I was not prepared when I opened Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives. One moment I was sitting at my desk, and the next I was with Roberto, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. I followed him as he moved from one underpaying, exhausting job to the next; working even harder once he had his own family. I was by his side when he received amnesty, but his family didn’t. They voluntarily left the country while he stayed behind to continue working to support them. Here Roberto recounts his own experiences, providing me a glimpse into his struggles and feelings of profound loneliness and loss.
I sing. Sometimes I laugh by myself, at myself. Sometimes I talk to myself. Sometimes I cry by myself. Sometimes I scream by myself. Who am I? I’m nobody. A very old saying in Mexico goes, ‘I am. I don’t resemble anyone.’
When I see my kids, though, I get even sadder. Now, it has been four years that they’ve been gone. I turn around and they are adults already. I feel I’ve missed out on their lives. Jennifer is going to turn fifteen soon, but we can’t have her quinceñera here because she still cannot come back… And Junior is growing every day. He talks to me now like an adult – he asks me about work, he asks me what I do during the day, and sends me messages on my phone about his school and his life there. He never smiles, though. He is very serious.
I miss them both very much. Too much. Sometimes when I’m lonely, I’ll get out their old toys from when they were younger. The ones they left here. I’ll play with Jennifer’s speak-and-spell or Junior’s racing track. I just play by myself, though, and sometimes it makes me miss them even more.
Roberto’s feelings of isolation are a common emotion among undocumented immigrants, separated from their families. Indeed there are several additional themes that run through this book that are to be expected, such as harsh working conditions, detention, deportation, strong familial bonds, the pain of familial separation, and hope for the next generation. However, what makes this book special is its ability to move the reader to understand these themes on a profound, personal level by providing the opportunity for each narrator to paint a picture of their own experiences, in their own unique voice. They are real, relatable, and captivating.
For example, anyone with an ill family member can understand the impotence that Olga feels as she is unable to help her transgender child, Vica, who is dying in a federal detention facility from AIDS. While the specifics of her situation may be different than our own, on a basic emotional level, we can relate. In Olga’s own words she reflects on her child’s death,
I remember I got a letter. She wrote, ‘Guess what, Mom, what I feared most—Immigration has come to see me and they’re going to detain me.’ They moved her to San Pedro Detention Facility about two weeks later…
When she was detained the first thing she told them was that she had AIDS and that she needed her medication.
When Vica called me, she would tell me they treated her and the other transgender detainees very badly. They would humiliate them, just like other people did. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement people, the security, even the nurses treated them horribly. They would laugh at them, mock them or make comments. And she would call and tell me they wouldn’t give her medical care. She was scared because they weren’t giving her the medication she needed. She was asking the people inside, the ICE people, to see the doctor.
After a while, she was finally taken to the doctor. The doctor told Vica that her T-cell count was low and she needed treatment, medication to help boost her cell count. Vica told him alright, she wanted it. But the doctor told her he would give her some time to think about it because the treatment would be something she couldn’t stop taking. She told the doctor okay, I want it, but she never got the medication.
We spoke July 5, and she was feeling well…
The next Sunday came and went and I didn’t hear anything from her. I thought it was very strange. That Monday or Tuesday I got a call from Deanna, a friend of Vica’s in detention. Deanna’s also transgender. She said, ‘Señora, your Victoria is very sick. She has a high fever. And they won’t pay attention to us and take her to the doctor. They just ignore us. She’s lying on bed with a very high temperature. She’s vomiting. She has diarrhea. She can’t even stand up to go to the bathroom. We have to carry her.’
…I felt so desperate. Those were terrible days. I felt impotent at not being able to go see her, to do anything. If I had papers, or a permit, I would have gone the moment I got the call from Deanna. I would have found a way, a hired attorney. I would have done anything…
Then she got a call from the Mexican consulate, saying that they would give her a permit to visit her daughter.
When we arrived, the guards were at the door, but when we came close to her to hold her hand, or speak to her, the guards would immediately come over and hover over the bed. They would watch every movement we made. At first, I didn’t notice she was shackled. I only noticed Vica wanted to shift her body because she was tired of being in the same position, but she couldn’t move her foot. I thought maybe her foot was stuck in the blanket or something. I lifted the blanket and saw the chain. My heart was already broken, but to see that …She didn’t deserve to die like that. She was already in agony.
Stories like these makes one wonder just how widespread such abuse is; abuse against detainees, against workers, against men, women, and children seeking to live with dignity. No matter what scale the abuse, it is entirely unacceptable.
Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, is a Voice of Witness book compiled and edited by Peter Orner. Roberto’s quotes are from page 74 and Olga’s from pages 109-111.
About Voice of Witness: Founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, Voice of Witness is a non-profit book series that depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them. The Voice of Witness education program, in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves, aims to bring socially relevant, oral history-based curricula into schools.