Memoir and poetry by Saúl A. exploring  his mother’s life experiences shaped by migration at the US-Mexico border
Content warning: contains references to sexual assault.

Part 1: Crossing

My mother was born in a small town called Coamiles, in the state of Nayarit Mexico. One of nine children, she was the middle one and one of the few of her siblings who attended school in Mexico. Imagine a small house made of adobe, concrete walls, with a dirt floor, some straw and palm leaves for the roof. Her name is Marina.

Marina’s father worked in the fields and mountains, picking tobacco and farming. My grandparents did not have much at all, but, like many other families in their circumstances, what they did have, they saved up in the hope of sending some of their children to the US. When Marina was fourteen, she was given an opportunity to attempt entry into the US. During that time, she also began to struggle with depression. Her first attempt at crossing the border was in 1990, and the plan was to cross into southern California.

150 years before her first attempt to cross, California was a part of Mexico. During the 1840’s the US provoked a war with Mexico that allowed them to seize and pressure Mexico into giving up land. As Elizabeth Martínez writes, “in the 1840’s, the new nation expanded its size by almost one-third, thanks to a victory over that backward land of little brown people called Mexico” (p.43). Little brown people are who California rightfully belongs to, but Marina had to sneak into the US on Californian land that should have been hers.

Marina was sent off to the border alone. Her family had hired a “Coyote”, a person paid to smuggle people across the border. Some Coyotes were people who grew up on the border and knew their way around; some were known to be ruthless men, capturing women who were alone, raping them or selling them off to be sex slaves. Marina’s first attempt to cross was with another family that had two daughters her age. She was lucky to be with other people.

It was usually a two-day journey that involved moving only at night. Back then, it was much easier to cross the border. Now there are infrared sensors surrounding the border, so it is much harder to approach it without being spotted. On her first attempt, the night before they could reach the US border, they were captured by the Mexican police. Marina says the police felt pity for her because of her young age and let her go. She was released and waited for her family to find her another opportunity to try to sneak through.

Marina says she doesn’t remember much of her journey the second time she attempted to cross. She only remembers that it was all fast and dark. The Coyote told her to run as fast as she could across the desert sand until she reached a giant fence and wall, climb it and continue to keep running and running until she reached the neighboring town. There, another man was waiting for her and held her hostage until one of her family members had officially paid the fee to cross.

Writing about the migrants trying to reach Australia’s shores, Suvendrini Perera writes:

These nameless bodies, an image of contemporary political violence, invite exploration of the relations between the bodies of the dead and the living, between practices of bearing witness and giving evidence. …the responsibility of giving evidence. The tenacity of their insistence holds the present accountable to the past and reminds us of the duties of the living to those who have died (p.367).

This is a screenshot taken from which is an online database that tracks migrants who have died trying to cross into the new land. Many of these people are only marked by the words “Unknown” and “Skeletal remains”. Neither government tries to identify the body or bring it back to where it came from, but are instead left to be dead and forgotten.

Like the bottom of the Indian Ocean, the land between the US and Mexican border is littered with the skeletal remains of the bodies of migrants who have risked their lives to reach a new life in the US. None of the countries are doing much about this, except making it harder and more dangerous for migrants who are trying to get in. Their bodies are not identified nor brought back but are left to rot away instead. This is a form of state violence that both countries enact to erase the identity of those who left their homes in search of a better life. Each body left there is another reminder to those crossing of the sacrifice and risk in stepping into a land that doesn’t want them.

The following poems and images are dedicated to those who attempted to cross the U.S border – or any other border – and may not have shared Marina’s good fortune. 

