By Sandibel Borges
1999. Leaving Hidalgo, Mexico by car on a journey to the state of Washington with my family. It feels like the longest trip of my life. The scenery keeps changing as we get further north. The trees look different. The colors, the smell, the freeways and roads… everything is changing. I don’t know where we are going, or where Washington is located exactly. All I know is I don’t want to go in the first place. As a thirteen year old, I feel my life is in Hidalgo and it is a mistake to leave. Since I took basic English in seventh grade, I will probably be able to at least say a few words upon arriving in the U.S…
I was disappointed when I realized that wasn’t the case.
I knew my parents had big dreams for my siblings and I. I now understand that was a tremendous sacrifice so they could give their children what they thought would be a better future for them, for us.
I don’t think I have entirely healed from my first few years in the U.S., living in Kittitas, Washington. I am still healing from the actual migration journey, but that’s a different piece.
After driving for what seemed like months but was really about a week and a half, we finally get there. Everything and everyone seems so different from what I know. I wonder if that’s a real language. I can’t understand one word of English. I am shocked by how deserted the town feels and how thoroughly my senses are changing. I was so used to seeing people outside—like vendors and children playing— and hearing loud music from the neighbors’ homes. There was a sense of life and vibrancy in Mexico that I suddenly miss deeply. Kids don’t play outside here? There are no vendors? No markets? Why do the streets look so superficially clean? Why do people look at me like that? Is it that obvious I don’t belong here?
So many questions that, despite the years, I still have today. Somewhere along the way though, I decided they were pointless to keep asking. I needed to make do with the idea that this was where I would live, if not forever at least for a very long time.
2000. I begin to know the meaning of bitterness, frustration, anger, shame, and self-hate. I wish I could learn to speak English faster, that I could understand what people around me are saying, that I could be more outspoken. I feel like a small child in a teenager’s body, dependent on others to do what until now had been basic tasks. Buying groceries or simply responding when someone talks to me is now accompanied with the overwhelming pressure and desire to disappear.
Without realizing, I started to feel ashamed of speaking Spanish around English speakers. Being told it was rude to speak Spanish and having my first language mocked on a regular basis weren’t exactly helpful, either. It apparently turned out everyone spoke Spanish, but the only things others knew how to say were curse words. Being called puta as a “funny” gesture by a classmate, and being told, “you stink!” by another, were dehumanizing. I began to feel myself becoming smaller.
I eventually understood (I thought, anyway) that there was no point in fighting back. I began to internalize feelings of assimilation, perhaps wanting to act more “American,” whatever that meant. Many people often said I was “too shy” and needed to “get out of my shell”—that was a slap in the face amidst daily dehumanization, feeling that I wasn’t myself because I left the real me back in Mexico. “Mexican” was no longer a term I could loosely use to define my nationality, but a term to dehumanize a whole population (“those Mexicans!”). I will never forget the time a young white woman was telling her friend, as I was sitting next to her, how afraid she was of Mexicans, especially Mexican men. My jaw dropped, yet I couldn’t articulate why that was painful and infuriating to hear. I learned I was either invisible or hyper-visible. To survive, I taught myself to become more invisible than I already was…
2005. Will I ever feel at home in this town? Probably not. Will I feel the sense of home ever again, even if I moved to a different town, a different city, or even if I went back to Mexico? Most likely, no…
Over the years I had completely forgotten what “home” even felt like. All I needed to do was stay alive emotionally. Living started to feel like a task. It felt unrealistic to want a home again, to want to feel comfortable in my own skin, to want to feel like I belonged without being reminded time and time again that I did not. I learned that there was no way I would ever feel like I was walking or moving forward, and I instead felt stuck, and if lucky, I only slowly crawled forward. I learned that in order to stay alive I needed to learn how to be on autopilot mode, to turn all feelings off and just keep going.
