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This is my family’s immigration story, albeit greatly condensed. It’s told from my sister’s, grandfather’s, and dad’s points of view. Like me, my grandfather and dad are both named Oscar Rodriguez. To differentiate them, I’ve added Sr. and Jr. tags, respectively.
Julissa Rodriguez, my sister, born 2000
Finally, a beach day. It sounded like a pretty great way to spend the Fourth of July and was what Julissa had been looking forward to most this trip, other than seeing her family and shopping. The heat had become almost unbearable. She expected it from Houston, but the humidity was something she had not signed up for.
The trip had been fun so far, visiting her aunt and three-year-old cousin. There was a lot to see and do in Texas, but some moments had Julissa questioning if her family should even be there in the first place. A dirty look here, a scoff there. It was unsettling every time. She wanted to go up to the people who were acting that way and ask what was wrong, why they felt the need to turn the other direction when they saw them in the store aisle.
As much as she wanted to confront and ask them, deep down, she already knew the answer she might get.
Even though they had driven there legally from their home in Winnipeg, to others, the Latino family travelling in a city not too far from the Mexico-United States border probably seemed like they had come from the south, and not so legally.
Julissa and her family had travelled to the United States many times before, but this trip felt different. The racism was there before, but during this trip, it felt more real. People would groan or roll their eyes at the sight of the Latin American family. On one occasion Julissa heard someone mutter under their breath,“Mexican assholes.”
Welcome to Trump’s America, she thought.
Julissa wasn’t going to let those little things affect her enjoyment of a trip she’d been looking forward to for months. Julissa’s mom was with her sister and her mother — their first time seeing each other in a few years. Julissa could see how happy it made her mom, and she wanted to be happy and enjoy her time there with her family. This was going to be fun — a nice day at the beach.
An hour later, Karen, her mom, gently shook her awake.
“Julissa, we’re here.”
She took out her headphones and adjusted to the bright sun. The hot, humid air hit her as soon as she stepped outside. She looked around and smelled the salty air. The ocean was beautiful.
She took off toward the water, her younger brother Alejandro hot on her heels. The water was calm, peaceful, and refreshing — a welcome relief from the terrible heat. This was exactly what she wanted. She looked at the shore and saw her family there, laughing and enjoying themselves. This was peaceful. This was nice.
And then it happened. Two large parties joined her family — one on each side. Both groups started setting up tents and revving up their ATVs. Julissa could see her family quieting down a bit, wary of the people who had just joined them on the beach. The newcomers quickly got set up and pulled out flags to prop onto their vehicles.
She started to panic. They weren’t American flags or flags representing any other country. These were Confederate flags and flags with Donald Trump’s face with the words “Trump 2020: Keep America Great.” These were the flags of racist ideologies and hateful people. She was nervous. There was an entire beach here, but these people had picked spots close to them, a family of colour.
She and her brother looked at each other, without saying a word, and both jogged toward their family. The Trump supporters started driving, making laps around the family without coming too close. This was a threat, it had to be. Julissa could guess what they were thinking, they didn’t have to say anything.
Get out of here. You’re not wanted.
She couldn’t believe the audacity of these people. This wasn’t a small scoff or an eye-roll, this was bigger. This was clear racism; this was something she had never experienced. If they had the nerve to do something like this, she wondered if it would escalate to something worse. She looked at her family, expecting them to be just as concerned and afraid as she was.
Except they weren’t.
The adults in her family were calm. They had their guard up, that was clear, but her dad and uncle were still talking, laughing quietly about something. Her mom, aunt and grandma continued talking and dressing her baby cousin in his swim trunks. It was like they were oblivious to what was happening around them.
Julissa went up to her dad and asked him why they weren’t packing up and leaving.
“Don’t worry about them,” he said calmly. “They won’t do anything.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” he said smiling. “Not here, not now.”
Her dad’s stoicism was comforting. He didn’t seem afraid or concerned. Perhaps he was putting on a brave face for the sake of his children. They stayed for another hour or so.
Julissa took a deep breath as they pulled out of the beach toward the main road, the flags fading into the horizon.
“Why didn’t we leave as soon as they got there?” Alejandro asked.
Her dad paused before answering the question. He started by telling them two stories. Her grandfather’s immigration story in 1969, and the story of how he and her mother immigrated in 1995.
Oscar Rodriguez Sr., my grandfather, born 1936
Choosing to immigrate was not a decision Oscar Rodriguez Sr. took lightly. Risking so much and leaving everything to start over somewhere else wasn’t going to be a fun and exhilarating adventure. It was a decision full of stress, fear, and sadness. It was knowing he was going to feel the most alone he had ever felt. Every day spent on the other side of the border was a day spent uncertain of where he’d end up by the time the sun was setting. He could be safe and comfortable in bed in whatever small room he was renting, or he could be cold and scared, getting deported and shipped back to square one.
