SAN FRANCISCO – When my parents came to this country for the first time, they hoped to find a better life, just as the Chinese did many years ago when they entered the United States through this Western immigration station in San Francisco Bay.
As I entered the immigration station at Angel Island, now a state park, a rush of memories came back to me. I’m sure those immigrants must as felt as anxious and curious about life in a new country as I felt as a 7-year-old when my family moved to Union City, Tenn. I arrived after a six-hour plane ride from Mexico City, going from a city of 11 million to one of 10,000.
But it wasn’t just the number of people or size of my city that I missed. I wanted to be back with my people and to enjoy our traditions, such as Day of the Dead, when we would decorate my grandmother’s house in honor of my deceased great-grandmother. Thanks to the help of Goodyear Tire, the company my father worked for, the transition was easier, especially when they helped us acquire Green Cards.
Just like the Chinese on Angel Island, I spoke no English; my older brother spoke a little bit, but not enough for him to fit in. School was definitely a challenge, but somehow we got through it. Iremember being homesick, a feeling my parents must have sensed more, since they, just like the Chinese, gave up a lot to come to this country. They had to say goodbye to all our family, many of whom we didn’t see for almost a decade. We also had to stop by relatives’ houses to leave many things behind because we couldn’t take everything. I know they must have hated leaving the country they loved, a country that had been their home for their entire lives.
One moment I will never forget is seeing my mother cry, sitting next to me in her room. Her mom had just died, but since we had been in the U.S only for a short time, we weren’t able to buy plane tickets to go to her funeral. Even though we were happy in this country, I could always see that my parents longed to go back. We moved back to Mexico in 2009, and I could see how happy my family was to finally be reunited.
Our Angel Island tour guide, Sam Louie, discovered late in life that his family was held in detention at the station while awaiting clearance to stay in the United States. In hearing his personal accounts, I sensed that my family story was similar to his. The journey from China to America is a long one, especially in the early part of the 20th century, a time when transportation was slow. As he explained, after four weeks at sea, the steam ship finally arrived at Angel Island. Its cargo, a large number of Chinese families hoping for chance to live in the U.S., had most likely only been able to afford the trip by traveling in steerage. “Some families had to sell everything just to come,” said Louie. But some of these “families” held a secret, as many of them weren’t actually related. With the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in place, many Chinese created “paper sons” in order to obtain entry for relatives or friends.
Today, decades later, we still find this being done, just in a different manner. Many immigrants, especially among the Mexican community, decide to marry an American citizen to acquire a Green Card. Both processes share an extensive interrogation by the U.S. government to see who is really related. For the Chinese, this meant that once on Angel Island they would be separated in the island’s administration building by ethnicity and gender, and asked a number of detailed, personal questions about their home life. These questions were meant to ensure that the family members were actually related, Louie said. The interrogations could last three to four days, and people could be held for weeks or months.
Answering questions correctly was extremely important. Today this part of the immigration process is still as critical. A simple mistake could mean deportation. For many, these questions could be hard to answer, especially under pressure. Because of this, “coaching books” were created by some Chinese families.
Once in this country, though, prejudice did not go away. Louie showed us a photo of the finished transcontinental railroad. “[...] in the picture, there were no Chinese. They didn’t want them there,” said Louie, even though the railroad was mainly built by Chinese men.
The Chinese faced harsh discrimination, including not being allowed to have their kids attend school; today Mexicans are facing some of the same issues. For example, legislation in Arizona could allow police officers to stop and question people to see if they are legally in the country and are carrying the proper paperwork (court rulings have delayed enforcement of this provision). This could mean deportation for hundreds of immigrants.
And just as the Chinese carved poems into the walls of the immigration station to express their journey, I write my story in this article.