Desarraigo (Uprooting)


While I was sitting on the couch with my mother, who is currently visiting me from Mexico, she sighed deeply, and when I asked her why she was sighing, she looked at me and said: “I so regret the decision I made years ago to return to Mexico. Had I known that you and your sisters were going to return to the U.S., I would never have left.” My mother was referring to having returned to Mexico after meeting and marrying my father in Chicago, Illinois, and having their first three daughters.

My parents moved to San Luis Potosí, Mexico, in December 1974 from Chicago, where the three older sisters, Paula, me (Hilda), and Marisa had been born, in that order. In 1980 and 1983 my two younger sisters, Alejandra and Mariana, were born in Mexico.

Twenty years later, in 1994, I went back to the U.S. with the goal of working for a year and returning to Mexico with enough money to establish myself with a little business. However, the way events happened, things went well for me in this country and my two Chicago-born sisters, Paula and Marisa, followed me here.

The American Dream

Living in a country like the U.S., with the opportunities that it implies, makes us imagine that the life of immigrants is magically better when they arrive almost by osmosis. However, nothing can be further from reality for many immigrants, as was the case with my mother.

My story and that of my siblings is not dissimilar from my mom’s. In fact, it is very much like it. We grew up with all kinds of comforts, even luxuries, and not wanting for anything. My whole family has traveled throughout Europe, to many countries; we attended the best private schools and we lived in the best residential neighborhoods. All this well-being was forged by my parents in the U.S., and it was continued once in Mexico based on ingenuity, a lot of effort and tenacity. However, for various reasons, the three older sisters ended up on this side of the Rio Grande. In general, we have this story in common with many Latin Americans, I suppose. This is the story that Mom told me that night on the couch, just a week ago:

My grandfather began working in California under contract with the “Bracero Program” (a bilateral U.S.-Mexico agreement that allowed Mexican men to come work on agricultural labor contracts, primarily) around 1951 in what they called “la pisca” (the harvest), and he visited his wife and children in Mexico once a year.

It was a challenge for my mother to go through these tender childhood years without the constant father figure, as it was for the entire family, especially my grandmother, the matriarch. So when the opportunity presented itself in the form of an amnesty in 1960, my grandfather took advantage of this and brought the whole family to Chicago, arriving in the Windy City in 1963 with a wife and seven children.

My grandmother Teresa’s family life in Mexico with her kids took place with a hint of abundance, the Ayala Sandovals being one of the first families to own a black-and-white TV around 1955. The afternoons would find the neighbors milling around the living room to watch TV shows, not to mention boxing nights when there were so many guests that neighbors were watching even through open windows. My mother and her siblings attended a private school operated by nuns and had maids at home who even dressed my mother as a child before preparing her breakfast and walking her to the nuns’ school. This was a situation made possible by my grandfather’s hard work in the U.S. and the constant remittances that expanded the family coffers after the struggling years and hardships in Mexico for lack of a stable and well-paid job.

From this environment, the contrast that the family found when migrating to the U.S. was brutal, especially for the older children, since the younger ones had the ease of childhood to adjust to new circumstances and the ability to absorb a new language and culture at a tender age, when their personality had yet not been set in stone.

My mom’s first job that summer of 1963 was babysitting and feeding the family children for lunch, so it’s no wonder my mom felt like a maid. “See the ironies in life?” reflected my mother. “In Mexico we had helpers at our service and now here, I’m the maid,” she says with a roll of the eyes.

I Never Felt Part of This Country

“I never felt part of this country. Latinos at school did not speak Spanish. It even made me laugh that these kids didn’t even know how to pronounce their own Hispanic names properly, and that frustrated me because I hoped someone would help me, since I didn’t understand anything they said to me.” English was never easy for my mother, and she worked hard to learn what little English she knows, which by the way is quite a lot, even if it doesn’t seem like it to her.