Oscar knew these were the risks, but these were the risks he had to take. Guatemala was home, Guatemala was beautiful, but it was in the middle of a civil war that wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Every day, someone would go missing or a body would be found floating in a river. No one was safe during wartime. This wasn’t the place he wanted to raise his family.
He had to cross the border. He had to try for his family.
Crossing legally was an option, but not an easy one. It could take days, months, or even years to get a visa, and even longer for two people. He and his wife, Alicia, couldn’t wait that long. Their first child was coming soon, and it was only a matter of time until the army came knocking at their door, demanding that Oscar fight in the war.
Crossing Mexico wasn’t too difficult, but it took a bit over a week, longer than he had hoped. He missed his wife, he hated knowing she was pregnant and alone. But she understood. He had to do it, he had to take his shot.
Crossing the Mexico-United States border is a hazy memory. Oscar felt fear, he swam as hard and fast as he could, praying and hoping there wouldn’t be anyone on the other side waiting for him. The water was cold. But somehow, he made it to the other side. He was in the United States.
Oscar Rodriguez Jr., my father, born 1969
Karen was sad, there was no denying it. The whole car ride to the capital had been bittersweet. Oscar Rodriguez Jr. drove while Karen and her mother were talking and laughing for the last time in God only knew how long. The flight was still a day away — it seemed like they had all the time in the world. They had gone to buy sweaters since they were going to Canada in mid-December and knew it would be a little colder than Guatemala. But now they were here in the airport, with their whole lives packed into two big suitcases. They were excited.
They’d talked about doing this for months. Canada was a country full of opportunities — the country where they were going to establish their future family, where their kids would have a childhood and life they could have only dreamed of. Oscar Jr. would finally get to see his mother and siblings again; they had left last year. His dad, though, he hadn’t seen in years. Oscar Sr. had been leaving Guatemala for months at a time trying to get established, but the last time, he had left for good. Oscar Jr. was the only one from his family left in Guatemala, but it was his choice.
Oscar could have gone a year earlier with his mom and siblings, but he had wanted to stay because he had fallen in love. There was no way he would be leaving without Karen, the love of his life. They’d gotten married two years ago, in November 1993. At the time, they didn’t know if they were going to move to Canada or stay in Guatemala.
But now the choice was clear: they were leaving Guatemala. Since Oscar’s family was there already, they would have some help. They both knew some English from school, where they had graduated as accountants.
They quit their jobs, booked the flights, and planned how they would get their Canadian citizenship.
It was a hard decision for Karen to make. Oscar was asking her to leave her entire family behind. She had agreed and was excited. But now they were minutes away from goodbye and the sadness was starting to show.
It was hard seeing them crying and saying farewell. No one knew when they would be back, and it probably wouldn’t be for several years. They walked toward the departures and turned around to say goodbye one last time. Oscar held Karen’s hand as she waved. Slowly, her mom faded into the crowd.
Karen took a deep breath.
“Let’s do this.”
Arriving in Canada was a shock. The thin sweaters they had bought back in Guatemala proved to be no match for the frigid December cold they stepped out to. Luckily, Oscar’s parents had anticipated this and brought them winter coats that were more appropriate for this kind of biting cold.
Seeing them again was wonderful. It was the reunion both Oscars had been excitedly anticipating. Even though Oscar was happy to be with his family, he could see Karen’s sadness. She already missed her own family. The snow emphasized the distance between the two countries.
They got in the car and headed off toward the apartment they were going to share with Oscar’s parents and siblings. This country was nothing like Guatemala. Maybe it was the constant white blanket that covered the buildings and streets or the signs and billboards which featured a language they barely understood. Oscar began to realize just how difficult this was going to be. They were strangers in a strange land. He grabbed Karen’s hand tightly.
No matter what happened, he was with the woman he loved.
Oscar Rodriguez Jr., my father, born 1969
Two years passed and Oscar Jr. and Karen were Canadian residents. Despite this accomplishment, there were still challenges in the couple’s way.
Karen was pregnant. Their first child was due soon, in August, and Oscar couldn’t have been more excited. But as excited as he was, he was equally nervous.
It was harder to find a job than he thought it would be. They were living on social assistance and getting by on $300 a month. It was barely enough for the two of them, Oscar couldn’t imagine what it would be like when their child came into the world in a few months.
He knew he had to find a job and fast. They were going to school to improve their English. It turns out the education they’d received in Guatemala hadn’t been the best, to put it kindly.
The culture shock was a big thing to get used to as well. For the most part, Canadians had proven themselves to be good and kind people. Most were courteous and understanding of the fact they were new in this country.