At age 15 she crossed the U.S border
at 19 she was assaulted
who would have known
Forced into marriage at age 20
endured the pain for many
m a n y
m      a      n      y

Marina with her sister in Mexico

El Coyote
mira el coyote como va
se mueve rapido
con silencio y miedo
dicen que es malo
pero solo quire ayudar

The Coyote (ENGLISH)
Look at how the coyote goes
he moves very swiftly
with silence and fear
they say he is bad
but he only wants to help

I haven’t been to Mexico in a while
Extrano mucho el rancho y las gallinas
I don’t even remember the summer breeze
Or how the cow’s mooed and the roosters crowed
aye dios mío my prima con su sonrisa
Is my bike still out back
next to el perro flaco with the fleas?
They say I live in America now
that must mean I am American right
pero why then don’t I feel at home?
Y porque does home feel so D I S T A N T

Marina as a young child (one in blue) in Mexico with members of her family before the crossing

Our Land
Who knows how many have died
Trying to cross the desert border
Once belonging to Mexico
Stolen land is what we call it
“proof of citizenship status please”
Back before it was stolen
“Guess I found me another illegal”
Before it became another piece of conquered land
“I swear y’all just keep on coming”
Why do you call it New Mexico
“Fucking spic”
if when you’re Mexican you’re still seen as unwanted?

Part two: Crossed

Marina in high school surrounded by white classmates

In 1995 my Marina married a man name Cortéz (all names are pseudonyms). They met at a Bible study in Escondido, California. She was young and developed an attraction for him. They began to go out on dates and things seemed really nice. Cortéz seemed really nice. He wanted to marry Mariana, but she was not ready. She was still very young. My uncles did not like him and told Marina not to marry him. My mother grew up in a household where a woman’s virginity meant everything. You waited until marriage to have sex, otherwise, no man would want to marry you and then you would disgrace the family. Men, of course, were not held to the same standard. Cortéz knew this, and one night when he and Marina were out he held her down against her will and forced himself inside of her.

Ahora si te tienes que casar conmigo porque nadie te va querer.

Now you have to marry me because no one else will want you.

Months later she was walking down the aisle and saying, “I do.” After a few more months came me. Marina has never explicitly said that I was a product of rape, but she has never denied it either. She did not love him. She loves me though. She consistently names any sex they ever had as rape and I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the result of one of those acts of violence.

Shortly after I was born Marina returned to Mexico without Cortéz and we stayed there until I was two years old. Marina older sister Cruz took us in and took care of me while my mother worked washing dishes and cooking for 50¢ an hour.

A young me in Mexico

After I turned two, Marina decided it would be best if we returned to the US because Spanish was the only language I knew. She did not come to the US only to return to Mexico and raise a child in poverty. Because I was a US citizen and it was much easier to cross the border, all she had to do at the checkpoint was show her Californian high school ID, my birth certificate, and my social security card, and they let her walk through.

Marina’s story of how she came to be married to Cortéz is not an isolated case, but one among many similar stories. Many women are forced to stay with their abusers and should not be blamed or judged for it. There are laws in the US that mark women who stay with their abusers as “participating in domestic abuse” even though the state offers no aid in helping women in the hard process of leaving their abusers. As Chandra Mohanty writes:

Male violence must be theorized and interpreted within specific societies, both in order to understand it better, as well as in order to effectively organize to change it. (p.339)

Although various women experience male violence, it is important to also consider their class, citizenship status, children, and ethnicity when offering solutions. These and other categories complicate domestic abuse from only being categorized as one singular form of abuse that affects a singular category of woman.

The following poems and images are dedicated to the events in Marina’s life that happened after she had crossed the border and began to live in America as an undocumented woman.

Poor Malinche young and innocent
Mother of my people yet so damned
We hate her for her betrayal
but love to cure her name
Madre del los mestizos
Y puta de Hernan
Her womb was my birth
Her womb was his conquest
Hijo de tu chingada madre

the church was my home
my rock
my refuge
why doesn’t God hear my pain?
if I die now
will it be in vain?
my kids are my salvation
my peace
my love
I guess I’ll stay another day

I can speak English well
I have a bit of trouble with my T’s
Pero I’ll catch on
Tengo que
my accent is going away
maybe now they won’t laugh
maybe they’ll understand

Marina as a young adult

You’re not allowed to open windows or look outside
you whore
you are cheating on me
you’re thinking of other men
cameras are filming you
you bitch
you’re a whore
wake up

when she found out she was pregnant with me he threw her down
ripped her clothes off her body and ……. ….

pinche puta




Marina as a grown woman in her mid-thirties

Why did you marry him?
You know this is your fault

He raped me
I didn’t know what to do

Divorce is not the answer
Give him another chance
Maybe he’s changed

I don’t want to be with him
This isn’t happiness

You know no one will want you now
You’ll be a divorced woman
Who is also illegal

What choice do I have?
I can’t take this no more

Part 3: Labour Pains

When I was very young, things always seemed pretty, Marina would smile in family photos and Cortéz was my hero. Marina never made me feel like Cortéz was a villain. I respect and admire the strength it took to do that. When I was four, my sister Jasmine was born and eleven months after that came my other sister Maria.

