Immigration reform has been a hot topic of debate once again since President Obama made his speech on January 29th in Las Vegas. A public campaign to reform immigration policies has the potential to change the lives of millions. One of those people who could be impacted is Alejandra.* A thirty something native born Mexican living in Seattle for almost four years, Alejandra’s dynamism and bright smile captivate instantly. In 2008 Alejandra traveled to Seattle to visit family and the following year, after finishing her undergraduate degree in business in Mexico, returned. “I fell in love with Seattle” Alejandra recalls. “My brother married a girl from Seattle..but we don’t really get along much but...I met his friends and one of them [offered] to let me stay with him until I could find my own place.” Recalling The help from her friend gave her the opportunity to start a new life in Seattle since arrived with very little money. “I came here with one hundred pesos...I’m not kidding, I’m not kidding” she laughs. She soon found work cleaning houses, waiting tables and eventually started doing other things like being an extra in movies.
When questioned about how she started in her various jobs, Alejandra smiles broadly and says “that is the magic of Seattle”. Thanks to serendipity and some insominia, she started appearing as an extra in movies. “There had been construction by my building for months,” she explains adding that she didn’t sleep for months “and every day it was this brrum-brrum, you know, this machine” she clenches her fists and repeatedly moves them up and down imitating a jack hammer. “And I had just moved to another apartment and I saw a guy in that orange vest putting up sign and I thought, ‘oh no! Not more construction´”. “So I went down to ask him what he was doing,” she adds with a smile, “and said to him ‘No! Are you guys going to start construction?’ And he answered, ‘no, we are going to film a movie. Do you want to be an extra?’ ” When queried if she’s been asked if she has a visa that allows her to work, she hesitates and answers, “I mean, I think they knew...” she pauses “it’s like something that we don’t talk about and it’s like good for me and it’s good for them...sometimes they don’t pay me and sometimes they pay me cash...but I just wanna do it...”
Today, work is more steady, with four movies under her belt, a roster of families that use her trusted services as a nanny and a satisfying volunteer job at a well known foundation, Alejandra’s days are full and long. Her work at a well known foundation appeared in the form of a bus ride. She was having a conversation on the phone one day on the bus and a man overheard her and gave her his card. Alejandra decided that she needed to do more to help others and to also meet more people. Her work at the foundation is focused on helping with translations and making sure that the facilitators are using proper language. The job is varied and interesting. Plus the foundation’s mission inspires her. She says, “everyone has the right to be educated and to live with dignity.” Getting out and spending time away from work is an added benefit to her volunteering; she had been spending a lot of time alone, in homes cleaning or taking care of children.
Alejandra adores living in the Emerald City but it isn’t always easy. “It’s been hard, you know, I have been working since I was 16 and... I am tired of working...with employers that you don’t like them or they don’t like you. I decided to have a change in my life...whatever I am going to is going to be something that makes me happy every day.” Alejandra works long hours, between 10 and 16 hours a day. She says she is trying to find a way to be more formal and fixing her status. “It’s hard when you don’t have any support from your family, you know, like money...” But she perseveres, and deals with racism, classism, ignorance and economic hardships. “People try to humiliate [me] but everyday you are learning...” There are good times and bad times. Alejandra admits that her visa status makes her uneasy but she is unapologetic when it comes to explaining herself to people who may ask too many questions. “This is my life, and God, or whoever, put me here for some reason and I am just trying to find the reason every single day. That’s what I am doing here and that is how I feel.” Alejandra does miss Mexico but is convinced that Seattle is the best place for her now. As to what she will do when her tourist visa expires, she isn’t sure but she guarantees that she won’t do anything illegal. “My visa is going to expire and then I don’t know what I am going to do. I mean, I am not going to do anything illegal.”
You don’t look Mexican
Dealing with ignorant people is part of a typical day for Alejandra. At five foot eleven, light brown eyes and dark blonde, she all too often hears “you don’t look Mexican”. “People make you feel, think, that you are ignorant or you don’t have any education.” She asks herself “how can I show them I know how to use a computer, I know what happened in the war...” and she laughs. “Most people are like that, very ignorant about what a Mexican looks like, and how the country [works]. If you have a graduate degree people get surprised, and that kind of thing is pretty racist for me.” Alejandra believes that much of that is due to ignorance and says she usually answers racist remarks with “you don’t know what a Mexican looks like because you’ve never been to Mexico.”
Alejandra may be in the mastery phase of culture shock but she still misses the more laid back approach of life in Mexico. “Everything is on a schedule” Alejandra says. For Alejandra, life in the United States is at times, too ordered and scheduled while in Mexico, people have more time, they are less rigid and more relaxed. I ask her if maybe she should consider California and she laughs “but I don’t want to be around Mexicans if I am going to be here” she laughs and I point out that there are Mexicans everywhere in the USA, catching her in her own double standard.
Other differences between life in the US and Mexico stick out in Alejandra’s mind. We talk about families, since she has has intimate dealings with over a dozen families. One such family went through an acerbic divorce where the wife asked her to spy on the husband and after refusing, was accused by the wife of having an affair with the husband. It was mortifying and she suffered to see the couple’s son torn between the two. Alejandra even had to answer questions posed to her by the family court. Though now, things are better and Alejandra spends most of her time working with different children and feels that families in the US are more “health conscious and concerned with exercise” than in Mexico.
Alejandra is uncertain about her future, although she jokingly foresees a boyfriend very soon. She hasn’t had a boyfriend in a while. “It has been three years” she grins. I ask her to describe her ideal man. “He has to be able to make me laugh” she replies, “and be kind and educated”. Alejandra wants man with a plan and future. And “a sexy mouth”. I get the distinct impression that she’d like to date a guy from Seattle. A guy from Seattle with a sexy mouth. If you know of a man that fits that description, tell him to take the bus in Seattle, Alejandra is convinced that that is where the magic happens.