Immigrant Children Shouldn’t Live in a Climate of Shame and Fear

As a caravan of an estimated 7,500 immigrants traveled from Honduras to the United States, politicians clamored to capitalize on the moment in time for the midterms. President Donald Trump suggested that Democrats helped to organize it, aiding “bad people” to start it and “very bad people” to be a part of it.

When Trump refers to “bad people,” he considers the thousands of children estimated to be among the caravan to fit that description. To him, immigrant children are synonymous with crime and worthy of shame—an idea that’s borne out in a massive tent city at the border that he expanded and filled with unaccompanied minors, trapping them in a barren desert where they slept in bunks with little access to education, legal services or the love of their families. For immigrant families seeking government assistance, Trump’s recently proposed policy delivers nothing but more pain, forcing them to choose between food and shelter for their children or a chance at legal status.

This shame and punishment is familiar to me. It’s a place I’ve lived as an undocumented child in America.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles as an undocumented immigrant, I spoke no English. Upon discovering this, my fifth-grade teacher pointed to the table in the farthest corner of her classroom and sent me there. For the rest of the year, I sat there, silent, as the shame of her neglect took root—the shame of being a Mexican, a border-crosser, a Spanish speaker.

When I wrote a story for a school competition in the only language I knew, my teacher put my story in the reject pile without a second glance; in doing so, she rejected me and who I was. “This is a country where we speak English,” Trump once said, “not Spanish,” giving voice to the same message she had delivered to me long ago.

I worked hard to adjust to an English-speaking American world, but more shame was my only reward. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed girls were on the covers of the books I devoured, like Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club, which gave me unexpected access to white, middle-class America. I couldn’t explain why I wasn’t in the books I read at school or borrowed from the public library. Reading about an American life that could never be mine and characters who I could never be like, I felt more inadequate than ever: This is what I do not have. This is who I am not. This is who I will never be.

By the time I arrived at Pasadena City College, I had little desire to celebrate anything about my Latino heritage. If it hadn’t been for my English professor, Diana Savas, I might have lost it completely. Diana taught me to celebrate my Latino identity by introducing me to the works of writers I could relate to: Helena María Viramontes, Sandra Cisneros, Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez; authors who wrote books with characters who looked like me and lived in the same world I lived in.

I finally felt visible. Diana encouraged me to pursue a career in writing and honor my community by telling our stories. I transferred to the University of California at Santa Cruz to pursue a degree in creative writing. I was usually the only Latina in my writing classes; the stories I submitted to my fiction teacher were about a world—an experience—neither she nor my classmates knew anything about.

“You have a wild imagination,” my teacher would say of my autobiographical stories of Mexican poverty, immigration, and broken homes. I wanted to tell her that her job was to critique my craft, not my cultural experiences—but my shame kept me silent.

That same term, I also took Chicano literature with professor Marta Navarro, who read my work and taught me that my immigrant experience wasn’t something to be ashamed of. “You are now bilingual, bicultural and binational,” she said. “You are not less—you are more.” She made me see that being an immigrant had transformed me into twice the girl I would otherwise have been. It was my first time thinking of my immigrant identity as something to be celebrated, not rejected.

When I graduated, I set out toward the goal of using my “wild imagination” to build bridges and chip away at walls with stories about my heritage and my life, but when my agent and I sought a publisher, I encountered shame again. There were too many rejections. One editor even said that nobody was going to care about the story of a Mexican immigrant girl.

I eventually found an editor who did care—Malaika Adero at Atria Books, who offered me my first contract and, in doing so, helped me cross the invisible border between the seen and the unseen, the heard and the unheard.

Like most immigrants, I have been told again and again to go back to where I came from. At a book reading in Texas, a woman came to humiliate and yell at me, accusing me of writing stories that promote illegal immigration. She must have missed the harsh reality at the core of my stories—my kind of writing doesn’t encourage others to come here. Hours after the publication of an essay in defense of immigrant families, a reader wrote me, demanding: “How much of the world are we supposed to save?”

This isn’t about “saving” anyone. It’s about valuing human potential and acknowledging the inequality of opportunity throughout the world. It’s about acknowledging that our foreign policies and political decisions negatively affect other countries. It’s about treating people with dignity and respect. These are things that Trump and people like him don’t understand.

In this political climate, my greatest hope is that we as a society will work harder to speak up and stand up for the immigrant community. I hope that today and every election day to come, we will embody the true meaning of celebration as we exercise our right to vote—and finally come to understand that the U.S., as a nation of immigrants, is twice the country it might otherwise have been.


Reyna Grande is the author of the memoirs A Dream Called Home and The Distance Between Us.