A high school assignment introduces me to the Mexican family I thought I knew

By Melvin J. Butler II, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Suds dribble down shining silver pans. Chairs gently screech across the kitchen’s shining wood floors. A mop sits in a bucket of cleaning chemicals. Chile, my family’s house cleaner, is at work. The front door alert resonates throughout the house. A man enters. It’s Chile’s husband.

“Chile, ¿estás listo?,” Jose, her husband, asks.

No response. The commotion in the kitchen prevents her from hearing Jose. He lets out a small cough and looks at his watch to make sure he’s come inside at the right time. If the time isn’t right, he’d return to the outdoors where he was busy doing what he’s always busy doing at this time of year. After all, it’s April at the Butler house. For Jose, that means trimming and priming my mother’s knockout roses. But Jose isn’t mistaken. Noon is the time that he and his wife had agreed to be the subjects of my high school Spanish class assignment.

My teacher wants each student to conduct an interview with a traditional Spanish speaker about the differences between their hometown and the United States of America and take notes of their responses. I remember sitting in class and feeling the surge of excitement move up my body as my teacher introduced the assignment. While most of my classmates didn’t even know how to begin looking for traditional Spanish speakers, I was fortunate enough to have two Spanish speaking individuals who came to my house every weekend.

Jose wipes the sweat off his brow just before he enters the kitchen.

“Ah, Jose. ¿Oh, es el tiempo? Lo siento M.J. Estaré allí en un momento.”

Chile and Jose have been working at my house since before I was born. Ever since I was little, they loved speaking in Spanish with me.

“Todo está bien,” I respond as I scoot a chair across the floor so that Jose can sit down.

“Empieza! Empieza! Estamos entusiasmados!,” Chile says as she sits beside her husband.

I clear my throat, adjust my seat, and do as the woman says. I had never really known too much about Chile and Jose outside of the three hours that I spent with them every week. I knew they were good people. I knew they were from Mexico. But this was honestly the first time in all of my 17 years that I tried to truly know them.

Mexico will always be home for us, I recall Chile saying as she looked at her husband.

Jose explains that they came to the U.S. for their children.

One hears that cliche for immigration all the time; the idea that one journeys to another place in pursuit of a better life. But there’s something that happens when you’re sitting in front of someone and looking at them as they express this idea. It’s different. It’s simultaneously beautiful and painful. It’s uncanny.

He went on to talk about how money limited what he and his wife were able to do for their children. Without wealth, it was very hard to find schools with good teachers. In the United States, as long as you live in a certain area, good teachers are easy to find.

As they explain themselves, I think about how outrageously wrong the media and, quite frankly, many Americans are about these people. I had never truly believed that Mexican immigrants were “stealing American jobs” or were inherently lazy or evil. When you’re a person of color in the United States, you are aware that circumstances are never quite as simple as they seem. Nevertheless, you still have these unconscious, negative attitudes towards Mexican people as a result of living in a society that constantly tells you that they are malignant. I did, at least.

Jose tells me that they just want their children to have the same opportunities that my sister and I have. I feel myself checking out. I try to pay attention but I can’t. It’s not because I’ve lost interest. It’s because his words make me focus in a way that only a few moments in my life had before.

In this moment, I went from being a person who rejected the conventional wisdom about Mexican immigrants to being a person who could feel how demonizing it was. Before, I had empathy. I had an understanding. I had even decided to dedicate my future to telling untold stories that would promote equality and love. But now, I was filled with a commanding sense of urgency to turn that future into the present. In this moment, I realized that I needed to start now. I needed to create now. Jose’s words made me understand that it had to be now because there are too many children without opportunities like those I have.

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