I was born to an undocumented Mexican mother in San José, Califaztlán. When my mother was pregnant she crossed the U.S-Mexico border ‘sin papeles’, so that I could be born a U.S citizen. After about a year, we returned to Mexicali Baja California with the rest of our family.
When I was seven years old my mom left, or I should say, escaped my dad and a life of domestic violence. She took my one-year-old sister and me to live with my grandmother, mi Nana. Then she crossed over to the U.S. again, this time legally, to find work picking strawberries in Watsonville, CA. I really missed my mom then, but really enjoyed the new freedom. After doing my homework, I would spend the rest of the evening playing soccer in the streets and jumping on the hoods of abandoned cars lining the U.S.-Mexico border. You see, my grandmother’s house was just two blocks away from the line Gloria Anzaldúa called a “1,950 mile-long open wound.” My neighborhood friends envied me because I could cross to el otro lado to eat McDonalds and buy cheap clothes at the flea market. Sometimes my friends and I would sneak across the fence through one of its many holes. As soon as we saw the border patrol come by we would rush back across. I remember bragging to my friends that I wasn’t afraid of la pinche migra because I was a U.S. citizen. I did not know then that la migra sometimes can get trigger happy and shoot at children simply for throwing rocks.
Even though I flunked second grade, mi Nana used to say that I was the smartest child she knew. She would put her hands together and say “que inteligente es mi niño.” Her tone of voice and expression somehow convinced me that I was smart. So I started doing better in school. My uncles would joke about my good grades, and warn me that the Russians would come and kidnap me so I could help them compete with the US.
When I was thirteen years old my mother finally decided it to bring us with her to the U.S. so that we could get an education. At the time she hoped that I would finish high school and maybe get an office job with air conditioning. But I came to UC Berkeley instead. And like many first generation Chicano college student, I felt lost and uprooted on this campus.
I remember, as an undergraduate, entering Doe Library for the first time. And as I descended to the lower levels of the Gardner stacks, I pictured myself as the kid in Journey to the Center of the Earth, my face filled with fear and awe. Doe library became my favorite place on campus. It was quiet, like a cathedral. I remember wanting to show my mom how amazing this place was, and then realizing that my mother could not follow me inside those walls. The university library is not a cathedral but a vault. There are bones and blood inside those walls, histories of rebellion not meant for us to know.
And now, after four years of undergraduate education, and ten years of graduate work, I have a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. I also have a wife, two beautiful children, three chickens, and a vegetable garden. I have decided to become a scholar in the field of Ethnic Studies, in great part, because of the sense of empowerment and dignity I gained while taking undergraduate Ethnic Studies courses. This is what Ethnic Studies graduates learn. We gain the tools necessary to fight for the well being of our communities, and to push for the radical transformation our society so desperately needs.
And even though the library is still my cathedral and I have made the university my territory, I must remember to see beyond these local walls. See my brown and black brothers and sisters in the streets of Richmond, Oakland, Salinas, Mexico and all of Latin America. And as the fisherman casts his net over the waters, we must now cast our nets across these borderlands. Fish our youth out of the dangerous streets and into the university. So that they too can see beyond the local walls.
I will now like to ask all the children in the audience to stand up. Children, please place your left hand on your heart, and repeat after me. ‘I promise’ ‘that I will study,’ ‘that I will dream a better world,’ ‘and that I too’ ‘will one day’ ‘go to college and graduate.’
Waiter, can we have a side of facts with this hyperbole and cliché?
Yes, Manzano arrived in the United States at the age of 4. In 1987, his father, Jesús, who was working in the United States without authorization, secured permanent residency. Soon thereafter, he would gain his green card, ultimately sending for his family.
Leo was born in central Mexico, a place “where education ceased by fourth grade, running water did not exist and electricity was practically unheard of.” While certainly a life of poverty, to say that his country offered him “nothing” is one of tremendous disrespect. Worse yet, you erase history; you erase the ways that the United States and globalization has impacted Mexico. In recent times the United States through its neo-liberal policies such as the Bracero Program (1942-1964), Border Industrialization Program, a.k.a “maquiladoras” (1964-1996) and finally the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have slowly destroyed the traditional if not Jeffersonian agrarian society that provided self-sufficiency and subsistence.
All of these agreements, under the guise of “development” and “progress,” have forced people from their land, created environmental disaster, and provided a boon for Mexico’s underground economy–drug trafficking. The Mexican government provides little to no protection for its citizens against these economic polices. Labor rights and any illusion of a social safety net have collapsed. These policies are in place because it benefits the U.S. economy by providing cheap goods and cheap labor, to the detriment of the Mexican people.
Ruben, what do you mean that the United States gave Manzano the “opportunity to live out” his dreams. Manzano, like his parents, worked hard to secure everything he and his family has achieved. His parents work hard, with his father working as a machine operator at a gravel quarry and his mom holding down “odd jobs.” He, too, fought to get where he is today. Nobody gave him anything. According to the New York Times’ Aimee Berg:
All the while, Manzano needed to help his family financially. He got his first job at the age of 11. Later, his father would drop him off at school at 5 a.m. and Manzano would juggle practice at 6:15 a.m., his schoolwork and late shifts at an Italian restaurant until he became, in 2004, the first in his family to earn a high school diploma.
Had his family immigrated in 1999 or 2009, there would be no Leo Manzano, American silver medalist; there would be no American citizen Leo Manzano. In today’s political climate, one of racism and demonization, it is more likely he would have been Georgia or Arizona, pushed to “self-deport”, or otherwise subjected to harassment than live the purported “American Dream.” Even if one takes the position, as you do, that America gave Manzano this opportunity–that because of the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act, because of immigration, because of the opportunity to attend the University of Texas, Manzano has secured greatness–please know that opportunity would be nearly impossible today, or at least impossible because of the Republican Party and its supporters (yes, the people commenting on your piece and those celebrating you on your Facebook page).