"Illegal" by Jose Angel N.

Jose Angel N. talks about the immigration system in the United States and his own undocumented status in "Illegal." (University of Illinois Press)

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.