In 2009, I began a graduate school education at an institution that has hit hard on my health. I’ve acquired some of my most profound self-doubt in graduate school; my body and spirit have felt crushed and unable to get up and keep going. Ironically, this institution is also where I have met amazing badass people, particularly women of color, and queer people of color who have changed my life in powerful ways. I firmly believe that I crossed paths with these powerful people as a collective attempt to survive the violence of academia and numerous other harmful institutions we endured.
2013. Thanks to these powerful souls, I am witnessing and experiencing approaching life with intention, not letting pain destroy me but, instead, turning it into self-love and care, engaging in communal revolutionary healing, growing and supporting one another.
I will be forever grateful for crossing paths with them (y’all know who you are). Healing has become an important part of my life, something that is now a priority as I continue to move forward and as I finally feel that I am on my way to seeing myself after years of emptiness. Healing is always a process, and there are moments when I still hit rock bottom today. However, I sense I am on the right path. Sweat lodges, meditation, yoga, talking circles, writing, sharing, crying, but also smiling more, laughing more, hugging more, watching TV series from the 90s (my favorite) are all central for my survival.
August 4, 2014. Today I arrived in Mexico after ten and a half years of not being back. Things look different, Spanish is spoken almost everywhere I go. If I pay attention I can almost distinguish between different Mexican accents. I get excited. I hear Indigenous languages too, and I feel angry at how invisibilized they continue to be.
I flew from Los Angeles, California to Mexico City—so nervous and excited at the same time, wondering what my life in Mexico would look like after all these years. Looking out the window from the plane, trying to see what the mountains looked like, what they were trying to tell me. The color of the trees, the shape of the mountains, the fields, the houses, the sky… maybe they were welcoming me back. I get flashbacks to that first trip from Mexico to the United States, back in 1999.
July 2015. I have been in Mexico for almost a year now, as I prepare to visit California again for a short trip. As I return, I realize I had never witnessed U.S. imperialism, blatant racism, and the destructive effects of capitalism and greed as clearly as I am seeing them now. It took me going back to Mexico and returning to the U.S. to see the violent American imperialism that gets reproduced by the minute.
Today, November 23, 2015. I am back in Mexico from my California trip. After eleven years, I have now been back in Mexico for over a year. As I write this piece I acknowledge it is a huge privilege to be back in the country I spent my first thirteen years of life, and to be able to stay for this long. It is a huge privilege being able to return to the United States and come back to Mexico, by plane and with a passport. How different from that first time, sixteen years ago. At the same time, it still feels surreal to be here, it’s like one of those dreams I often had shortly after moving to the U.S., where I dreamt I was in Mexico only to wake up to my reality. Those dreams about Mexico became less and less frequent, and I lost hope I would ever call this my home again. I hope this is not a dream.
I left Mexico for the first time in 1999, not knowing what my life would look like sixteen years later. And now I am here, walking the streets of Mexico City. I am reconnecting with the food and culture I grew up with, with the first language I learned how to speak, with people I don’t know but who I find so familiar. I see the beauty and I see the violence too. I see survival and I see struggle. I see the racism, classism, heteropatriarhy, ableism… I see the effects of an ongoing colonialism. And in the middle of all these contradictions, I see that I keep crossing borders—physical, emotional, and spiritual—reconnecting with myself in ways I didn’t know where possible.
I stand in one of the main parts of the city, facing Bellas Artes, watching people walk and cars drive by. I turn around to see my surroundings. I take a deep breathe as I begin to walk again, noticing that with every step I take, I am reclaiming parts of me that I thought I had lost. I am a step closer to myself. The healing continues…
Sandibel is a self-identified queer woman of color, Mexicana, migrant, and a soul that is in constant search for healing. She believes in radical and transformative ways of sharing space with community, deeply appreciating the power of listening and of silence. In the last few years she began embracing writing as a tool for healing. As a graduate student, Sandibel documents the experiences of queer migrant Latinxs, exploring the meaning of “home” and resistance in their lives.