MEXICO CITY — Second of a three-part series
In a corner of her room is a pink drawer. Its almost hidden by the 3-foot pile of clothes. But when Alejandra Pinzon clears a path and pulls open the plastic drawer, she can touch her most cherished possessions: a jumble of mementos that connect her to a life thats slipping from her grasp.
Homecoming photos from her high school back in Kansas. A worn letter from her aunt in Overland Park, Kan. A report card of five As and, in Spanish, a B minus. And her SAT scores, numbers shes never bothered to read.
Kneeling on the floor of her Mexico City apartment, Pinzon riffled through the drawer until she found her gold Taylor Swift concert tickets. She stared at the tickets and smiled.
Im obsessed with Taylor Swift, she said. I wish shed come to Mexico.
Just months after the concert, in the spring of 2010, while her friends were chattering about what to wear to prom, Pinzon faced an irreversible decision whether to return to Mexico that would forever shape her future.
Pinzon was 17 and living in the United States illegally. She wanted to go to college, but she knew that wasnt an option. She worried about being deported. She thought she could go back to Mexico, get her degree, build her skills and then, hopefully, a U.S. company would sponsor her to return on a visa. She might be back in as little as four or five years.
It didnt work out that way.
Americas fractured immigration debate, which has divided the nation and left Congress paralyzed on a solution, has caught half a million young people like Pinzon in a state of limbo between countries. The now 21-year-old with big brown eyes and a wide smile lives in Mexico City. But emotionally shes tied to the broad suburbs and flat accents of the American Midwest. Its an ambiguous space for these young people that affects everything from the relationships they develop to their sense of self. Its a space that exists somewhere on both sides of the border, but not on one or the other. The late poet Gloria Anzaldua called it the borderlands.
An estimated 500,000 Mexicans ages 15 to 32 returned to their homeland from 2005 to 2010, according to an analysis of Mexican migration records by Jill Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In all, about 1.4 million people moved from the United States to Mexico in that time, about double the number that did so from 1995 to 2000.
About 11 million people, including 6.1 million from Mexico, remain in the U.S. illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
For these young people, like Ali, its a very painful and confusing space, because the question is Where do I belong? and To whom do I belong? Anderson said. Shes editing a book, Los Otros Dreamers, that documents the sociological challenges that young returning migrants experience. And I think that becomes even more painful when youre separated from your family.
A gamble on Mexico
Alejandra Pinzon could be anyones American-born next-door neighbor. She adores country music and peppers her sentences with like and you know.
But shes not next door.
Her family has been divided by the consequences of the U.S. immigration policy. While sister Lulu born in the United States and thus a U.S. citizen lives in St. Louis, their younger sister, Gaby, 19, lives in Mexico City.
Gaby Pinzon also lived for a period in the United States, but she returned to Mexico several years before her sister did.
In the spring of 2010 as she was about to graduate from high school, Pinzon felt she had two choices. She could remain in the United States, be dependent on Lulu and work illegally as a waitress or in some other service job. Or she could return to Mexico and attend college. She thought itd be easier to go to a Mexican college.
Lawyers told her that if she returned to Mexico before she was 18 she could avoid immigration violations.
Sister Lulu was against the move. You dont know what youre doing, Lulu told her. You havent been to Mexico since childhood.
On Aug. 9, 2010, Pinzon stepped off a plane into a country that felt foreign to her, even though it was her native land. She walked out of the airport in her UGG boots and breathed in the city, which she said smelled like burnt rubber, to begin a new life in a place teeming with 20 million people. She didnt know when shed be back in the U.S. again.
I felt like I was going somewhere where I had never been before, she said. I didnt really speak a lot of Spanish.
At first, Pinzon spent much of her free time on Facebook and Skype, up to eight hours a day. The friends she does have in Mexico are almost all recent returnees from the U.S., many via deportation. She doesnt have to worry about being judged by them when she speaks English. Until she found them, she felt as if no one in this massive city understood her homesickness.
Pinzon was taken to the United States when she was 11 years old by her father, who was hoping to cultivate a better life, along with little sister Gaby. Their mother remained in Mexico, and Lulu was already living in the U.S. The three then overstayed their tourist visas and moved in with Pinzons grandmother, a legal U.S. resident, in Overland Park.
