When I found out about the bombing in Boston, I was winding down a weeklong trip through West Texas with my mother. We had come to West Texas after a long winter of East Coast disasters and tragedies still fresh in our minds and spent hours driving through the vast expanse of the Chihuahuan desert. The bombing drove home the fact that we didn’t necessarily ever want to come back, and that places like Alpine and Terlingua, Texas, just seemed so far removed from any kind of mass destruction.
We drove as far south as the Rio Grande, through checkpoints meant to catch illegal immigrants, and to Big Bend National Park,
named, aptly, “The Other Side of Nowhere.” Dotting the desolate landscape were signs that warned us not to engage with “Mexican nationals” as they might try to sell us small trinkets or crafts. Making a purchase or donation would compel them to cross the river, a crime; they would be arrested and sent 100 miles away to an Immigration and Naturalization Service holding facility in Presidio. I stood by the banks of the Rio Grande, staring at the Texas side and the Mexico side, both nearly identical, and thought about the people who used to cross freely on horseback, on foot, across land that was now divided by an invisible fence and threat of prison and deportation.
We came upon a Mexican national, singing melancholy songs on the other side of the river, and we found his donation jar with its English scrawl, asking for donations for “Jesus” on our side. We also came upon a couple on our side who snidely told us he’d probably “take us on a ride on his little boat for $2.” They stared at him with what I could only call derision as he stood in rolled up jeans and a cowboy hat, his songs echoing through the canyon. My mother started pulling for her wallet out of anger and compassion. “We are immigrants, too,” she said. “They don’t understand what it’s like to desperately want to come here. What it’s like to be poor.”
I told her to put her purse away, that we would get in trouble. I told her that he would be deported and she would cause more damage to him by getting him sent 100 miles away than helping him with her $2. I was embarrassed just saying it. It turned out that we didn’t really have a choice because two rangers came upon the scene and the man stopped singing and hid behind the bushes on the other riverbank.
The Rio Grande is not deep. In fact, you can walk across it in many parts of the park. An American couple made a show of easily walking across it in Santa Elena Canyon and declaring that they were now in Mexico. No rangers came. I stared at them and thought about how the border walls had been shored up in cities, where immigrants had traditionally slipped through, and now they were coming into America through vast border deserts like the one I was standing in. In 2011, 368 bodies of migrants attempting to cross the border were found in the desert that lines the American-Mexican border. How many more are missing?
We escaped Poland in 1981 at night with only a few suitcases, our most important papers sewn into the lining: my parents’ diplomas from the polytechnic, our birth certificates. If we had been caught, we would have been sent back and watched. We had given up a dog, contact with our family, and everything we knew to escape to a better life.
A better life is such an abstract term. We didn’t even know where we were going. Just somewhere else. Somewhere without Communism. We waited in a small refugee camp outside of Vienna for a country to take us.
We made it to America on September 26, 1981.
Our better life started in a small cockroach-infested apartment on the side of a highway in San Antonio, Texas. My mother’s homesickness was unbearable, and we almost went back to Poland. What some may not understand is that this pursuit of a better life breaks you. My mother sometimes says, “Immigration is not for everyone.” On our trip through West Texas, we talked a lot about our experiences, about the impact it had had on each member of our family. It broke each of us in a different way.
There are two kinds of immigrants. One dreams of going home one day and is just biding their time in their adopted country. The other kills any remnants of home and embraces their adopted country with fervor. Both strategies are a matter of survival. Which one makes a stronger immigrant? I don’t know. We chose to only speak English at home, proudly adorning ourselves with the American flag on T-shirts, on hats, on anything we could find. We embraced assimilation.
My parents and I were recently talking about recurring nightmares. They both said the only recurring nightmare they ever had was about going back to Poland and being trapped there without a passport, unable to escape. Trapped in their homeland. Neither knew that the other had been dreaming the same nightmare or that they stopped the year the Berlin Wall fell. It’s strange to think about their friends who came here around the same time, all dreaming of going back to Poland to retire and live out the rest of their days. My parents often ask what all this pain was for if they’re just going to go back.
I often wonder what kind of person I would be if we had been the other kind of immigrant. If I had spent more time in Poland after we left, felt like less of a tourist there, if I’d had a better sense of where I came from. I inherited my survival instincts from my parents, but I also inherited their sense of dislocation, a certain kind of homelessness that makes me indifferent to wherever I am, perhaps as a matter of survival. How does being the other kind of immigrant, the one who straddles two different worlds equally, affect someone?
We waited for the authorities to put a face to the Boston bombers like everyone else. Two immigrants did it. But why? America had embraced them. One of the brothers, Dzhokhar, was even naturalized. He was one of us, until he wasn’t. He was Americanized, a purported pot smoker, a regular label-wearing kid. His brother seemed to straddle two worlds. Their uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, called them losers, unable to properly assimilate as Americans, unable to grasp the elusive better life here. While Dzhokhar was in school, striving for the American dream, his brother Tamerlan had been unable to achieve it. As the media tries to piece together who these people were, “facts” were thrown around. They had lived in a small apartment with multiple people. Their parents had left them here and gone to Russia. Their mother had been caught stealing at Lord and Taylor and escaped back to her country to avoid the law. They were angry because they could not achieve the American dream. They were losers who could not assimilate properly.
I went cold. I had recently written a book about a young immigrant girl who, for all intents and purposes, was a loser who couldn’t assimilate properly. My character is so rudderless and angry that she perpetrates a senseless act of violence against a city. And here it was staring back at me in real time, no longer fiction. Lost immigrant children. The 1.5 generation gone awry. It was chilling to look at, and I felt a sense of loss and sadness. They were not much different from me, except that their parents chose to be the other kind of immigrant, the ones with a foot strongly planted in their homeland, so much so that they couldn’t survive here and had to return. The case is still evolving, but we may never understand the tangible, quantifiable cause for this heinous act.
With immigrants still coming to America, and the dream of a better life eroding, I can’t help but feel a sense of desperation. I can’t help but hear my mother’s words over and over again: “Immigration is not for everyone.”
In my house, we often heard stories of immigrant children whose parents straddled two worlds too dangerously, confusing their children, who were desperately trying to put down roots, pledge allegiance to a homeland. These cautionary tales ended with depression, suicide, and now, mass murder. Losing your homeland is almost like losing an appendage. The phantom ache sometimes becomes too much to bear. The feeling of dislocation all-consuming. But still we keep coming, looking for a better life, hoping the pursuit does not break us beyond repair.
Rumpus original art by Xavier Almeida.