Coming to America: Mexican immigrants recall their journey into the United States

Note: The following interview was transcribed and translated to English.

The Rio Grande Valley’s history is led by stories of the past, the present, and our hopes for the future. Without these stories, our culture wouldn’t be what it is today, with much of it inspired by the land across the border— Mexico. The people who crossed El Rio Grande and set their sights on the Valley are those ones who carried and cemented its culture and traditions. 

We kindly asked two Mexican immigrants from older generations, Yolis (50 years old) and Jose Baltazar  (60 years old), to share their journeys and experiences living in America and offer future generations a few words of wisdom.

Photo by Luis Vidal

1980s – Life in Mexico

 

Yolis was the daughter of shoe street vendors, with 8 brothers and sisters, her family was in poverty but as she explained there were “people who were more poor.” The family would regularly eat beans and homemade tortillas; there was no money for new socks so she held her high knee socks with rubber bands.

Jose and his family lived in poverty in the “poblado de San Francisco en el municipol de Camargo,” and being the second oldest of his brothers and sisters, he worked as a young kid to help his family. His main source of income was picking corn, eventually earning enough money to buy his own bike to get around. His other jobs involved cleaning canals, taking bad wheat out of corn fields, making bunches from bean plants in the farmlands, and more.

What enticed you about living in America from Mexico? What did America have that Mexico didn’t?

Y:  I wanted to have a good job. I wanted to work, I wanted to have more opportunities and a better life. America had jobs, jobs that paid better, that’s what I heard that people over here made better money than Mexico. I had a job in Mexico but they paid me very little. 

 

J: Una mejor vida. To work and have, well, a good life. And help my mother.

How did you get to America? Travel here? Cross the river/border? 

Y: I came over to America very easily, I would pass with my card over the bridge to the United States. I worked at a house and they would pay me $50 a week, but I would cross the bridge walking. 

J: I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me (Jose laughs). I went through the river, swimming [and on floats]. I’ve crossed the river several times. The first time, I came with my uncles. We crossed the river and got close to the checkpoint. They left us there and we waited four days until we got picked up.

1990s – Early Life in America

We learned that Yolis became a U.S Citizen after 10 years of waiting for the process. Her daughter (now 25) would help her study for the exam and attend night classes with her to learn the English language. In Jose’s case, he became a lawful permanent resident (LPR) after President Reagan’s controversial Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986

What was early life in America like for you?

Y: When I first arrived I was impressed with how things were here. Just even looking at the streets, they were better here, everything was better here. But I would also be nervous being on the street here because I didn’t know, just simply knowing that i didn’t have papers and seeing a police officer made me nervous, i felt like the police officer would know I didn’t have papers.

J: Well it was nice because I could afford to buy anything I wanted with my job.

2023 – Life Now

Currently, Jose makes a living as a truck driver whenever opportunities are available. Yolis works as a custodian.

What is life in America for you now?

Y: I am fine here in the United States. Proud of many things, especially, I am a homeowner, I have a house, I have my own car, and I have a job. I feel like they pay me well when I compare myself to those living in Mexico, but when I see people with more education or people who put in more effort I say, “Oh, I get paid very little.” 

J: Piece of shit (laughs). Well yeah, now the United States has changed a lot. These days you can’t afford anything, it wasn’t like before. Before, $100 would last a long time. To keep it short, when I was a younger man, I would earn $300-350 a week and I would be able to buy everything I wanted and had money left over. Now I earn up to $3000 and I never have money. Ya no te alcanza ya pa nada. I can’t afford anything. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, but you’re always losing money here.

Do you miss Mexico?

Y: To live in Mexico, no. To travel, yes, I think Mexico is a country with a lot of richness, but I do think about how my life would have been different if I would have stayed and I think I would be struggling. I hear that people of a certain age don’t get opportunities, like 45 and up, people have a hard time finding jobs. They give more jobs to younger people. 

 

J: Of course. I miss how it was before. As it is right now, I don’t even feel like going there anymore. Well, for the same reason, there is no longer any security. There is a lot of delinquency. You cannot live comfortably because there is no security. But I do miss it… I would’ve liked to live there, but I’m not going to because of the insecurity, por la inseguridad.

Photo by Diego Lozano

What has life in America taught you? 

 

Y: I have learned.. I’m not sure but life is easier and there are more opportunities here. Even though, I see that here in the U.S. we spend our time working and we work a lot. Sometimes we start distancing ourselves from our families because of work. I feel like society pushes you to that and in Mexico, well, it’s different. 

J: La verdad… the truth is that it’s taught me that it once was the land of opportunity. But in actuality, yo miro que esta muy descompuesto, it’s very out of order, dysfunctional. And not all dreams are dreams. Sometimes they become nightmares. Nothing is the same. Nothing is the same [in the Valley] either. Everything is really different. 

Words of Wisdom

 

What words of wisdom would you tell younger generations reading this?

Y: Educate yourself well so you can find a good job in Mexico and stay there with their families. Stay with your family. At the end of the day, I think being close to family is something people should care about. 

 

J: That they stay in their countries and put all their knowledge and abilities to get ahead in favor of their countries. That they do not come to this land to look for a dream and find themselves with a nightmare. 


Stay in your community and do something for your community. Just like young people from other countries, stay where you are and try to move your countries forward instead of coming to waste your dreams in a place where sometimes they remain dreams. Cuantos no se han quedado en la mitad del camino. Many have remained in the middle of their journeys. I looked at the footprints of people who have not achieved their dreams when we walked through the woods [in America after we crossed over]. During the thirteen days I walked through the woods, I saw many things… many people come and do not manage to accomplish anything. Se quedan muertos nomas. They just die instead.  It is better to stay in your country and do what you can for your country.

 

That is the advice I give to the new generations. Eso es lo que yo le doy de consejo a las generaciones nuevas.

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