Pinzon entered the seventh grade at Oxford Middle School in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City, Mo. She was the only Hispanic child in her class. Later, at Blue Valley Northwest High School, she joined the yearbook committee, sang with the chorus and danced with the Dazzlers drill team.
For her 17th birthday, an aunt got her Taylor Swift concert tickets. Hunched over her kitchen table one recent afternoon, she flipped through an album with dozens of photos from the show. She pushed a tress of brown hair behind her ear and recounted how her best friend, Kristin, surprised her with a Happy late 17th birthday Alibear message that flashed on a screen behind the country singer.
I still get very homesick, she said. I miss my friends. I miss everything. Like in the winter I miss the snow. Right now, here its been raining. But I know there its been super sunny. And I want to be there and go to the pool and get tanned.
Pinzon regrets that she didnt keep up her Spanish while she lived in Overland Park. Her grandma spoke to her in Spanish, but she always answered in English.
She graduated the next spring. Like her closest friends, she wanted to go to college. Her sister Lulu went to Saint Louis University. She wanted the same experiences and opportunities. Shed maintained a 3.5 grade-point average through high school. She fantasized about attending the University of Missouri or Indiana University and studying journalism or international relations. She took the SAT at her aunts request, but shes never looked at the scores.
Its just going to torture me, she said. I could have gotten into college. As many of her friends were packing to go to college, she was packing to return to Mexico.
Pinzon tried to get into college when she returned to Mexico City, but she couldnt overcome the bureaucracy. The government wouldnt validate her U.S. high school diploma because shed used a hyphenated name in the United States. Many returning migrants struggle to certify their transcripts. Pinzon was told shed have to get a U.S. court to validate her identity or wait until she was 21, when she could take a GED-equivalent test.
She ended up finding a job at a call center, one of thousands where telephone and cable companies, among others, hire Americanized migrants to take customer service calls from the United States at Mexican wages.
One day, she recognized the 913 area code. It was a woman from Overland Park who needed her cable services transferred. Pinzon ignored the five-minute-per-call limit and chatted. She told the woman she used to live by Johnson County Community College. They talked about a local Greek restaurant they both liked.
Dont you love Overland Park? she asked the caller.
What have I done?
On June 15, 2012, less than two years after Pinzon returned to Mexico, she was playing foosball with friends when Lulu called from St. Louis.
It was about the DREAM Act. Her sister said there was news: High school graduates no longer would be deported.
Her sister sounded anxious, but Pinzon paid little mind. What did it matter to her? She was already in Mexico. She went back to foosball.
But that night, she opened her laptop and typed in DREAM Act. News stories popped onto her screen. President Barack Obama raised the hopes of many immigrants when he announced from the White House Rose Garden that hed block deportations for hundreds of thousands of young people, like Pinzon, whod arrived as kids and graduated from U.S. high schools.
More than 400,000 already have been accepted into the program and more than 1 million probably are eligible. Pinzon might have been one of them. but shed gambled by leaving the country.
What have I done? Pinzon thought to herself.
Her sister called again the next day, as Pinzon headed to work.
I guess I should have stayed, Pinzon told her flatly.
You have to come back. You have to come back, her sister pleaded.
Pinzon arrived at work. She put her bag down and walked to the bathroom. She closed the stall door.
She threw up.
She should have waited, she now says.
It would have just taken me two years, she said. The two years Ive been doing this, I could have been doing it there.
She still hopes to attend college in Mexico. When she turns 21, shell be able to take an equivalency exam for high school and hopefully then enter a Mexican college. She still hopes to earn a degree and entice an American company to sponsor her in the United States.
Going back illegally is also an option, Pinzon admits. Her sister Lulu even bought her a plane ticket. Pinzon still has her tourist visa, which she could use to return and then overstay again. But shes not sure whether shes ready to start over again, leaving Gaby and her new nephew, Santiago.
But shes keeping the ticket, which she has saved on her computer in her room. Its near the pink drawer with the rest of her American stuff.
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