Browsing the Internet, I read the headlines: Arizona passes law criminalizing every undocumented immigrant within its state boundaries. For years now, I have been punctually following the attempts to reform the immigration system. From the birth of the Kennedy-McCain bill to its demise at the clapping hands of House Republicans, I have seen the hopes of millions of people rise and fall, undulating with the tides of opinion polls and the future of political careers.
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I finish reading the Arizona article. Another episode of the drama is over. Rolling my chair back, I sigh quietly. Sitting right here at my office desk, that depressing world seems to be taking place in a remote dimension — it unfolds behind my computer screen. It is a world so alien to me, it makes the whole mess seem quite ludicrous.
Yet it isn't.
That I can sit at my desk at work and reflect thus is the greatest irony of my adult life — the paradox of an undocumented professional.
I had originally come from Mexico in 1993 with a very low degree of education and knowing no English. But by 2010, I had learned the language, gotten my GED and gone to college and grad school. Working as a professional translator became the achievement of my life, and it was rewarding as it was painful.
The paradox of my situation manifests itself acutely at certain times. For instance, I am often required to interview candidates vying for a position similar to my own. I dress up for the occasion.
I read their résumé, greet them, see their faces, question them.
Their future hinges heavily on the impression I receive of them in the next 20 minutes. Our interview decides in part whether our paths will cross again.
I am asked to judge their qualifications. Yet during such interviews, the thought that assaults me is of a different nature: Shouldn't this middle-age man sitting right across from me, with all his experience and legal documents, be offered the job that I have sequestered? Or have I simply bought too much into the idea that portrays me as a lesser being, a trespasser, a criminal, someone unworthy of employment?
The doubts that assail me in private are the triumph of the conservative agenda, the same agenda that preaches free enterprise and turns the other way once its effects, like the displacement of people or mass migrations, become apparent. But reminding the United States of its contradictions is pointless.
Almost a hundred years ago, during the East St. Louis riots, W.E.B. Du Bois observed that the problems of the city's new residents — who had recently come from the South — were of no concern to that industrial city, so long as its grocers and saloon-keepers flourished, its industries steamed and screamed, and its bankers grew rich. Similarly, the immigration rallies of 2006 and 2010 in Chicago had no impact on the fat cats of LaSalle Street; they did not disturb the peaceful Sunday strolls of the residents of the Gold Coast; they did not find sympathy among the gentlemen at City Hall. So we all just went back to work as usual, for Chicago still needs its toilets scrubbed, its tables wiped down.
Walking down the hall after the interview, I find myself engaged in this sort of thinking. I am debating whether I am violating some ethical principle. I'm still wondering whether I should quit immediately and be at peace with my conscience when a group of Mexican janitors — energetic, jovial and cracking obscure jokes at each other — happens by on their way to start their shift. It then becomes clear: A position like theirs would suit me better. It would be more in accord with my background.
The janitors disappear around the corner and into the changing room. I fix my tie and feel nostalgic. The pangs and joys of physical labor, how I miss them!
Listening to my paisas, I feel a yearning for my former life. I think of my first 12 years in Chicago. I think of my numerous occupations. The mowing of lawns that began early on those summer mornings. I remember those mornings and afternoons that seemed to stretch endlessly. The mugginess radiating from the unrelenting sun that never failed to give me a heat rash on my back, on my legs and arms, between my buttocks. I think of the equally oppressive temperature of the assembly line. There, a red-hot river of melted iron flowed right by my feet. And I think of the third and final ring of that hell so my own: the dishwasher station in the Mexican restaurant where I worked for more than 12 years. In spite of the never-ending succession of bins filled with dirty dishes, how fun it was! How fun to feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins, the pressure of the cooks yelling, "¡Platos, más platos!"
How secretive and exciting it was to steal a minute or two from my busyness to alleviate that awful heat rash! Among stocks of meats, fries and bottles of frozen strawberries the arctic climate of the walk-in freezer always offered a soothing embrace. In winter, I would simply step outside and let my skin chill for a minute before returning to my station.
And then the albur, the vulgar game every Mexican male always engages in. The phallic and testicular allusions that the ever-active imagination of the Mexican male extends and multiplies to infinity. The chorizo, the chiles (jalapeño, poblano, ancho), the avocados, any given piece of raw meat — they are all soon endowed with sexual attributes as the cooks use them to aggressively joke with each other in a locker-room display betraying both Greek sensual innocence and Catholic sexual repression.
And then every other Friday night when John, the American bartender who insisted on being called Juan, brought back a couple of pitchers of beer to the kitchen. It can't get any better than this, I remember thinking: free beer and $6 an hour! That's probably why I was the first one to thank John. "¡Gracias por las chelas, Juan!"
