After 16 years in the shadows, two sisters win legal residency
PASCO, Washington — Nearly one-third of Wendy Santana’s high school classmates did not attend classes May 1. Instead, the Pasco, Wash., students chose to boycott school as part of the nationwide "Day Without Immigrants" protest. Santana showed her support in a different way. With 70 or so other students, she sat in the school courtyard and listened quietly as an immigration lawyer gave advice to those who planned on attending rallies after school. Then, her fellow students headed for computer banks to e-mail their congressmen about proposed immigration legislation.
Santana, a 17-year-old with soft brown eyes and lightly freckled cheeks, organized the event at her school in order to foster dialogue on a contentious issue that has spread from Congress to the nation’s streets this spring. At stake is the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the United States.
Santana’s maturity is remarkable; it was bold enough for many of her classmates to skip school and march in the streets; but she was determined to take it a step further, making her own, singular voice heard in a messy national debate.
Santana may be part of a trend: According to Gabriel Portugal, a local elementary school teacher and Washington state Latino commissioner, more Latino students today are showing an interest in political issues. "It’s bringing folks to a different dimension of thought and trust," he says. "They don’t want to be silenced."
For Santana, however, the debate hits closer to home. Until recently, she and her sister, Erendira, were in the United States illegally. Like an estimated 11 to 12 million others, they lived, worked, and attended school here without proper documentation. They also lived in constant fear that they’d be found out, and perhaps be deported back to Mexico.
"Miss Santana! Miss Santana!" a group of children cries, frolicking on playground equipment in a downtown Pasco park. The kids are calling to Wendy, who works as a teacher’s aide at a local elementary school. She sits on a park bench with her older sister, Erendira. Nearby, car stereos bump Mexican banda music as the girls talk in Spanglish about their respective journeys to the United States more than 15 years ago from the Mexican state of Guerrero, where they were born.
Erendira looks at photos of herself as a 2-year-old and laughs. Now a petite 18-year-old with a bashful grin, Erindira is hardly recognizable in those pictures. She sported a shaved head and blue jeans, the disguise her family gave her in order for her uncle to bring her across the border on an airplane using a boy cousin’s papers.
Wendy had a tougher crossing. Her mother and grandmother carried her across the desert, a river, and finally the California border when she was only a year old. She nearly died: "I was almost bones," she says. Her mother says that a coyote advised her to abandon the child mid-journey.
But both girls eventually arrived, and they ended up living with their family in a tiny trailer here in Pasco. Like the sisters, this eastern Washington agricultural town along the Columbia River is a blend of both sides of the border. Over half of the 44,000 residents are Latino; zapaterias are as common as Wal-Mart, and locals can choose from a Starbucks or a panaderia for breakfast. In some parts of town, Spanish is the most common language. Mexican-themed dances at the local convention center draw up to 3,000 people twice a month for live shows.
Erendira, who listens to cumbia and merengue music, jokes that she’s more Mexican than Wendy, who prefers hip-hop and country music’s Tim McGraw. Despite their musical differences, the sisters share the same taste in clothes; today, they’re dressed almost identically in V-neck cotton T-shirts and black corduroy pants.
The Santana sisters have lived in Pasco for 16 years, but until a few months ago, they were "illegal aliens" in the eyes of U.S. immigration law. While their lives may have appeared normal to friends and classmates, they lived at least partly in the shadows.
Wendy refused to join her classmates on airplane trips for competitions with DECA, an international student association focused on marketing and business, or even to attend choir recitals, because she was afraid someone might ask for her papers. "I just wanted to stay on the safe side and not do something bad that would later harm me," Wendy says. When Erendira started looking into colleges, she realized that she would be unable to apply for financial aid.
Their lack of papers limited job and career opportunities. "Once you get here, you don’t have papers, you have to start low," says Wendy, who, like her sister, has teetered on ladders in the cherry and apple orchards, picking fruit for $3 to $4 per box. Other jobs were out of reach because the sisters lacked Social Security numbers. "Hay mayordomos, they are so strict," says Erendira of the field bosses she works with during the harvest. She adds, matter-of-factly and without a note of complaint: "It gets really hot and you get tired."
Last year, the Santana sisters’ father began the process of getting authorization for his daughters. He sent reams of paperwork to an eastern Washington immigration office, wrote dozens of letters, and frequently made the four-hour roundtrip drive to Spokane to argue their case. In February, the sisters both earned residency status.
Both sisters still spend weekends in the fields with their parents, and do what they can to help out, cleaning the house and cooking meals, such as Erendira’s favorite tacos de papas. "When (our parents) come home, you can see they’re hurting," says Wendy. "So when they come home, it’s all clean," adds Erendira.
But the sisters don’t plan to work in the fields for long. Erendira attends the local community college and hopes to study computer animation at a Seattle art school. Wendy is looking at colleges around Washington for next year, and plans to be a teacher.
Someday, they’d like to see their birthplace, on the Pacific coast, south of Mexico City. "I don’t even know my madrina, my godmother," says Erendira, who communicates with her through letters. But neither of them plans to live in Mexico. This, after all, is home.
This story is a sidebar to the feature:
This special issue of High Country News takes an on-the-ground look at the human landscape of illegal immigration in the West