Adrian Alvarez legally immigrated to the United States in 1982, and although he came here in search of a better life for his family, he came here alone.
His wife, Reyna, and two sons remained behind in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. They joined him three years later.
It is a story played over and over in immigrant families across the country, says Miguel Alvarez, their third son.
“It was a relief for my parents, definitely, and very good for their children,” Miguel says, describing the move. “I believe I would not have the same opportunities had my parents stayed in Mexico.”
The Alvarez family moved to Little Village, a predominately Hispanic suburb of Chicago that is home to almost 20,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
The Pew Research Center reported in July that nearly 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States in 2014, making up 3.5 percent of the nation’s population. The center estimates that undocumented Mexican immigrants make up about half of this number.
A report compiled by the Migration Policy Institute estimates that as many as 55,000 people, or 42 percent of immigrants, in Arkansas were unauthorized in 2010, making up 2 percent of the state’s total population.
Miguel says he understands why many come to the U.S., even if they do so illegally.
Living in America, his parents had stable jobs, family connections and better opportunities for their children, he says. Their two sons were happy, healthy and getting an education.
The couple became American citizens and eventually moved to De Queen in 2005. Their first two sons, also now American citizens, stayed in Chicago. One is a police officer; the other is an accountant.
Miguel says he is proud of his family’s story.
“My parents are first-generation immigrants, and they are great contributors to society,” the University of Arkansas at Little Rock senior says. “My Dad always has told me there is no such thing as never being able to find work. You always have to put food on the table.”
Mexican immigrant families, like the Alvarezes, and other Hispanic families, will celebrate their family and cultural history during National Hispanic Heritage month, which began this week.
A recognition of Hispanic culture, history and contributions, the annual celebration started Sept. 15, the anniversary of the independence of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The month culminates Oct. 15.
“I think it is important to highlight some of the contributions that many Hispanics have made toward this country and in general, for example, Cesar Chavez, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, to name a few,” Miguel says. “By recognizing these great people of Hispanic heritage, it can inspire the young Hispanic population.”
Little Rock may be a long 750 miles from the Mexican border, but for first-generation immigrant Jaime Atilano, home is where the kitchen is.
The chef is the owner and operator of the four area Las Palmas Mexican Restaurants and serves dishes he calls “joyful food.”
“The food is something different — authentic Mexican,” he says with help of a translator, his brother Luis. “Americans aren’t used to authentic food so much, so we changed it up a little. But it is authentic.”
Atilano explained that traditional foods such as lengua, or beef tongue, may not be something Americans are used to. So while he serves authentic Mexican eats, they have been tailored to local stomachs and taste buds.
“People aren’t used to traditional-traditional,” he says.
Atilano immigrated to the U.S. in 1987. The first Las Palmas, which opened in October 1997, has been serving “happy, tropical” Mexican dishes ever since, he says.
The restaurant serves traditional foods such as carne asada and coctel de camaron, as well as Tex-Mex favorites like fajitas. The fusion of both American tastes and Mexican tradition has worked well for Atilano, he says, and keeps his customers returning.
“I think the best thing about our culture is the food,” Miguel says. “I think that’s why America has adopted it and created a version of its own called ‘Tex-Mex,’ which is really good food, but I am glad Little Rock has some authentic Mexican restaurants, as well.”
For Hispanics and Latinos, food is more than just a business.
Sharing food is an integral part of the culture, says 20-year-old student Sandra Carmona Garcia.
Born in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, the UALR junior says she loves everything about her culture, from history and traditions to music and celebrations. No special occasion is needed to get together, and no party is complete without friends and family sharing food, she says.
“I embrace the fact that we take advantage of any situation to celebrate,” she says. “What I adore the most is the fact that we don’t need fancy food or most concepts of a party. All we need is food, music, beer and the company of the friends that have become family.”
It’s a family Atilano says he’s found in his patrons.
“My American clientele loves the food,” he says. “I am very grateful to the American community that I have been treated like family. They have supported us for 20 years. I hope the next generations will go the same way.”
Miguel learned English in a Chicago Public Schools bilingual program.
Although born in the U.S., the 27-year-old spoke only Spanish when he started elementary school. It wasn’t until third grade that he studied his second language.
