Arizona Republic
August 11, 2006

Author: Mary Sanchez, Kansas City Star

My father was born a Mexican. He died an American.

His journey between those two worlds lasted 85 years and often included more painful times than happy. Stories like his need to be heard. Thankfully, the Mexican government is listening.

The first Writing Contest of Migrant Stories asks Mexicans or their descendents to tell their tales of immigration to the United States. They want nuanced, honest accounts, exploring issues often missed. The stories are to be written in Spanish, but perhaps someone will offer translated versions so more North Americans could read as well.

For all the talk about immigration lately, mostly about illegal immigration, the truth of what it does to families is often missed.

I know few immigrant families who do not retain some scars from the path of immigration. Even our most positive beliefs about immigrants have an underbelly that is less attractive.

Take the idea that immigrants are hard workers. Generally this is true, and it is the main reason most people immigrate. But what is family life like in a home where the parents are working two and three jobs?

Close-knit Latino family? Ever wonder if this is also an extension of co-dependence? Of immigrant parents who never really found their footing in a new land and therefore latched onto their children in ways that distort a healthy adult-to-child relationship?

At more than 40 million people, the growing Latino population is a huge demographic shift for this country. Of course people are fearful of the changes. And yes, any new immigrant group -- legal and illegal -- bring costs and benefits.

But as much as we need to address our immigration quandaries, an unhealthy tone is being set in this country.

There is a human toll to our get-tough dialogue that demonizes an ethnic group but offers no solutions to the very real problem of too many low-wage workers exploited as so much expendable human capital. Often lost in the conversation is that the vast majority of Latinos are legally in the country, if not U.S.-born citizens.

My father never felt like he fit into this land. Not even after earning his U.S. citizenship by serving in World War II. Had he been of stronger character, maybe had more positive role models, he might have felt differently.

But the first significant lie my father ever told was at the age of 8. He was an elementary school student starting school in Kansas City, Kan. I have a copy of the blueprints to that school, long torn down. The room for the Mexican children was in the basement, next to the coal room. The Anglo students were taught upstairs.

My father pretended to speak more English than he did so he could go upstairs.

The lie was the beginning of a life with a conflicted self-identity. He also lived through tough economic times, when Mexicans, some of them U.S.
citizens, were rounded up and sent back across the southern border.

My father came to believe that identifying as a Mexican would hurt his chances for success in life. The conclusion was not crazy, but it also was not healthy for his soul.

The ramifications of not handling the Latino demographic shift well will haunt the United States for decades to come. The toll is paid by society, in split communities and in public policies that don't really serve the public.
But the price is paid first by families.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo.
64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez(