by Manuel Montenegro
There was no single moment of clarity. No shocking revelation. No screaming matches with my mother berating her for keeping it a secret. For as long as I can remember, I always knew I was an undocumented immigrant. My status was as much a part of my life as my family’s daily balancing act on the poverty line. Even my earliest memories as a small child contained the implicit understanding that I was not like everyone else. I existed and yet I did not. I was ghost, desperate to become corporeal.
Contrary to hiding my status from me, my mother was more forthright about this issue than all others. She was an excellent guide, and helped me traverse a childhood littered with daily reminders that I did not belong. She masterfully filled my life with lessons on subtlety, secret, and subterfuge.
“Don’t draw people’s attention.”
“Never talk about your status.”
There are days I fear that her tutelage took well, that a steady diet of deception and silence permanently crippled my ability to ever disclose myself to others.
Navigating this country’s cultural idiosyncrasies, my mother was a beached fish twisting and gasping for breath. But when deciphering the oblique world of living as an undocumented immigrant, my mother swam and thrived in ways that I did not think were possible. What she lacked in English skills and cultural competency she made up for in a fluency for black markets and clandestine dealings. She knew who to talk to. She knew where to go. She knew how to survive in a country that treated her like a tumor. But there was another side to my mother. A recognition that while actively undermining the system, she still had to make certain allowances and compromises.
My mother cleaned hospitals for the initial part of her tenure in this country. She dealt with hospital horrors that I do not dare imagine to this day. The work guaranteed our family health insurance. A deal with the devil. And for a time, she was trapped. She called it “pesado,” or “heavy.” Thinking back now, I think a better translation would be “backbreaking,” a fitting description for a job that literally grinded her down before my eyes with a mixture of grueling work, low-pay, and racism.
There was her overriding directive to stay away from the border, even if that meant turning a fifteen hour drive into a twenty-four hour ordeal. My mother told me to dress well when we flew on airplanes, as if a tattered shirt or a split flip flop would draw the attention of immigration authorities. Later, I realized a very well-dressed Mexican family standing among a sea of casual passengers drew more attention than shorts and a t-shirt ever would.
Eventually, I started building a life upon the foundation of caution my mother carefully laid out. I graduated from college and law school, an unexpected development coming from a single-parent household mired in poverty. I built as much of a life as I could in a country that argued my existence was transient. But I faced burdens that grew from that paperless existence. I demurred and deferred invitations from friends to join them in Mexico for weekend trips; fought with lovers frustrated with my inability to join their families for vacations in foreign countries. Often, I even found myself unable to purchase cold or allergy medicine because of a lack of driver’s license. My mother was an excellent teacher. But even her wisdom and advice were not able to overcome a lack of legal existence.
I recently visited my mother. She called and told me to meet her at a non-descript apartment complex. “Park in the back,” she said. She provided an apartment number and no further explanation, her words dripped in the sort of secrecy I had come to expect.
I parked, knocked, and opened the door. It was a hidden restaurant. A two-bedroom eatery run out of an apartment complex deftly avoiding the watchful eye of management and the city health inspector. I looked at her, I looked at the restaurant, and I sat.
We ordered, ate, and talked.
Two ghosts eating in a restaurant that did not exist.