, and most important, a few extra dollars wired from the 7-Eleven to her mother back home. Of course she knew nothing about this coyote-guy who would answer the phone, only that he came highly recommended, and that for a thousand dollars he could ferry her across to el otro lado.

    Angelita, like most survivors of the journey, told only parts of the story, leaving gaps in time, omitting descriptions of certain places where the metaphorical river ran up into stagnant creeks, where the road hit cinderblock walls. No details of a certain holding-house, of a filthy bedroom filled with other girls and women. No discussion of threats and empty promises. And, of course, no words at all to describe the worst violations, words best abandoned in the desert, or in that house, or in that van; these were stories not to be repeated if one wanted to keep walking forward.

    She did tell the story of climbing into the trunk of a car and, in pitch darkness, rolling across the Tijuana border, inch by inch, right through the international zone, buried beneath newspapers and junk-filled cardboard boxes, entombed between two strangers—both men—the three of them packed tight as tinned sardines and sharing the same fetid, exhaust-filled air. When they finally arrived in San Ysidro, California, she climbed out of the coyote’s trunk, where she was reborn, right there in the corner of a McDonald’s parking lot, parallel to the gargantuan 405 freeway, which looked that night like the tentacles of an electric octopus—bursts of white headlights and red taillights, swirling and whizzing by, right across the chain-link fence. She straightened out her creaky legs, adjusted the straps of her backpack, clutched her battered shopping bag, and began her life anew.

    At that moment, she was F.O.B.—fresh off the boat—a phrase commonly used by kids at my school, Jefferson Junior High. The term “F.O.B.” went all the way back to Ellis Island and, in the 1970s, referred especially to Vietnamese refugees, the “boat people,” and was used loosely thereafter to refer to anybody who did not speak English and did not look or act “American.” F.O.B.’s could be from Mexico or Central America, the definition of boat having been extended to also include arrival by freight train, semitruck, car, or even one’s own feet. Sometimes, in the vernacular of my school, F.O.B.’s, if they were Latino, might also be called “TJ’s,” meaning people from Tijuana. My friends and I, throughout junior high, used the term “TJ” quite freely, oblivious to its inherent ugliness and racist undertones. “Does this sweater make me look like a TJ?” we might say, unaware that “ TJ” was a first cousin to “wetback,” though we never would have dared to use the word “wetback,” as we believed it equivalent to the word “nigger.”

    The same year that Angelita arrived in California, 1982, my family moved into my parents’ 7,000-square-foot dream house, which they’d had custom built in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. My brothers and sisters and I had watched the house rise from the dirt: first the cement foundation, then the wooden and steel frame. When the house was completed, there it stood, big as a supermarket. I thought it looked like a nicer version of my fourth-grade hand-built California mission project, specifically Mission San Juan Bautista. Uncle Eddie, my father’s younger brother, said that the house looked ridiculous, just like The Alamo, but my parents, second-generation Mexican-Americans, had, according to my father, worked their asses off selling appliances and bidding for electrical jobs and whatnot all these years, and now deserved a piece of the pie—apple pie, American pie—and my father really didn’t give a shit what anybody thought about the new house. For all he cared, people could call it The Alamo or Oz or a shithole or whatever they pleased, but it was none of their damned business how he spent his money. My father had grown up in Boyle Heights, East L.A., sharing one bedroom with his three siblings, and my mother had grown up in Hicks Camp, a barrio in El Monte with dirt floors and five kids sleeping in one bed. So goddamn it, our new house was my parents’ comeuppance, proof that the American Dream could sometimes become a reality.

    When they finally arrived in San Ysidro, California, she climbed out of the coyote’s trunk, where she was reborn, right there in the corner of a McDonald’s parking lot.