Cortéz used a lot of drugs and would bring Marina with him on drug runs while she was pregnant. Marina said he sold and consumed a lot of crack, PCP, and occasionally cocaine, when he could afford to get some. Marina had three C-sections and each time Cortéz stole her pain medications to get high. She said it was painful, and there were times when she couldn’t move because of the amount of pain. Each time she had a baby, she wasn’t able to heal from her physical and emotional labor.

One time when Cortéz and Marina were driving, a car swerved on their lane and almost hit the passenger side where Marina, who was pregnant with me at the time, was sitting. Cortéz looked at her and said

Ojala para la otra el caro te pege y mata a ti y ese niño
Hopefully next time a car will hit you and that child

While Marina was still pregnant with Maria, Cortéz threw us out of the house. We lived in a homeless shelter for two months. They provided us with food, housing, and a lawyer because they knew my mom was undocumented.

During these times she would often try to leave him, only to be confronted by members of the church and his family and be told

He’s better now. Give him another chance.
Divorce is wrong. It’s not the answer.
Do you realize you are taking away the kids from him?

They made Marina feel guilty, and they made Cortéz look like the victim. This made Marina feel invisible, alone and forgotten.

After Maria was born Marina suffered from severe depression that was often suicidal. She mentioned she would cry herself to sleep at times and that the only thing that kept her alive was hoping her kids would be okay. To ensure we would be financially okay, she worked cleaning houses and sometimes babysitting the children of the house owners.

In the mornings before work, she would drop my two sisters at a daycare program provided by the federal government called Head Start. Head Start was a parent involvement service, that focused on early childhood education, health, and nutrition to low-income children and their families. I was in elementary school so she would drop me off there before her work. Sometimes when I was sick and had to stay home, or did not have school, Marina would bring me along. I remember seeing her bent over, or on her knees scrubbing and cleaning 90% of the time. When she would come home from work, her hands would be swollen, her back hurting, her joints aching. When she cleaned the bathrooms, I remember smelling the overwhelming amounts of bleach and other chemicals that she inhaled daily.

Every single time I had the opportunity to come to work with my mother, I was excited because I loved to see the houses she cleaned and would pretend they belonged to me. Marina’s clients were all wealthy and their houses always felt like mansions in comparison to the homes we stayed in. Something that I noticed as a kid was that none of the houses Marina cleaned belonged to a person of color, they were all white.

Marina says many of them were nice, good people who treated her well. They seemed to enjoy the company of my mother. When I would come to work with her, they always made me feel at home and allowed me to swim in their pools, watch cable television, which was my favorite thing to do because we did not own one ourselves, and eat all the food I wanted. These were all very nice things, but I wonder now if they ever knew about the financial situation my mother was in, if they ever bothered to ask how she was doing, if she was okay, or if there was ever anything they could help her with, because there was always something going wrong in my mother’s life. After she was finished with work during the day, she would come home and continue her cleaning and washing for me and my two sisters. She never received a break from her labor.

