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March 27, 2008

Steven Renderos: Living in the Shadows

Choices. A lot of us believe choices are made between what’s right and what’s wrong. Others between what’s legal and illegal. As I reflect on my life, and on the series of choices that I’ve made I realize that my decisions weren’t so black and white. My choices often times conflicted with what I knew to be right and wrong. They were largely driven by what was necessary for survival.

It may seem so simple to talk about immigration within the context of “legal? vs. “illegal?. It is easier to criminalize people for their actions based on what we believe to be right and wrong than of questioning the environment that led to those actions. This probably has a lot to do with not wanting to take responsibility for a problem if you don’t have to.

I grew up in an immigrant household, in a humble apartment in Los Angeles, California. For as long as I could remember my mother used to conduct all of her financial transactions at Nix Checks Cashing on Normandie Ave and 3rd Street. This was the only place she could go to cash her checks, send money home, and pay her bills. She didn’t have access to a bank account and we largely relied on places like Nix’s to do things for us, all at a price.

Before it was legal in California for undocumented immigrants to attain a driver’s license, my uncle would risk driving to and from work everyday. Faced with the decision of whether to work or not to work, for him the decision was a no-brainer. Survival demanded that he make the unpopular choice.

There were times that we as a family could not go out to enjoy a nice summer afternoon because INS was doing ruedanzas (sweeps), picking up anyone they suspected to be an undocumented immigrant. Living in the shadows was a way of life. Pundits would have you believe that the issue is so simple, “they crossed the border illegally, and therefore there are consequences?. What they don’t tell you is why people are here in the first place.

The United States is a powerful country but there is a vast difference between the American Dream and the American Reality. Our beloved country and its policies influence communities and societies globally. U.S. foreign policy in Latin America during the 1980s triggered a massive wave of immigration to the United States as many fled political persecution. El Salvador, the country that I trace my ethnic heritage to, was crippled with a decade long civil war that was funded and supported by the U.S. to quell the spread of communism to the western hemisphere. During the war, the U.S. backed Salvadoran government engaged in torture, massacres, and assassinations. Several of my very own family members became victims of the war because they refused to fight

Salvadorans, like my mother, fled for an opportunity at a better life. What they found instead were minimum wage jobs which paid around $3.35/hour at the time. She wanted me and my brother to have an opportunity for a good education, instead what we found were classrooms that were overcrowded, and a curriculum which failed to meet the needs of students in which English was their second language. My mother wanted us to grow up in a safe environment, but all she could afford was for us to live in Koreatown, an area of Los Angeles with high crime rates, gangs, and drug activity.

I grew up living the American Reality which forces people in the mightiest of all nations to work and live in poverty. It may seem so simple to talk about immigration in terms of what’s right vs. what’s wrong. But when you grow up living in the shadows in this American reality it’s tough to distinguish between the two.