July 3, 2003

Why we celebrate the Fourth of July

On June 23, 2003, Alva Monsalvo won the Second Annual Essay Competition, sponsored by the Immigration Museum of New Americans. All 33 essays entered in this competition reflected the hopes and dreams of families coming to the United States. Immigrants from all over the world see America as the land of the free and the opportunity to achieve their dreams.

For many American citizens we have come to take for granted our rights and freedoms and have come to enjoy the Fourth of July weekend as a weekend of fireworks and barbecues. In Alva Monsalvo’s essay we are reminded of the struggle and courage it takes to achieve freedom, and the hope and promise that America holds for its people. It also reminds us of why we celebrate the Fourth of July.

Family History Essay

By Alva Monsalvo
Ninth Grader, Preuss Charter School, UCSD

If I am alive and breathing today, it is because of Hope. The following story may sound like a fairy tale to you. Perhaps it is because of its “Once upon a time” beginning and its happy ending but I can assure you that the events that happened were very real. There’s no easy way for me to tell you what my grandmother went through immigrating to the U.S. but I will begin by telling you that my grandmother’s real name was Maria. Her life was just like any ordinary life with its waves of difficulties and happiness. She lived in Guadalajara Jalisco with Christina (her mother), Diego (her father) and her older sister Laura. Diego owned a small farm in the outskirts of Guadalajara. Everyday Maria and Laura would go through their daily routine of feeding the noisy chickens, milking the gentle cows, fixing the golden haystacks and occasionally helping their father with the corn crops. Diego didn’t like them to go into the stalks because he was terrified that they would get lost in a labyrinthine of tall corn. This happened once with Maria when she was eight years old. She was lost in the corn stalks from the brisk morning until evening because she was looking for their sheep dog “Travieso” who happened to be hiding under a stack of hay all along. Even though Maria insisted that they should be allowed to help their father out in the stalks since they couldn’t go to school, Diego preferred to keep the girls out of his work. Maria and Laura could only dream about school in secret. If they ever told their parents that they wanted to go to school, their parents would simply tell them to stop bothering them. One time when Maria and Laura were going to sleep, Maria decided to ask her father on the other side of the extremely thin wall to let her go to school. She had everything thought out from her beginning statement to her last argument. Around midnight while silently coaching herself to remain calm, she worked up the bit of courage she had in her to ask; her father was just getting into bed. “Daddy?” she whispered. “Eh?” he answered annoyed. “Why don’t you pay for me and Laura to go to school and when we get a career we’ll pay you back every dime you give us?” Her palms were sweaty underneath the warm cotton covers. She strained her ears to listen closely to whether her father was considering her idea. All that she got in return was a tired and raspy voice yelling at her “Stop bothering me you annoying child and go to sleep!” That was the end of their discussion. Underneath the covers Laura nudged her little sister and whispered in her ear, “Stop bugging people about going to school. You know that we weren’t meant for it! We are never going to go because we’re not smart enough.” Maria turned her back to her sister and stared at the moonlight pouring through the small cracks in their wooden bedroom. She cried silently to herself replaying the words of Laura and Diego in her head. After that day, she never asked about going to school ever again but she had hope that someday her dream would come true if she wished hard enough. Maria’s parents couldn’t understand why she wanted to go to school so badly and they knew that it was something they could never afford.

It was around this time that Diego began having trouble with the family economy. During September, an infestation of large grasshoppers swept the land and took many of Diego’s crops. Laura and Maria saw the huge black cloud of flying grasshoppers coming towards them. They ran into the house screaming about a loud hurricane coming their way. Soon Diego realized that the infestation was here to eat his crops. He ran out to the corn stalks and told the girls to help him load as much corn into wooden carts. The girls ran out and began picking as much corn as they could. Maria was only 12 years old and she couldn’t reach the corn on the tall stalks. Laura, who was 15, was yanking off the corn as hard as she could and running to put it in the carts. Both Diego and Laura were too busy to realize that Maria was going deeper into the stalks. The only thing that worried them was the loud sound of Grasshoppers beginning to crunch away at the sweet golden corn nuggets. The grasshoppers rubbed their stringy legs making a loud high pitched sound and ate the corn hoping that they wouldn’t be squashed by the other insects. Maria was also aware of the loud chirping sounds but she was still trying to reach the stalks when she realized that she could no longer see the house. The chirping grew louder as the Grasshoppers came closer and drowned Maria’s voice from calling her dad. She sat down on the grassy ground, tears streaming down her dirty face leaving muddy trails, wondering if the insects would eat her too. The grasshoppers moved in and began attacking her but suddenly she felt that she was flying along with the skeletal bodies of grasshoppers. Maria fainted as a grasshopper landed on her face and began to pear into her mouth. The next thing she knew, she was lying on her bed. She awoke to the sounds of weeping. At first Maria thought it was herself crying from the pain she felt all over but when she opened her eyes she discovered her mother in a corner of the room crying. Diego was nowhere in sight but Laura was carefully washing the bloody scrapes on her body with a warm rag. “Mommy? What’s wrong what happened?” Maria shook off her sister to give her mother attention. Christina ran over to her side and wrapped her arms around Maria “I’m so sorry mija! I shouldn’t have let you go in there. What was I thinking? This is all my fault!” Christina repeated the sentences for a few minutes, backed away and looked at Maria. It was then that Maria noticed that there was a purplish black circle on the side of mothers cheek as well as other marks and scratches. “Did you bring me here?” Maria asked, “No ...Laura did. Thank goodness you can cry so loud, otherwise Laura would have never found you.” As Christina smiled her lips began to part and bleed. Christina stood up and went to the sink. “How come mom looks so awful?” she asked Laura. “It’s none of your business so keep your snooty little nose out of where it doesn’t belong okay,” Laura snapped. Maria knew that something was going on; she was wondering where her father was and why he was out at midnight.

Maria was right; something was very wrong. That night her father had gotten so furious that Maria was lost so he decided to blame Christina. When Christina protested he began hitting her. Only when Laura came home having retrieved Maria from the corn stalk did Diego leave the house. The next day they discovered that he had been at the bar drinking liquor. One of his friends spotted him lying helplessly on the ground and took him home to them. Diego was irritable all day, yelling at the girls for any little noise that they made and giving his wife cruel looks. He kept screaming about how everything was gone, there was nothing left for them, no one cared about how hard he worked for them, how they were all going to die because there was no more money and other insane ideas. Maria and Laura stayed away from him in the corner of the barn as they heard yelling inside the house. The girls would flinch every time they heard something break, glass fall on the ground or a cry for more beer. After it got quieter, they would slip inside and try to sleep. Diego was not the only problem; soon Christina also began smoking drugs to keep her mind free from stress. The problems got worse after two years. Their parents not only fought but Diego often abused Christina physically and hit her constantly on the face, stomach and back. The two girls had to go to their aunt Lillian’s house and beg her for food when it would run out at their house. Lillian grew restless of seeing her sister suffering and watching her being abused. It was near the cold days of December that Christina died. She was a pale, purple-bluish color, cold and utterly disfigured from all of beatings received by Diego. Laura said that she watched her mother commit suicide by slitting her wrists. Laura tried to stop her but she was already too late so she went to Lillian’s house to get Maria. When they returned they found Diego’s body lying on the floor. He had passed out from the liquor. Christina’s body was sprawled over their matrimonial bed. She reeked of liquor and blood. Her body was hideous and there was blood staining the white cotton sheets. Her skeleton was already visible from underneath her skin because she had been starved. Maria and Laura cried silently as not to disturb Diego’s sleeping. In the land where the golden corn stalks used to grow the girls digged their mother’s grave in rich brown fertile soil. The morning was cool and the golden yolk in the sky hid its face behind the thick gray fog.

After their mother’s death, Diego didn’t have much to do so he would spend most of his day at a “cantina” or a bar until he would pass out or until one of his friends would bring him home. Laura and Maria tried to stay out of his way as to avoid the same fate of their mother; sometimes Diego would find them hiding and would burst out with anger. He would complain about the dirty house and how no one except for himself did anything. Sometimes he would even beat Laura who was seventeen. Laura and Christian shared a resemblance so Diego would often confuse her with his dead wife and beat her very badly wailing about Christina haunting him for the rest of his life. This continued for about a month. Laura came to a point where she couldn’t handle it anymore. During the night, she told her sister that she was thinking about running away from home. “Run away! And go where? We have no where else to go!” Maria became frightened of the idea automatically. “Where are we going to get food? We don’t have any shoes and we can barely fit into our clothes. This is crazy!” Laura knew that their trip would not be easy but she knew it was the right thing to do and she was going to take her sister with her. “One word Maria... America.” Maria savored the word as she would a treat that she should not be enjoying. Maria understood that they needed to leave if they wanted to live “How are we going to get there?” she asked. “We are going to follow the railroad tracks which will lead us to the border. If we can, we’ll steal from the railroad cars that carry bread in order to eat just like the mice. I know we can find some help once we are over there; we just need to have hope and pray that we get there safely.” Diego was unaware of their plans and usually stayed out of the house. It only took two days for the girls to prepare. They armed themselves with courage, strength and hope. On Friday, they abandoned their wooden house and ran to the railroad station.