    Casa Morales: Mexican-tiled hallways, a water fountain, a vaulted entryway, wrought-iron staircases, bedrooms for each child, a bidet, six bathrooms, two dining rooms, a government-regulation bomb shelter, and a maid’s room. If my parents were united in anything, they were united in believing that, now, these “dumb Mexicans” were really sticking it to the man. Even if my parents’ marriage would not last, the house would serve as a monument to it. Even if the house didn’t have much furniture, we could live in the shell of it and marvel at its sheer size, enjoying the sound of our voices echoing against the walls, enjoying the smell of new plaster and paint.

    After Angelita climbed out of the coyote’s trunk, her brother met her in that McDonald’s parking lot, bought her a Happy Meal, and drove her in his rumbling Mustang to the trailer park in El Monte where he lived with his wife and kids—nieces and nephews Angelita had seen only in pictures. Finding a job as a live-in required precise timing, so when Angelita’s sister-in-law heard about una mujer who needed a cleaning girl, Angelita’s brother drove her straightaway to the doorstep of The Alamo, Casa Morales. Angelita spoke not one word of English and carried only a pink duffle bag.

    That year, we were both 16 years old.

    “Kids! Come down here! There’s someone I want you to meet,” my mother called to us from the echo-y entryway of Casa Morales. “Go on, say hello. Say it in Spanish!” The girl stared at her sneakers, glancing up painfully, and then keeping her eyes glued to the floor. We murmured our anemic greetings: hola, hola, hola, giving her a little wave and then drifting off in different directions, already taking for granted that teenage girls sometimes worked as housekeepers; we had become spoiled middle-class children living under the anesthesia that allowed us to believe that people were predominantly employees or employers, simple as that. But because looking at her made me see my own reflection, I could not escape my new awareness that here were two girls, both of sound mind and body, and one girl would soon work for the other girl. What would my family require of her? The sensation was a prickly one, not easily explained to myself then or now. I pitied her.

    A more accurate assessment of my emotions, however, might be that I felt embarrassed, ashamed. My parents had spent their money so flamboyantly, on cars, this big house, crystal chandeliers, and now a teenage maid. Soon my friends would gently tease me when I spent the night at their houses: Did you bring your maid? If I carelessly tossed my jacket onto the floor, they might say, Shall we call Angelita to come pick that up? They made fun of the similarity of our names, sometimes calling me Angelita instead of Angela because both the diminutive and the irony were too perfect.

    If you stood back and squinted, you might not have been able to tell us apart. When my aunts and cousins visited, they would sometimes laugh and say, “Oops, I thought you were Angelita,” as if that should be funny, a subtle jab at me or at Angelita, I’m not sure which. Both Angelita and I, according to my mother, moved “slow as molasses”; and, like Angelita, my hair hung over one eye; and, like Angelita, I did not enjoy talking to people. Unlike me, however, Angelita wore rhinestone-studded combs and peacock-feathered roach clips in her hair. Unlike me, my body hidden beneath oversized thrift store sweaters and peasant skirts, she wore clingy, low-cut T-shirts and skintight pink or red jeans. Unlike me, she wore streaks of shimmery blue eyeshadow and liquid-black eyeliner. Like me, Angelita was shy and reclusive, barely willing to glance up or wave hello. I couldn’t tell if her personality had been stifled by the shock of a new culture and a new language, or if she simply didn’t like us, or if she was introverted like me and preferred not to speak in most social situations.

    Finding a job as a live-in required precise timing, so when Angelita’s sister-in-law heard about una mujer who needed a cleaning girl, Angelita’s brother drove her straightaway to the doorstep of The Alamo, Casa Morales.

    Regardless, I considered her brave—a risk-taker. Like a Mexican Jane Eyre, she’d packed her bag and left home in search of her life, on a path with no clear destination; whereas what had I done, other than take for granted the life I’d been given?

