It’s immigrant heritage week here in New York, so even though my family is thousands of miles away in California, they’re on my mind. Specifically, my dad’s parents, Robert(o) Eugenio Garcia and Dorothy Minnie Buffery Garcia. They were hard working folks, and like others in their generation they were survivors–of the Depression, and of World War Two. They were traditional in some respects, and radical in others; as a married interracial couple in the 1940’s, they weren’t exactly ordinary. And they were both immigrants. Or were they?
My grandfather, Roberto Garcia, was a gentle guy who baked cookies
Well…not exactly. My grandpa Roberto was Mexican. He didn’t speak English until the fifth grade. Our family reunions were classic Tejano–full of people in cowboy hats speaking Spanish, listening to Norteño music and attempting to dance the cumbia. For most of my childhood I thought of my grandfather as an immigrant, and in California he seemed like one, surrounded by millions of others who had roots in Mexico.
But in fact, Roberto Garcia was a native-born U.S. citizen. He was born in 1913 in Falfurrias, Texas, a hundred and twenty miles north of the Mexican border, a town that his family had helped establish. In fact, my great grandparents Rufino and Herminia were also born in the United States.
I have to go back yet another generation, to Manuel Garcia Garcia (yes, two Garcias) and his wife Bernarda Saenz, to find the immigrants–but even then it’s complicated. Manuel made his way to Texas in 1870, crossing a border drawn just 22 years before. I wonder what that felt like for him. A great passage? The start of a new life? Or just a drive 100 miles north? In any case, I doubt he referred to himself as an immigrant, at least not according to the contemporary definition of the word.
Manuel Garcia Garcia immigrated over the Texas border just 22 years after it was drawn
My grandmother (ok, my Nana) was another story. Dorothy Minnie Buffery was five when she arrived at Ellis Island with her family in 1921. Her parents, Leonard and Elsie May, were working class English folks from Birmingham. Originally, they were headed to Sydney, Australia; Leonard’s brother was settled there, and reported that there was plenty of work. But by some twist of fate, they headed west to Los Angeles and stayed there instead.
My grandma and her brother were kids, and native English speakers, so they adjusted pretty quickly to life in the U.S. But she remembered her teacher asking her to stand up in front of the class and demonstrate “English the way it’s supposed to be spoken”, and even at 80 she clung to a bit of her ancestry, insisting on tea and showing me the proper way to drink it (with the pinky extended), a glimmer of sarcasm in her eye.
My grandma, Dorothy Garcia, in 1981
Dorothy and Roberto met as a nursing student and resident in the same Los Angeles hospital. They married and settled in Blythe, California, establishing themselves as a doctor and nurse team and delivering pretty much every baby born in that small town for decades. It wasn’t always easy. My dad remembers someone asking Dorothy if she was married to “that dirty Mexican”, to which she responded, “Yes; and thank you, I’ll tell the Doctor you thought of him.”
My grandparents in the 1950's
Later in life, my grandparents got the urge to travel. On a family trip to Niagara Falls, they also attempted to visit Canada. The border agent asked, as a matter of routine, where my grandparents were born. “Texas,” said Roberto, and Dorothy answered, “Los Angeles”. My aunt Nina, 7 years old and attempting to be helpful, corrected her: “But mama, you said you were born in England!” Rather than deal with the consequences, they made excuses and turned the car around.
I had to stop my dad when he told me this story. I was confused. Why couldn’t she go to Canada? She’d been in the U.S. for decades, she’d married an American! Surely she wasn’t…undocumented?
“She was,” said my dad. “Your Nana had no papers in those days. In fact, she didn’t actually become a citizen until about 1960.” I was shocked. “So you’re telling me she was…an ‘illegal immigrant’ for almost 40 years?!” My dad laughed and replied, “Well…yeah.”
We sat with that for a minute, and laughed, knowing that my grandparents probably enjoyed the irony of it as much as we did. My grandfather, the Mexican, native born and rooted here for generations. My grandmother, the Englishwoman, an immigrant and an outlaw for decades. They were a perfect team.