“We spoke Spanish at home growing up. So when I went to school, I had to start by learning to read and write in Spanish, then learn English,” he says. “It was fourth or fifth grade before I was in a class of all English-speakers.”
More than 12 percent of students enrolled in the Little Rock School District are Hispanic or Latino, and up to half of these students are designated English Language Learners.
For schools like Baseline Elementary, almost 50 percent of the total student population is considered English Language Learning, says Karen Broadnax, director of ESL/Multilingual Services for the district.
An academically distressed school, Baseline reported a literacy rate of only 42.02 percent in 2014.
Due to the high percentage of non-English speaking students, the school faces unique challenges in teaching these students how to communicate in the American classroom, she says.
English Language Learners can take anywhere from seven to 10 years to be at the same level of native English-speaking peers who are academically proficient, Broadnax says.
“English Learners need time and intense language development opportunities to reach full academic language proficiency,” she says.
Success in language learning for students in the district rests in engaging with each individual involved in the learning process, she says. Students, teachers, parents, community members and district personnel must work in tandem to meet the needs of the population.
“Baseline is the first elementary school where we have intensified the effort to provide a schoolwide focus on improving instruction for all learners, especially in this target group,” she says.
Broadnax also explains that language barriers exist well beyond the scope of the school.
Without the ability to converse fully, parents and administrators are unable to discuss particulars such as requirements for immunizations, cultural expectations, family concerns and financial needs, she says. Even preparing a child for the classroom can be a struggle.
“Within the Latino culture, speaking up and interacting in classrooms with other students and the teacher are not the norm,” Broadnax says. “Parents will tell their children to go to school, listen to the teacher and to be quiet. Our expectations are that students will talk to each other, interact with their teachers and develop their speaking skills as part of the process for learning.
“So we have to educate parents that it is quite acceptable for students to speak during school and that we need them to speak to develop those skills as part of developing literacy.”
This is a struggle Carmona Garcia knows all too well.
“Regardless of the materialistic things they are able to give their kids, parents [of first-generation students] are not able to stay involved in what really matters, which is their kids’ education,” she says. “They are not able to because they do not understand the school’s system and mainly because they are unable to communicate with the school faculty to see how their kids are doing.”
Atilano says not speaking much English is a barrier he is still trying to overcome.
“I have had classes in English, but with the work schedule, it is a little hard. We rely on others, whose English language has come a little easier,” he says, referring to his brother.
“It’s the language,” Luis adds. “It’s truly our largest barrier.”
DISPELLING THE MYTHS
Terry Trevino-Richard understands some of the struggles his first- and second-generation immigrant students face.
The UALR professor of sociology, who has Mexican descent, grew up in what he called a conglomeration of English, Spanish and French.
His paternal side of the family is Cajun and only spoke French to him while he grew up. His Spanish-speaking grandparents “caused real confusion” for the young boy, who employed a form of Spanglish and Frencheese to get by, he says.
“It was pretty stressful for us,” he says.
But perhaps what was more stressful, he adds, was limiting these languages to the home.
“Underlying racial tensions and prejudices made me want to hide my ethnic heritage,” he says. “English-only restrictions made even wanting to speak Spanish seem somehow un-American.”
Trevino-Richard says he feels there is a growing anti-immigration hostility in America not limited to language.
And he’s not alone.
Miguel says he feels there is a resounding negative image of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants, particularly with the association of drug cartel back in their native lands.
“Drug cartels are not part of our culture,” he says. “It has become a harsh alternative business that Latin Americans turn to in an attempt to escape poverty.”
He says Hispanic and Latino immigrants work hard to dispel this association.
“We are not all drug dealers, criminals or rapists,” Carmona Garcia says. “We are hardworking people that, just like any other person in any culture or race, want to succeed in life and make something of ourselves.”
THE UNDOCUMENTED STRUGGLE
In November 2014, President Barack Obama expanded deportation relief to almost half of the total unauthorized immigrant population. Those previously ineligible for programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status can now find relief.
“If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes — you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation,” Obama said at the time. “You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals allows individuals who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 to be considered for Deferred Action for a period of two years, subject to renewal, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Approved applicants are also eligible for work authorization. Deferred Action does not, however, provide lawful status or offer citizenship.
