The lingering anxieties of growing up undocumented.
Alexia Arthurs. Photo by Kaylia Duncan.
I’m trying to remember when I first knew I was undocumented. We all were—my mother, my brother and sister, too. It showed itself in our lives. In Jamaica, my siblings and I had idyllic childhoods, with backyards to run and play in, and mango trees for climbing, and there was a time, for a little while at least, when my father would take us to the beach on Sunday mornings. He was a pastor, and his job required frequent relocation; my childhood is mapped by the houses we lived in and the church congregations we visited. On Ward Avenue, in Mandeville, my sister and I watched our cat give birth in a closet, and when we lived in Clarendon, I remember how the spikes in a church-graveyard fence went through a little boy’s leg and he was taken to the hospital. One August, we moved again—my mother took us to New York, leaving behind my father, who had been abusive to her and was less than interested in me and my siblings.
My mother taught high school in Jamaica, a respected position in our community—I remember going to the market with her and the market men and women would call out “Teacher!” to draw her attention to their stalls. Now, she taught in day cares in Brooklyn where she was paid three hundred dollars a week. We lived in tiny quarters, for a time the four of us in the same bed; my clothes were purchased from thrift stores; and when the time came, my maxi-pads came cheaply made in large boxes from the dollar store. My mother taught me to stack one on top of the other, so I wouldn’t leak. It would take twelve years before we finally got our papers, when I was twenty-four. I’m twenty-eight now.
My mother tells me how blessed I am, because I have two college degrees. I babysat in Manhattan to pay my undergraduate tuition, and when I was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I was awarded a scholarship and a living stipend and was enrolled as an international student, although I had lived in the states for over a decade at the time. If I hadn’t been awarded a scholarship, I could not have enrolled in graduate school unless I found off-the-books employment and gone part-time. I certainly wouldn’t have done it for a writing degree—a luxurious education for a person like me. I’m not sure I know or understand the concept of being “blessed,” or that I believe that blessings are handed out to a chosen people, so I don’t presume to have any—but its true that I’m luckier than many in my family’s situation. Many undocumented young people don’t have the resources to pursue an education, since only twenty states offer in-state tuition and just five offer financial aid.
I was extraordinarily careful during the first half of my twenties—an unwanted pregnancy or any confrontation with the law was out of the question. For a long time, I was very religious, because religion can have the effect of steadying the wobbly boat that holds a life. I believed that God, and by extension the church, would protect me if I was “good.” If I faltered, if I was deported, then I would have returned to the country of my childhood, to relatives almost as unfamiliar to me as strangers.
The church is often a great refuge to immigrant families—the term sanctuary city originated from the 1980s when a Presbyterian priest in Arizona welcomed Salvadoran refugees into his congregation. It’s a very biblical idea, opening one’s heart and house to strangers. I am grateful to church people for their giving ways: the woman who made baked macaroni and cheese for the weekly potluck, older congregants who spoke tenderly to my siblings and me. It was a gift to feel known and welcomed in a country that wasn’t, but would eventually feel like, home. When I left the church later, I was leaving an extended family. I’d realized that the world was more complicated than church leaders had wanted me to believe, but when I left I couldn’t help feeling like I had taken what I could when I was most vulnerable, and that I was arrogant and ungrateful for leaving.
But even now that my life has changed for the better, anxiety has followed me like a familiar shadow. I remember how much I worried at the beginning of every academic year whether or not I would be able to scrape up enough work to pay my tuition. I used to wonder what would happen to me when I graduated—what opportunities were available to a person like me. I know of one undocumented girl who took all the required classes to apply for a nursing program and then learned she wasn’t eligible because she didn’t have a social-security number. “Your generation is so anxious,” my therapist told me once, and I agree, but I wonder how much of my anxiety has become a habit of my circumstances, learned, so that all thoughts of the future and a desire to survive—and to do better than survive—has become so inextricably intertwined that I often greet any moment by worrying what might happen in the next.
Last January, my friends Jorge and Miguel walked me to a taxicab sitting idle on the street. I had just gotten back from Christmas in New York, and I was nursing the worst homesickness I’ve felt since I moved to Iowa City. We had been drinking warm glasses of wine and eating the bar’s complimentary popcorn. We were the last ones to leave the bar, the town empty since classes hadn’t yet resumed. When I got into the car, the taxi driver complimented my voice saying, “Everyone in my family shouts.” I never know what to make of white middle-aged Midwestern men complimenting my voice—I never know if they mean more than what they say to my face. The influx of African Americans from Chicago to Iowa City has been met with some resistance, and on occasion it has been expressed to me that I am an acceptable black person. During the short ride home, the driver, for some reason I can’t remember now, started talking about how Walmart has devastated small-town America. I agreed with him, but then he started talking about undocumented people living in America. He had a metaphor—“As a father, would I allow a stranger to sleep in my home?”
Recently, my therapist and I did “parts work.” She guided me through the process of going inward, asking the anxious part of me to speak for itself so that we could understand it better. At one point I asked the judgmental part of me to step backward because it seemed that it, not the anxious part, was taking over. I don’t like parts work—I always wonder if I’m doing it right. I worry that I’m not attuned for such vigorous internal work. But I do it because my therapist uses the practice in her own life, and I’ve come to trust her. It was our most productive session doing parts work. We’d traveled over a decade. I told my younger self that she need not worry, that everything life would bring me would be enough. When we were finished, I opened my eyes and was surprised to see that it had been almost an hour. I felt vulnerable and a little embarrassed, like unwanted eyes had seen me naked. But I also felt, or hoped, that I’d been handed a saner piece of myself. “The point,” my therapist explained, “is that you’ll be triggered less.”
The incident with the taxi driver was the first time I’ve personally met an American who believes that my family and I were wrong to stay here. At one point, his words would have hurt and shamed me, but instead I felt a dull sadness, a second-hand outrage for those who are still undocumented. When I became a permanent resident, I invited friends over for a green-card party. Someone baked carrot cake and others tried to keep with a tacit theme of green food, which meant that several people brought guacamole. Another Jamaican in attendance told me about a cousin who cried when he received his green card because he could finally travel back home. For an introvert like me, the party wasn’t a social as much as it memorialized a life event. But what was I celebrating? The permission to stay or the benefits of a legal residency? It must be the latter because after so many years here, I know that I don’t need permission. No other place has felt less strange to me.
Alexia Arthurs is the winner of The Paris Review’s 2017 Plimpton Prize for Fiction. Her short story “Bad Behavior,” appeared in our Summer 2016 issue.
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