    My mother had decorated the maid’s room in a tropical garden motif: seafoam green carpet, a rattan dresser and matching nightstand, a palm-leaf ceiling fan, and a floral print upholstered armchair. A walnut television console sat up against the wall opposite the floral armchair, and atop the television sat an AM/FM stereo with a record and cassette player, next to which sat a rotary telephone. Attached to the room was a private bathroom and a set of French doors that allowed her to come and go as she pleased, even though she hadn’t many options of places to escape to. And though it should go without saying, Angelita could eat any food from our kitchen that she liked. Most days she cooked fideo or beans, and when my mother brought home takeout dinner, like pizza from Petrillo’s or hamburgers from In-N-Out, she brought enough for Angelita, too. My mother told us stories she’d heard through the grapevine about people who treated their maids like dirt, treating them not like actual employees, but like slaves, sometimes forcing them to sleep in garages on fold-up cots or directly on the cold cement next to the family’s car (even the dog slept inside).

    One story involved a rich woman from San Marino who would regularly slap her maid across the face or pinch her on the arms every time the furniture had dust on it; another awful woman forbade the maid from eating any of the family’s food and made her keep her own food in a plastic bag at the bottom of the refrigerator. My mother wanted a maid, yes, but she also wanted her maid to be well-housed and comfortable. If my mother felt at all guilty about hiring a 16-year-old girl without papers, her guilt would be partially assuaged by the fact that she had provided the girl with a room right from the pages of Better Homes and Gardens and a refrigerator stocked to the hilt, in addition to the weekly salary paid under the table, all in cash. When I pestered my mother with questions like, “Shouldn’t she go to school? Isn’t this a little bit like owning a slave?” my mother replied, always exasperated,“We’re helping her, can’t you understand that? My God, she could be a prostitute right now! She could be living in the closet of some shoe factory!”

    My mother, as a second-generation Mexican-American, understood what it meant to be the outsider, the immigrant who looked longingly at other families—white families—and wished for things her Mexican family could not afford: new shoes (not hand-me-downs), loaves of soft white bread, a cube of butter, college. Now my mother found herself on the other side, el otro lado, and in Angelita, she too must have recognized aspects of herself. But the American Dream always comes with tradeoffs.

    Each day, after my family vacated Casa Morales—the children to school and the parents to work, Angelita emerged from her room to collect the clothes that we’d left in rumpled heaps on the bathroom floor or strewn across our bedroom furniture. After starting the laundry, she’d load the dishwasher with our cereal bowls, sweep the tile, make our beds, fold and put away our freshly laundered clothes, and, with whatever time remained, mop floors, clean windows, sweep the front porch. When we returned in the afternoon, Angelita would have disappeared again into her room, and our belongings seemed to have floated magically back to our drawers and closets, our sheets seemed to have tucked themselves beneath the mattresses, and our pillows seemed to have fluffed themselves up—all this with the delightful scent of Pine Sol filling the air. The cleaning fairies had visited! The only proof that Angelita existed was the faint music from the telenovelas, or her voice as it wafted softly beneath the gap under her door as she chatted on the phone with her sister-in-law. After dinner, Angelita would emerge from her room, sometimes wearing a bathrobe and slippers, to load the dishwasher with dinner dishes and sweep, one last time, before retiring to her room for the rest of the night.

    Now my mother found herself on the other side, el otro lado, and in Angelita, she too must have recognized aspects of herself. But the American Dream always comes with tradeoffs.

    Here is where I wish I could say that I washed my own dishes and kept my bedroom extra tidy, so as not to unduly burden this girl, my mirror-twin. I wish I could say that we became friends and that I invited her out to the espresso bar; and that at night I tutored her in English and she tutored me in Spanish; and that ours became a beautiful cultural exchange, an exercise in breaking economic barriers, dismantling the fences that separated us. I want to include a scene where she and I went to Bob’s Big Boy on a Friday night and met up with my friends and we all shared brownie sundaes. I wish I could describe how we laughed together over telenovelas with titles like Love Never Dies or Looking for Paradise while sitting cross-legged on her bed.

    The truth is that we barely spoke to one another. Awkwardly polite, we said hello, gave each other a little wave while passing in the hallway. When it came to speaking Spanish, however, my useless tongue allowed me to communicate only in simple, present-tense sentences; any variation in time or condition left me stuttering and red-faced. As one strategy (possibly unconscious) for attaining the American Dream, my parents rarely spoke Spanish at home, and any Spanish I’d learned had been during Mr. Hunt’s Spanish classes at school. And if Angelita had learned any English, she wasn’t willing to try it out on me. In Spanish, though, she chatted quite animatedly with my mother, like a little fire had just flared up inside of her. Words and words tumbled from her mouth, some slow and lingering, some quick and bright. She shared plenty of stories, asked plenty of questions. I gleaned some meaning from it all, like reading graffiti on a fast-moving train—a word here, a word there, but the whole of their conversations remained a mystery. Even when my mother paused to explain, the color of those words had already faded.

    On Saturday mornings, Angelita’s brother’s Mustang would rumble up into the driveway. Wearing her chunky heels, she’d hurry out of the house and climb in, barely seated before the car sped away to the trailer park in El Monte. When she was gone, I’d steal into her room, silent as a thief, gently sliding open dresser drawers, peeking inside the closet, and snooping around the bathroom. Certainly, she knew all about me, mostly because her job required it, but I had a feeling that she had thoroughly inspected the contents of my shelves and closets, so I wanted to know about her, too. In her closet, I found a shoebox stuffed with photographs, mostly of Angelita posing in plazas next to fountains and trees. Gazing intensely into the camera, she never smiled, as her deep-set eyes pondered the mysterious cameraman. Brother? Boyfriend? What life had she left behind? Stacks of letters folded carefully inside green and red airmail envelopes all began with the salutation Querida Angelita, the writing neat and slanted, always signed Mami.

    Sometimes on the weekends I’d use her room as my personal retreat; it had been built with the purpose of privacy, way back in the far corner of the house. I knew nobody would bother me there, no arguing parents, no noisy siblings, no barking dogs. I’d lock the door, flip the switch to the palm fan, and cozy up, making myself right at home in the floral armchair to watch a few minutes of whatever telenovela or noticias happened to be playing on Telemundo or Univision, using the opportunity to practice my Spanish, sometimes imitating Don Francisco’s booming voice on Sabado Gigante, with his grand, succinct pronunciation. In Angelita’s bathroom, I used her bright pink lipstick and dabbed her Tabu perfume onto my wrists. I’d toss my hair and pout into the mirror as I studied my reflection and wondered if anyone, in a million years, would describe me as sexy. I’d flop down on the bed, hypnotized by the revolving fan blades as I imagined the world through Angelita’s eyes. How did she see us? What did she think of me and the new car my parents had just bought for me—a red Volkswagen Rabbit? And what did she think of our clothes, toys, the shopping bags of items so carelessly purchased, and what did she think of my friends who went out of their way to be friendly to her, as if to apologize for their spoiled friend? What did she think of my books and my maps and the photographs of cities I planned to one day visit that I had cut out of magazines and pinned onto my bulletin board?

    Within a few months, she’d found a boyfriend—a disc jockey at a local Mexican radio station, whom she’d met over the phone during one of her nightly calls to request her favorite songs. This DJ guy had liked her voice, told her she sounded cute and delicious, and asked her out on a date. Many nights, I would hear the French doors in her bedroom open and close. Then I’d hear her heels clicking down the driveway, a car door slamming, and the DJ’s car as it rolled away. Of course she told my mother all about her dates, and said that her brother, whose job it was to protect her, would be furious (furious, meaning that he would beat her up) if he ever found out that she was behaving like a slut. My mother didn’t like the brother, said he was a macho control freak, noting the purple finger marks on Angelita’s arms and her inability to make eye contact come Monday morning.