Miguel, a volunteer with Arkansas United Community Coalition, has seen firsthand the struggles facing undocumented children and adults.
“[The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] is only a temporary program that is dependent of the executive branch of government,” he explains. “It is almost impossible for an undocumented youth who was brought to the U.S. as a child by their parents to become a citizen.”
“The process is very complicated,” he continues. “Overwhelming.”
Applying for Deferred Action is also expensive, he says. Application fees are $465 and do not include fees garnered from procuring documents such as transcripts, identification cards and official records. The fee also doesn’t include a lawyer.
“A lawyer is often needed to help file the paperwork,” Miguel says. “And that can get very expensive.”
Once granted Deferred Action, an immigrant may apply for identification, such as a driver’s license, enroll in school and apply for jobs.
Individuals receiving Deferred Action status may not be eligible for a Social Security number. And although allowed to attend college, Deferred Action students cannot receive federal financial aid.
“And there is always a chance it will not be renewed,” Miguel says.
But deportation is not the only fear facing undocumented immigrants. They may fall victim to crime and feel they are unable to report it, Carmona Garcia says.
“The biggest barrier is living in the shadows,” Carmona Garcia says. “Many come into this country undocumented and live thinking that they [do not have] any rights. They become easy targets because the criminals are aware that they will not call authorities.”
Sgt. Harold Scratch of the Little Rock Police Department says he urges members of the Hispanic community, documented and undocumented, to come forward anytime they are victimized.
“We are here to help,” he says. “If someone needs police service, we will be there. We are not interested in your status; we just want to provide you with the same service anyone would and should receive from us.”
Scratch says the department has increased recruitment of Latinos and Hispanics to join the Citizens Police Academy. The goal is to be more inclusive, he says, and build trust.
Last year, Little Rock police attended church services and job fairs in predominantly Hispanic communities. They taught classes on how to obtain identification, and led health courses and driving seminars, all to help build a relationship between the police and those who might be fearful of them, he says.
“It is not easy to convince someone to trust the police, especially when they come from a country that is corrupt,” Scratch says. “And deportation is always a fear they have. But trust me, none of us would do anything to be disruptive. It’s not our business. Helping the victim is.”
A LIFE LEFT BEHIND
Atilano was born in La Piedad, Michoacan, a western Mexico city with a population of just under 100,000.
Michoacan is listed among states with the highest crime rate in the country, as high poverty levels and low conviction rates foster criminal behavior, according to the U.S. Department of State.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 6.5 percent of people who immigrated into the U.S. from Mexico were from Michoacan in 2008.
Like many of the nearly 14,000 Latino and Hispanic residents of Little Rock, Atilano moved to the U.S. in search of a better life.
“Where Mexican immigrants come from, the little communities have a lot of poverty,” he says. “We come here for a better opportunity and future for our families.”
But a better life doesn’t mean forgetting the one before.
Atilano says he holds fast to the traditions of his culture, instilling the values and heritage in his children as they navigate American culture.
He admits they often bump heads.
Miguel never lived in Mexico, but he sees how some of his family still struggles there.
“My cousin has an architecture degree, but he works construction because he can’t find a better job,” he says. “I don’t know why it is so hard. And I keep thinking, ‘That could be me.’”
Although thrilled to have the opportunity to go to college, Carmona Garcia still feels pangs of melancholy during the holidays. She says she feels bad for her parents, who sacrificed their culture, language and families to provide a better life for their daughters.
“Unfortunately, most of my cousins are only able to get their elementary school education, and if they are lucky, they make it to middle school,” she says of family still living in Mexico.
Her birth city of Leon is a major tourist and travel destination and, luckily for her family, has been spared much of the violence sweeping through parts of Mexico. But although there is less crime in her hometown, the social realities can be just as daunting.
“Most of the females are pregnant by the age 15,” she says. “It is such a chilling thought.”
For some, the American dream means an education. For others, better jobs.
But although some left the land of their language, history and culture in search of this dream, they never lost sight of what is truly important.
“We are proud of our heritage,” Trevino-Richard says. “But we are blessed to be Americans.”
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