It’s a peculiar thing to entrust your children to someone else.
I’ve had the privilege of taking care of mine since their birth. I have been home with them since 2015, while pregnant with my first. It’s been my honor to be a stay-at-home-mom and their sole caretaker. An honor that I came to at 35 years old, which is to say that I had a career, before becoming a wife and mother. As my family and I prepared for me to finish an undergraduate degree I started many years ago, we decided it was time to look for the ‘perfect-fit nanny’ for our home. That said, I’d like to talk to you about ‘Maria’, the undocumented immigrant that came to my doorstep answering an add that read “Se Busca Niñera” in the Fruitvale District of Oakland, CA.
We met at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday because it was the only time I could surmise an hour while both kids might be napping. She walked up to my doorstep without knocking or ringing the doorbell (only nannies know this common curtesy), she sent me a text instead. I opened the door to a woman who looked 45 years old but was in fact younger than my 38. Beside her was her pre-teen daughter who spoke the same type of English I knew as a kid- translating Spanglish the best way you can for your parents. They were from Zacatecas, the same region of Mexico as my own parents. She was warm and her daughter was polite and obedient like no American preteen has the ability of being- at least none that I have met.
The three of us chatted for a short time before one of my kids started wailing. Maria’s daughter went to hold him unprompted while her mother and I exchanged a quiet glance of approval. Maria quickly pulled me aside to address her interview. I started by showing her our home, our backyard, our playroom, and our separate rooms for each child… but before I could continue she became very serious and asked me to sit. I wondered if I had offended her or if my broken Spanish was doing the interview a disservice.
I waited patiently while she gathered her thoughts to what seemed to be a preemption to a heavy conversation. “Te necesito decir algo. Quiro hacer completamente honesta.” Or “I need to tell you something so that I am being completely honest.”
If there’s one difference that I’ve always noticed between my first-generation Mexican-American experience and the experience of my immigrant family has been their utter respect for formality in language and in physical space. They will spend an hour saying hello and an hour saying goodbye to everyone at a party (friend or foe), for instance.
But I digress.
Quietly and in slow-motion Maria lifted her pant leg to show me an ankle bracelet. I had seen one before, as an avid crime show enthusiast, I know what they look like. I looked at Maria, and she looked at me, as her eyes began to water. I immediately tried to comfort her. “No llore por favor! Si llora, yo tambien llorare” or “Please don’t cry! Or I will!” Instead of acknowledging my attempts at comfort, she pulled out an ID card.
An ID card seemingly issued by ICE and the federal government. “No soy criminal.” “I am no criminal,” she said. I grabbed the ID card and looked at it so that I wouldn’t have to look at Maria. The card had her name and picture on it. It had her birthdate and place of origin, Zacatecas, Mexico. She asked me to flip it over, and there she pointed out the more important specifics: ‘under criminal investigation for illegal immigration by the federal government.’
My own father, now deceased, was deported twice, In the early 1980’s when ‘illegal alien’ was the common phrase. I thought of him as I looked at Maria. I thought of my own mother with her six small children, and no help, and no playroom, and no way out of poverty. I thought of the privilege I experience now, and how utterly unfit it feels on me. I wanted to hug her, and I would have if I thought it wouldn’t have brought her even more embarrassment.
Instead, I asked if she could live-in. Knowing full well she couldn’t (with her teenager holding my baby in another room). I was scared. I was scared I would say the wrong thing. Or scared that the shock of her ankle bracelet might be too apparent if she looked at my face for any type of sincerity. I thought she might see all the questions I wanted to ask. Questions I knew she didn’t have answers to.
Was ICE doing this now? Ankle bracelets for immigrants? A tracking system? An ID card? What’s next? Arm bands?
I know that the cliche is that we’re not supposed to regret anything in this life. But I am a human being, and I regret, and I will always regret my reaction in that moment.
Maria, and her daughter, walk around in the shadows. I don’t know how my father managed his emotions about the phrase ‘illegal alien’. I have never been brave enough to ask my mother how it felt when he was taken, or about the moments until he returned.
I do know that my parents worked all the time. They worked through the struggle and through the ill-gotten labels. They worked through the shame and the fear of everyday interactions with police. The fear of ‘la migra’. ICE. They made due. And I will always pray for the type of grace and compassion that the people who hired my parents — illegally — showed in order for our family of eight to survive. Survival in a house full of anchor babies.
I didn’t hire Maria. I couldn’t hire Maria. I thought about what would happen in an event of an ICE raid, and my kids under Child Protective Services hold even for an afternoon. I hate that I didn’t even think about taking that risk while my parents took that risk for years. I hate that I couldn’t follow in my parents bravery. And to be honest, the Christian in me died a little when I made that decision. What are our moral view points after all, if when push comes to shove, you won’t protect your neighbor, and you fold.
I wanted to write this because I am student at Mills now, finishing an undergraduate degree and eventually a masters in education. And I won’t downplay the emotional, financial and physical toll it is taking on my family as being some small thing. It’s a big thing, yes, but also nothing in comparison to Maria, the life that she is living, and that ankle bracelet.
I’ll say it here, because it feels like I can’t say it anywhere else.
Shame on you ICE. Shame on you Federal Government. The American Dream will withstand any political climate, including ours right now. It is still a thing worth fighting for and a thing worth working for — work by any means necessary.
It’s a dream ill-fit for an ankle bracelet.