But there had been some encounters that made them feel like they were aliens from a planet far away. There had been one time when Karen and Oscar had bussed to a pharmacy to get a medication she needed. Their English was still bad, and the pharmacist was not having it.
The pharmacist started asking them hard questions, things other pharmacists had never asked them before. They were caught off guard, and he wasn’t trying to help them understand. Instead, he started yelling at them, yelling obscenities Oscar did understand. He didn’t know what to do or what to say. They just needed this prescription filled. This guy wasn’t about to make it easy for them.
Luckily, some other shoppers stepped in and calmed the pharmacist down. They were able to help them get what they needed, but the encounter stung deep.
They bussed back to the apartment and Oscar sat down wondering what he had done. Karen was trying to be strong, but the situation had left her just as shaken. He’d brought her to a place where they clearly weren’t wanted. He’d unnecessarily made their lives more difficult than they had to be. He hugged his wife and went to the washroom.
Oscar cried. He didn’t know what they were going to do, this was all so much harder than he thought it was going to be.
Earlier that week he had called their social worker and explained their case to him. Oscar asked him for a bit more money so they could afford a second bus pass for Karen. The bus had become vital for both of them and it was getting harder to get from one place to another together with just one pass. Their social worker apologized and told Oscar there was nothing he could do for them; he was already doing the most he could. Oscar hung up the phone, feeling defeated.
All they wanted was to have a good life, to be able to build a good future for their family. They didn’t want to intrude or take anything away from anyone. They loved so much about this country, but right now Oscar felt like people living here wanted them to go back to where they’d come from.
Would they have been better off if they’d stayed in Guatemala? Was he just dooming his family by coming here and thinking they could start a life?
No, he thought to himself. He had to snap out of this. They were strong, they had come so far in these two years and were making progress. Slowly but surely, they would be okay. They would endure until the end.
They were receiving help at a program that taught immigrants how to write resumes and adapt to Canadian life. Oscar’s favourite part was using the computer lab.
Back in Guatemala, Oscar had a job where he handled computers. He learned their ins and outs and he knew how to put one together from a bunch of parts.
One day while working in the lab, he noticed a pile of old computers in the corner. He walked over and examined them.
“They’re broken, we can’t use those,” his supervisor told him when she saw him looking.
“Could I have a look at them?” Oscar asked. “I worked with computers in Guatemala.”
His supervisor told him he could, and he excitedly set off. He hadn’t touched a computer since his job back home, but it felt like riding a bike. This was a language he could understand in both countries without any help. Before he knew it, he’d assembled three fully functioning computers from the scrap heap in the corner.
His supervisor was blown away. After that, whenever a computer would break down or encounter even a minor glitch, his supervisor would come to him for help.
“Can you fix it?” she would ask him.
Most of the time they were easy fixes and he’d be able to get it back up and running within the hour, which delighted the people running the program. A couple of weeks later, his supervisor called him to her office. She thanked him for all his work and gave Oscar an envelope.
Oscar opened it and felt his legs go numb. It was a cheque for $100.
This was the first money he had earned in Canada. After a few days, he got a call from the social worker. He told Oscar they were going to give them more money to buy the second bus pass. Word had gotten to him about the work they were doing at the program. Things were finally looking up. All he needed was a job.
Oscar prayed every night, hoping to get some good news. A couple of months later, the good news came.
The 1999 Pan American Games were coming to Winnipeg and they were looking for volunteers. Oscar and Karen both wanted to take the opportunity, but Karen was too far along in her pregnancy. The volunteer position eventually became a job in the systems department, a position Oscar was ecstatic to get. He couldn’t believe the experience and education he’d received in Guatemala had led him to a job many years later in Canada.
Eventually, their son was born. They named him Oscar Rodriguez III, after his father and grandfather. They were financially stable enough to be independent from social assistance. After the Pan Am Games came to a close, he was offered a job at an insurance company in the systems department. In 2000, Julissa, their daughter was born, and they moved into their very own house.
They became Canadian citizens.
Julissa Rodriguez (born 2000)
Julissa always knew her parents had a hard time immigrating, but she never knew exactly what it took. She knew her family had been one of the lucky ones. Many immigrant families don’t get half the opportunities hers had. She’d seen the stories on the news of families being forcibly separated, kids crying as their parents were dragged away from them.
As her dad finished telling the story, he took a beat and then spoke again:
“We are immigrants, but that doesn’t make us any less than anyone else. You are first-generation Canadians, but you’re the children of proud Guatemalan immigrants. Don’t ever forget that. We have fought and worked for our place in the world, just like everyone else has. Our skin might be a different colour and our language may be different as well, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are all human. We are not aliens. We are people.”