Jonathan Mendoza

As Interviewed by Carl Svahn, March 15, 2015

Jonathan Mendoza: In His Own Words

Well, I grew up in Mexico City. My mother was very young at the time when she met my Dad. She had my sister when she was 15. She had me when she was 17. So she was still a very young person. And when you’re that young in a country where there is a lot of social injustice to begin with, there is a lot of poverty -- there’s a great difference between the social classes. They were very rough conditions to bring up a family. The marriage didn’t last very long. After a few years they divorced and my sister and I remained with my Mom. My Dad basically disappeared from the picture, so my Mom raised us on her own. She was a nurse who managed to put herself through school and came out a nurse in order to provide just the basic food and shelter for us. It was a difficult childhood. She wasn’t really prepared mentally and spiritually, and she was just not mature enough to be what you would think of as a good Mom. She loved us dearly, and she tried to do her best, but she had some limitations and challenges.

I had some challenges of my own. For one, not being with a father figure, and not really having role models. Eventually, my Dad reappeared into the picture when I was a young teen and I was very confused because I didn’t know where he had been all this time. But he had done some growing himself, and he wanted to reconnect with us as a family. So he looked for us, found us, and we reestablished a relationship. I found out then that he had actually remarried an American woman and had moved to the United States. In Mexico, as I suspect in lots of other third world countries, there’s an idealistic view of the US. We know that the US is the number one power in the world. They have a huge standard of living, you know -- the pop culture, movies, music, everything permeates the rest of the world. I was thrilled to come to the US to have the chance to learn English, to better my education, and just to enjoy this great nation. Eventually when I was 12 or 13, I decided to go with him, to know him and to experience a whole new way of life in the US. So at the age of 13 I came to the U.S. and I have to say that I came here not with everything lined up, legally speaking. I was an illegal alien coming across the border. Not because of any fault of my own, but basically because my father hadn’t really set things up so that I could come across legally. So at the age of 13 I found myself in South Texas in a different country, different environment, different culture, and I knew that I was here illegally. So that was a huge weight on a young kid.

What seemed really strange to me and sad was that because I was from Mexico, and the kids around me were not -- they had been born in the states, but they were basically people of the same heritage -- they looked down on me, because I was a Mexican and they weren’t. In fact, they had a derogatory terms for people like me -- they’d call us “wetbacks,” meaning that we crossed the river illegally and our backs were still wet from having swam the river. So these were kids whose parents were probably Mexican and who had moved to the states, but they themselves had been born in the US, so they felt that they were superior somehow to me because I wasn’t born here. So I faced quite a bit of discrimination from kids of my own culture, you could say. Although the Mexican-American population is different enough from the true Mexicans that they draw a line, and they could tell by the way that I spoke, the way that I behaved, that I was not one of them. And that was also very shocking and sad to me.

It wasn’t really until I came to Austin and UT where I could see that there was huge separation -- even in school -- between the different groups. The white kids, the African-Americans, and the Hispanics. They basically had their own communities, their own activities, and they really didn’t mix very much at all. So that was a little bit unnerving and sad.

There were a lot of movies that I saw where I noticed how people of color -- certain ethnicities -- are consistently stereotyped or shown in certain roles. And you get the sense that, you know, the culture at large wants to be comfortable with our differences, and I think the way to do this is by assigning people roles, which is really unfair because then people are placed in a mold and it’s hard for them to break out of it when they want to or when they need to, or simply because people are more complex than we give them credit for in pop culture, in movies and TV.

There was a movie I saw that -- it was quite touching. I think it was called “El Norte.” The North. And it’s about this brother and sister -- these siblings -- that I think come up from Guatemala in Central America to the US illegally, and they both struggle to get jobs and not be found out by the immigration service and sent back to their homeland. And I think that movie really captured the essence of the working class peasant person who is in search of better living conditions -- who really comes to the States not so much to get a free ride from the system but actually to work, to make something of themselves and to help their folks back home.

I think that the biggest challenge is for immigrants to find acceptance. There’s the strong sense of loyalty, and it’s really difficult to come to this country. First of all, you have to not be found out for fear of being sent back. Then you have to find a way to earn a living and, often, you have to lie about your status and to make a go of it -- takes a lot of courage. And the system is really not one where there is a lot of openness or acceptance of people that come across. And of course, there’s people that say, “Well, they’re here illegally. They should not be here”. And that is true. But this has happened for many, many years, and now there’s a huge population in the US that are here. That have been here for a long time and that are contributing to the society. They’re working, they’re paying taxes, they’re raising families. And so the biggest challenge for them is to keep their families together, to work with a government that is divided in how we should treat immigrants -- and to find a common cause and establish themselves as an entity that is worthy of respect and acceptance. So we’re making strides in education. People are becoming more politically involved. They’re raising their voices. They’re coming out of the shadows, and that’s all positive, not just for our community but for our country.

It seems to me that the biggest barrier to acceptance is the fear of the unknown. If we could lay down our fear ever so little and talk to people and take them at face value -- rather than relying on stereotypes or prejudices or images we may gain from TV or movies -- we’ll see that we’re basically all the same. We have the same aspirations, dreams, fears -- and I think as Jesus said in a parable, there are many rooms in my father’s mansion. I think that just tells us that in spite of our differences, in spite of the locations we inhabit, we’re all part of the same household. We’re all truly brothers and sisters.