    Sometimes, though, even with her scary brother, I envied her, not so much for having a boyfriend, but for being free in the world, and if not free in the larger sense, at least in the moment-to-moment. Sometimes when the DJ dropped her off, they’d sit in the car in the dark, the engine silent. I assumed that they were making out, tongues all over the place, hickeys in-progress, his hand squeezing her body—my body—and I wondered how far she—I—would let him go. On the radio, the DJ played bands with names like Los Bukis, groovy looking Latinos who wore matching white suits and sang dreamy love songs. I imagined her lying in bed, dreaming about running away with the DJ, getting married, having his babies, so that the only messes she had to clean were those made by her own little family. But how could I know what she really thought?

    By the time I moved away to college, my parents had gotten divorced. Casa Morales was put up for sale. Angelita moved back in with her brother. A few years later, Angelita called my mother to say hello and to tell us that she’d gotten married (not to the DJ) and given birth to a baby boy she’d named Delmundo, meaning “of the world.” Soon after that, Angelita brought the fat-wristed toddler for a visit one day, and she and my mother chatted once again, not as employer and employee, but as two women with a shared past. She told my mother that she’d been grateful for the job, for the opportunity to get her feet on the ground. Proudly, she explained that she’d enrolled in night school to study English and that now she ran a business of sorts. “That’s wonderful!” my mother said. “What kind of business?” My mother had expected her to say that she’d started a cleaning business or opened a little restaurant or that she had become a florist.

    I found a shoebox stuffed with photographs, mostly of Angelita posing in plazas next to fountains and trees. Gazing intensely into the camera, she never smiled, as her deep-set eyes pondered the mysterious cameraman. Brother? Boyfriend? What life had she left behind?

    “I’m a coyote,” Angelita said slyly, her eyebrow arching up. She had become a smuggler who specialized in moving children across the border and reuniting them with parents who, in some cases, had not seen their children for years. She explained how she’d procured fake papers that looked completely legitimate; assigned each of the children a pseudonym (an American-sounding name like Kelly or Bobby); and drilled into their heads their new identities, their birthdates, the city in California in which they were born. She then drove “her children” across the border through Tijuana. Her price: $1,000 a head, minimum.

    I enjoyed hearing that Angelita had claimed a life for herself. I enjoyed the image of vigilante-Angelita wearing Beverly Hills sunglasses in her souped-up minivan as she zoomed across the border. I enjoyed the image of the once timid girl, now a woman, staring the border patrol agents in the eyes and saying, with confidence, These are my children. What a way to stick it to the man! But I also had many questions that troubled me. Was she charging her customers more than they could pay? Was she treating the children kindly? Would a young mother who’d once crossed the border inside the trunk of a car be a better coyote than those men who’d let eleven people die inside a grain hopper as it sat, forgotten, on some rusted-out train tracks somewhere in Nebraska?

    After Casa Morales had been sold and my parents’ business had gone bankrupt, our house, empty of its furniture and with the backyard still un-landscaped, sat hollow and vacant like an abandoned ship. My father moved to an apartment and my mother bought a smaller house, one that she could clean by herself. Even with her “illegal” status, Angelita would forge a new identity, and in the next few years she saved some money, settled into a house, started a family. As a coyote, she must have believed that she was helping those families whose children she smuggled across the border, just as my mother had justified hiring Angelita to work as our maid. As for me, I have continued to puzzle over the random configuration of circumstances that brought us together for those brief years. Though Angelita’s story might have ended well, there are all those others—so many girls and young women who, each day, leave home with only their duffel bags and their dreams of America, and never make it to the other side.


    From Michigan Quarterly Review 57:3 (Summer 2018). Used with the permission of Michigan Quarterly Review. Copyright © 2018 by Angela Morales.

    Angela Morales
    Angela Morales
    Angela Morales is the author of the essay collection The Girls in My Town, and winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize and the PEN Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, The Southwest Review, The Southern Review, and other journals and anthologies.

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