The following poems, quotations, and sounds are dedicated to the pain Marina suffered during her time with Cortéz, the silence she endured, and the lack of ownership over her body, the abuse and despair. The poems are also inspired by Avtar Brah and Chandra Talpade Mohanty as both authors emphasize the importance of understanding women’s struggles in the specific contexts in which they occur. Brah writes

we do not exist simply as women but as differentiated categories such as working-class women, peasant women, migrant women (Brah, p.435)

Marina’s struggle is one not only of a woman, but a woman who was undocumented, a survivor of sexual and emotional violence, impoverished, bilingual, a domestic worker, and a single mother of three kids. It is important to understand her complex situation and not try to place her in a singular identity of a “third world woman” as some western feminists like to view women who share Marina’s struggles. As Mohanty writes:

A homogeneous notion of the oppression of women as a group is assumed, which, in turn, produces the image of an ‘average third world woman.’ This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and being “third world” (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc). (Mohanty, p.351)

 By placing women into fixed categories, we objectify them and strip them of any agency over their own identity. My mother’s story is not a unique story, but a common one for many migrant women who come to the US without documentation.

My mother with me

Labor Pains
My mother had 3 C-sections
each time CORTÉZ stole her pain relievers
she couldn’t heal from her labor

Lords Work
Marina was a maid
She would clean houses for a living
They were always white
and very rich

They tended to always be Christian
Thinking they were doing the Lord’s work
By hiring a single mother of three
The houses were huge and filled with expensive things

God must love luxury
Because they had it all
They said it was God’s blessing
And one day if we’re faithful enough
We’ll have it too
Till then mama will keep cleaning

And praying this God pulls thru

Marina rarely speaks to us in Spanish now
She stopped cooking Mexican food as well
Her English is amazing
Yet she still feels the need to prove to us
the world
that she can speak English
I miss eating Tacos de lengua
Ceviche de camaron y un poco
De pozole con tortillas de maiz
She’s always trying to cook new things
American things

Marina in front of the trailer they used to live in before it was demolished and we were forced to live in a homeless shelter

She cleans your house maybe twice a week
Maybe even takes care of all your kids

She scrubs the bathroom floor
Makes sure it looks brand new
Her least favourite part of the day

The dust that continues to settle
Under and above the tv stand
Is maybe wiped away
slowly with her hands

She vacuums the living room
It’s where the dog stays

She washes your laundry
And sees all the stains

Maybe you know her name
If not, then that’s your shame

Maybe you’ve met her family
Or tried not to get involved

By hiding them away
She’s a second mother to your children

Me and my sister

But won’t ever get the credit
Her back pulses with pain

Her arms come home swollen
She wonders what you do for a living
Besides playing the piano and violin

Maybe you march at parades
Advocating for women’s rights
Maybe you wonder about her
When thinking at night

Maybe you don’t care
I mean it’s not like you own her
She knows what she’s doing
The world’s not fair
You worked hard as a woman
Earned what you own

Marina with my two sisters, lifting them both effortlessly in front of a church offering

Her labor ensures
That women have rights
You work for me
but I fight for you
Unless you’re Brown
Or illegal too

Maybe you don’t care
I mean it’s not like you own her
She knows what she’s doing
The world’s not fair
You worked hard as a woman
Earned what you own

Her labor ensures
That women have rights
You work for me
but I fight for you
Unless you’re Brown

Although my mother crossed the border by herself, and not with her family, something she has in common with many people is the risking of one’s life in hopes of achieving a better life in the U.S.

My mother was very lucky compared to so many of the migrants who have made the same journey as her. So many have ended up imprisoned, caged, maimed, dead, or have been separated from their children and parents in the name of justice. Their stories need to be heard too.

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Saúl A. is a Posse Scholar at Bard College Annandale, majoring in Political Studies and Human Rights. This essay was written during his semester abroad at Bard College Berlin for Agata Lisiak’s class Migration, Gender, and Nationalism.

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Works Cited
Brah, Avtar. “Difference, Diversity, Differentiation.” In: Les Back and John Solomos (eds) Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader, Taylor & Francis, 2009, pp. 1–16.

Martínez, Elizabeth. “Reinventing ‘America’ Call For New National Identity .” De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century, Verso, 2017, pp. 40–48.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary 2, 12/13, 1984, pp. 333–358. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Perera, Suvendrini. “They Give Evidence: Bodies, Borders and the Disappeared.” Social Identities, vol. 12, no. 6, 2006, pp. 637–656., doi:10.1080/13504630601030859.

3 thoughts on “Documenting the undocumented: how the US-Mexico border shaped my mother’s life

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