I truly meant it, since it was only Juan and, occasionally, Drew, one of the owners, who ever motivated us after a busy night. The other owner, Roberto, a man who came from my own city, never gave us anything. Instead, he was always on top of us. "¡Muevan la nalga cabrones que no tenemos toda la noche!"
And then there was the memorable day I got promoted from the kitchen to the restaurant floor. The door dividing the kitchen and the dining room reminded me of the tall rusty wall at the border I sneaked under — a piece of metal dividing two utterly different worlds.
It was then that my exposure to the parallel universe of American culture began, as I worked side by side with bartenders and waitresses. Those were certainly very happy years of my life!
And now, back at my current job, watching my paisas down the hall on their way to start their shift, I find comfort in the fact that during those years, I was less stigmatized. I was a happier person, a livelier man. Straying away from one's own kin, it seems, is to die a little, and the agony deepens in proportion to the distance taken. Back then I might have been well aware of my socioeconomic disadvantage, but I was utterly oblivious to my legal status. I was less troubled by questions of ethics, of rights, of professionalism, less tortured by questions of justice and fairness, all too complicated for my mind to untangle.
The ways in which I have dealt with my undocumented status have evolved over time. During my years at the restaurant, I embraced a brazen approach. But upon landing my job as a translator, I soon learned it was best to cast down my eyes.
At the restaurant, everyone knew that everyone else was undocumented, and thus there was nothing to hide. The same way my coworkers at the restaurant had no reason to think that any of us had legal papers, at my office job no one would suspect that an undocumented lurks among them.
One day, during a break at work, I read an article about a Mexican activist here in Chicago. In it he denounced the Arizona law that was then being debated. He is an American citizen now. But, he is very proud to say, once he too was undocumented. He had now crossed the golden arches of the North. Now his outlook of life is vertical and promising.
I envied him. His confidence. His enthusiasm. His optimism. The heroic gesture of his activism. The triumphal finale of his provincial saga.
Then I thought of me, of my situation, of my own outlook on life, and it was circular and barren.
There is no heroism in clandestinity. There is only the hunt, the continual chase. There is only the inevitable: the humiliation, the lies, the silent confrontation, the daily battle, this overwhelming feeling of orphanhood you swallow quietly and in private.
Thanks to my office job, over a period of almost five years, I climbed out of my disadvantaged background and reached the coveted American Dream. And by doing so, as though once wasn't enough, I have become invisible a second time.
I am a sneaky shadow wandering about in the fairyland of the American middle class. I have mastered the art of elusiveness. I have learned both to operate under the radar and to be alert at once.
Before, when the news of a deportation was the subject of conversation with my peers at the restaurant, I reacted instinctively and with indignation. Now, whenever someone in the office mentions anything related to undocumented immigration, I reply with cool commiseration.
When a coworker tells me about a group of 43 people caught working with fake documents at a Virginia airport, I put on a sad face, shake my head slowly and say, "Pobre gente."
More potentially dangerous situations, however, call for subtler strategies.
One day during the 2008 election season, Jorge asks me if I watched the debate last night. I answer, "Yes! It was interesting!" Nadine joins in the conversation; she will be voting for Obama.
Jorge has some concerns. He thinks McCain looked too old. The dude's gonna drop dead one of these days, he says. Rachel, who has been listening quietly, says she does not really like Obama, but she has no other choice. She would have gladly voted for Hillary, just to keep seeing Bill on the screen. But Obama she just does not like. Plain and simple.
As I listen to their discussion, I start tracing back in my mind every single conversation I have had with each of them regarding my legal status. I have told Jorge the bureaucracy was overwhelming and that I'm simply not interested in American citizenship. But haven't I told Rachel that I am in the process of applying? And what about Nadine, what kind of nonsense have I told her? Such inconsistencies!
When my turn comes to answer who I'll be voting for, I'll have to draw a friendly smile and utter another white lie. I'll have to carefully redirect the conversation topic. Or I'll have to spin my chair around and act as though I am typing an email, dialing a number. In the worst of cases, I'll have to step out of the office. But that will be too abrupt and will look suspicious.
I remain seated, listening to the details that have persuaded them. And then, after going round and round my head conceiving an exit strategy, weaving lies together, a small miracle happens. Satisfied that their votes will be cast for the right candidate for the right reasons, Nadine and Jorge return to their work stations. Equally satisfied with her choice, Rachel steps out of the office.
Only I am left staring down at the carpet in the center of the office. Though astonished and incredulous, I am glad that this time I did not have to lie. I had anticipated a potential nailing to the cross of my illegality, but it came to naught.
José Ángel N. is an undocumented immigrant who lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter. Due to legal concerns surrounding his immigration status, he published his memoir, "Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant," anonymously. This essay was adapted from that book, which was released last month by the University of Illinois Press.
By José Ángel N., University of Illinois, 120 pages, $19.95