It took them eight months to reach the border. Everyday they would follow the railroad tracks and eat fruit that they would find on trees. Laura and Maria were very thin; sometimes they had to go to sleep with acid turning in their stomachs. Occasionally though, they would find a train loaded with bread loafs, cheese and other types of food. Maria never gave up hope that they would reach the border. When her sister would fall asleep, crying to herself on the cold cement Maria would hug her and encourage her sister to persevere, “It’s only for a little while Laura. Think of all the wonderful things that are waiting for us in America. Our humble clothes will transform into elegant dresses and we’ll finally be able to go to school. I know we’re almost there Laura... I can feel it.” There were many dangerous threats they had to face such as gangs, “pandillas” and wolves. A perverted man even tried raping Laura. Maria hit him helplessly trying to get him off her. Laura screamed at the top of her lungs. Luckily, a train was passing by at that moment and the conductor shot the man on the leg. The man struggled to get up and stab Laura with a knife but he fell back and stayed there struggling. He asked the girls what they were doing all by themselves in the dark night. When they told the conductor their story, he offered them a free ride. “We’re almost at America anyway so come on in. I don’t want you two getting hurt. There are many freaks like that guy around here so you have to watch out. I’m going to have to leave crossing the border up to you guys because I know it’s a very dangerous situation. I hope you two make it.”

The conductor dropped them off in a small village, said goodbye to the girls and gave them directions to a friend of him in America. “She’s a good person. She’ll help you two.” Laura and Maria were thrilled to be so close to their dreams. “We’re going to make it Maria! We’re almost there.” The girls ventured off alone once more. By nightfall, they were exhausted. They decided to fall asleep on some tall grass and continue their journey tomorrow. “Look at all the beautiful stars Laura. God is smiling at us isn’t he? I can see it in the shape of the moon. It looks like a smile.” All of a sudden, a gunshot interrupted their conversation. Laura looked at Maria through the darkness. “Shhhh...” the girls breathed as silently as they could. “Who’s out there? This is the Migra! Who’s out there?” They heard the dogs barking and growling violently. There were five of them, “Maria! We have to move, we have to make it to the other side otherwise they’ll kill us. We stay together okay! Run!” The girls crouched low under the grass and began crawling as fast as they could towards the border. The Migra was coming at them from the side. Dogs were barking and guns began to fire. “Stupid Mexicans! Go back to where you belong! Or we’ll kill you.” The guns fired in their direction and during the shooting Laura was hit. “Laura!” Maria ran to her sister who was crumpled on the ground. The tall grass hid them for a moment. The dogs attacked a small animal that was near the Migra and the Migra began to laugh, “It’s just a raccoon!” They howled. “Laura! Look at me, are you okay? can you make it? Oh God help me, please help me!” Laura was shot in her back. The bullet went through her body and out through the side of her stomach. “Maria! Listen to me. I’m not going to make it. I’m going to die right here.” “No, you’re not Laura, don’t do this to me!” Maria whispered. “You have to believe me. Listen and be quiet. I know we’ve been through a lot together and I’m going to miss you. That day that I told you about my plan, I vowed to bring you to America and I asked God that he would take you safely to your dreams at the cost of my life. He granted my wish... You were my hope Maria... I did it all for you Es-per-an...za.” Laura choked out the last words and a well of tears poured inside Maria. “I love you Laura.” She bit into her lips to keep her from screaming and sobbed silently. Then she stood up and ran as fast as she could to her dreams and vowed never to forget Laura’s wish.

Amazingly, this story does have a happy ending. My grandmother met the woman that the conductor recommended. Her name was Rosio and she was Christian from a Church called The Light of the World. This is how Christianity became involved. Maria changed her name to Esperanza or Hope. She was baptized in this church and became a member. Rosio was a wonderful person who grew to love Esperanza very much and she took good care of her during the first few years. Esperanza accomplished her dream and went to school for a while in order to learn about the different people in America. Maria was 14 when she reached the United States. She married Jesus Cortez at 20 and gave birth to my father a year later. My father married my mother and that’s how I came to be. My life makes my grandmother satisfied and she says she doesn’t regret coming to America because here dreams came true.

The Immigration Museum of New Americans Post WWII is dedicated to modern-day immigrants, celebrates the courage and resourcefulness of migrants to the United States, documenting their history, diversity, and contributions by way of global communications never before possible. For more information visit their web site at: www.immigrationmuseumofnewamericans.org.

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