By Lisa Amaya
One of my Grandpa Fernando’s proudest moments in life was joining the United States Army in 1954. He knew he wanted to join when he was still an ROTC student at Thomas Jefferson High School in central El Paso, Texas. El Paso is a border town 45 minutes away from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Eighty-two percent of El Paso’s population is Hispanic. I know my Grandpa is proud of his military service because he often tells me and my 11-year-old son Jacob his stories. Even though it’s always the same stories, we never get tired of hearing them.
Since my grandfather taught Jacob how to ride a bike and takes him around town on the city bus, my son looks up to him a lot. A few years ago, Grandpa fell off his bike while they were riding together. He hurt his foot and needed surgery. Despite this, he still goes out on his bike with my son at times. This in itself shows us he’s still brave and strong these many years later.
It’s great to see my grandfather get excited when he tells us his stories. You can see it in his eyes that it makes him happy and proud to do so. His tone of voice changes from a normal speaking voice to a loud Spanglish, a mix of English and Spanish. It’s rare that anyone in El Paso speaks proper Castellano Spanish from Spain or proper Spanish from Mexico City. Hell, I think speaking proper Spanish in Juarez is somewhat rare too!
Another important part of my Grandpa’s stories is when he shows us his army mementos. These include several photos from his long and difficult training days at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and from being stationed around Japan. The pictures are mostly of young soldiers doing pull-ups, push-ups and going through different obstacle courses.
He also has some class photos in his thick, black photo and scrapbook album. One of my favorites is a black and white of him looking sharp in his U.S. Army uniform; he’s standing at attention with an M-1 rifle in hand. My Grandpa was part of the 82nd Airborne. It’s crazy to imagine this 81-year-old man once jumped out of huge, noisy airplanes with a parachute attached to his heavy back pack. He said jumping out of airplanes was one of the scariest things he’s ever done in his life.
He’s shown us some Yen dollars and coins from his Okinawa, Japan days. The mementos also include a few certificates of achievement and multi-colored ribbon awards he’d pin and wear on his uniform. One of his most remarkable mementos is his silver/golden wings pin. My grandpa earned these wings after successfully jumping out of a plane with his parachute intact 20 times.
Being in the U.S. Army wasn’t only filled with proud moments for my grandfather.
Besides putting up with the screaming drill sergeants, boot camp and jump school training, he experienced some racial prejudice. The most humiliating he told me about was when one of his drill instructors asked him to lift up the bottom of his pants in front of his peers. Grandpa didn’t know why he asked him to do this, but he did as instructed.
His drill instructor then asked him, “Why do you have those rings around your ankles? Are they from crossing over from Mexico and the Rio Grande?”
In other words, he was implying my grandfather was not an American citizen but a mojado (wetback). Mojado and wetback are derogatory terms used to describe an illegal immigrant who swam across the Rio Grande River to escape Mexico. Although my Grandpa’s parents were from Mexico, he was born and raised in El Paso.
Another time my Grandpa experienced prejudice was when he was on Jefferson’s football team. His team traveled to East Texas for a football game. The opponent’s school had a sign that said “No Mexicans or dogs allowed.” My grandfather sort of laughed when he told me those kinds of stories, but I didn’t.
I’ve been wondering if we’re reverting back to the attitudes of those days. With a hateful administration in the White House, it almost feels like racism and exclusion towards minorities are becoming the norm once more. Sure, it’s always been present; however it feels like it’s OK again nowadays.
The ICE crackdown that’s been targeting illegal immigrants around Texas and other U.S. states in recent months especially hits home for me.
Since I’m so close to Mexico, La Migra, a.k.a. Border Patrol and ICE raids have been going on for many years here. You often hear about someone’s Tia or Tio being deported for not having papers. It’s sadder when the parents of “anchor babies”, children who are born to illegal immigrants in the U.S., are deported. It’s also tragic to me when illegal immigrants commit a petty crime just to stay in this country, even if it means ending up in a slimy U.S. prison.
The other day, one of my high school friends asked what others thought about building Trump’s wall on her Facebook status. I think one of my other friends explained it really well. She said:
“I think the wall is a false sense of security. It doesn’t work. All it does is keep nature from crossing. Illegals have tons of ways to cross like over staying visas and more. One time I kept seeing a basket under the bridge for pedestrians. It would hold about 5 people. All you had to do was look up. They had hard hats and construction vests and harnesses for safety. Everyone thought it was maintenance so no one told immigration. And immigration never looked up. They kept their eyes on the wall, drones, and cameras. This went on for years. When they stopped using it and found better ways, immigration found out about it. Like I said, a waste of $$$. What they need is to open the border like before. There are tons of Mexicans that don’t wish to be in the U.S. All they want is to study, work here, shop, and go back home. But once they cross and see that they might not be able to cross again safely then they risk staying here. They make plans to stay for just a little while and that little while turns into years because they have already made roots here. Tons of them just want a good education or a better job. I’ve worked in retail and the big $ purchases that keep El Paso stores open are from Mexico. They come from Monterrey or further and buy $5k-$10k worth of clothes in one stop.”
Another person said:
“I don’t feel I should have to pay for it. I don’t want it. MAKE those who want it to pay for it… $$$$.”
Fortunately, it seems like El Paso has become more proactive when it comes to participating in peaceful marches and protests. This especially seems to be the case since Donald Trump was elected. On January 21, 2017, I joined more than 4 million worldwide in the Women’s March. This peaceful march spread to 673 cities. I marched with 1,000 others around central and downtown El Paso. My stance on immigration issues and against the wall are a couple of reasons why I chose to march in solidarity with the others. My maternal and paternal great-grandparents were born in Mexico. How could I not be on the immigrant’s side?
Not only did I march for compassion and humanity for Mexican immigrants (this also applies to immigrants from other countries), I marched for the basic rights women and same-sex couples deserve. I really don’t understand why women have to fight for the same salary as a man in 2017! I don’t understand why women are still questioned about what they’re doing with their own body and reproductive organs. I don’t understand why minority populations and same-sex couples are still treated like second-class citizens in the United States of America!
I proudly stood up for those who have endured sexual abuse or assault in their life. Let me tell you, it’s not an easy demon to withstand throughout the years; it’s an ugly demon that rears its ugly head when least expected. I marched for my own grandfather’s past experiences with racial inequality. I marched for a better education system and more benefits for veterans. I marched for my son’s future to be bright.
I dream of my son graduating from college and being debt free. I marched for my Mexican great-grandparents. I especially marched for my great-grandmother, Guadalupe, who worked hard to build this country’s railroad in the early 1900’s. We as women and minorities must continue to make our voices heard.
We must do whatever it takes to make that happen.
Although there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, the Women’s March was an excellent start! We must keep the momentum going. Sí, se puede, yes we can!
Lisa Amaya is a 30-some year old mom to her 11-year-old son, Jacob. She has been writing since she was 6. Lisa earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism with a minor in history from New Mexico State in 2004. Her work has appeared in various online and print publications. Lisa is a contributor to What’s Up Weekly in El Paso, Texas. She also stays busy with her blog, Life of an El Paso Woman. Her first published book is currently in the works.