At that time there were no bilingual or English as a Second Language programs at her school, and she suffered a lot of abuse and intimidation from her schoolmates. Dealing with the culture shock was also overwhelming. While in Mexico society instilled in you that being Mexican was something in which you took pride, in the U.S. you were not to mention your nationality. “Now we were supposed to be ashamed of being Mexican?” Mom exclaims. In addition, there were the locker rooms at school. Changing clothes in front of the classmates, as everyone else did, was problematic for my mother, who was raised with the typical modesty of our country during that time. In short, the school experience was traumatizing.

Sometime later, Mom had the chance to attend a special night program run by nuns for Latinos where she managed to learn the language more formally. She was also able to learn more at the grocery store that she helped Grandpa Luis run, and where she had worked since the end of 1966. When customers asked for something, if they didn’t have it in stock, she asked them to write it down on a piece of paper, and the next time they came it was already in stock. Thus, she learned the name of many products. “I can read a little and understand a lot, but not write. I never learned properly,” she tells me.

As a result of this story, when my father suggested to my mother that they should return to Mexico together, my mother did not hesitate for a second. And so, this resulted in a family geographically split for many years to come.

The Family Tragedy

My family’s tragedy was that some of us stayed on this side of the border, and some stayed on the Mexican side. My mom and two sisters with their families live in Mexico, and the three older sisters live here. Even worse, the two sisters in Mexico have no visa and no way to get one. We have waited seven and a half years to get a visa approved for my younger sister, and now it could take up to twice as long for a visa to become available, so that if one of the older ones died in the U.S., the rest would not even be able to come to the funeral unless they get an emergency visa.

The sisters living in the U.S. go to Mexico at every opportunity, but that limits the time any of us has to vacation elsewhere. Mom comes to see us at least once a year, but for a family like ours these contacts are insufficient. Dad passed away five years ago and could never get over having “lost the battle” against the geographic divide.

We left cousins, uncles, and best friends behind, and although we have forged new friendships and strengthened relationships with relatives here, there is a deep void that can never be filled. That is the family’s tragedy. One that cannot be overcome.

The Best of Two Worlds

My sisters and I grew up with strong family ties and we preserve that cultural heritage we got from our parents. But here in the U.S. we have learned other ways of being, living, and facing life. We also assimilated and know about individualism, equality, and meritocracy–concepts not as common back home when we lived there.

Paula, Marisa, and I are interpreters in the legal, medical and conference fields. The three of us make a living thanks to the Spanish we learned from our international experiences. As part of our cultural heritage, we three have the skill set to be cultural brokers, an advantage and necessity when engaged in our respective professions.

Yesterday my sister Marisa, an interpreter in the medical field for eleven years, reading the draft of this letter, commented: “I do not agree with that statement from Mom. I would not regret it because the decision she made allowed us to be who we are and to live the lives we live and the way we earn a living. If we hadn’t grown up in Mexico, only God knows what our lives would be like.”

After all, each person sees things from their own point of view. I miss my family and I always will, but I am grateful for having lived in Mexico for twenty years. I personally think I got the best of both worlds!

Hilda Zavala is a state certified/approved Spanish court interpreter and translator with more than thirteen years of experience in legal, medical, corporate, and non-profit settings in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Wisconsin. She is a board member, treasurer, and Conference Committee chair of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators as well as former president of the New York Circle of Translators. She is an active and voting member of NAJIT, ATA, the NYCT and other professional groups. Hilda has two certificates of Legal Interpreting: Spanish/English, the latest one from NYU. Hilda has been a Staff Interpreter at Essex County Superior Court in New Jersey for over 5 years. Born in Chicago, Hilda lived for 20 years in Mexico and loves traveling. She continuously looks for opportunities to promote and advance the interpreting profession. Contact:

Main photo by Pixabay from Pexels. Body photo courtesy of Hilda Zavala.

23 thoughts on “Desarraigo (Uprooting)”

  1. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story Hilda. I enjoyed it. Con otros matices, yo también vivo el desarraigo, and jump at every opportunity to go back to Argentina. Sometimes I like to think that our experience is not one of desarraigo but of doble arraigo.. Happy Friday!

    1. Hilda Shymanik says:

      Absolutely. As hard as it is sometimes to live away from loved ones, I always prefer the positive perspective. Thanks for reading TNO!

  2. Andreea B. says:

    What a great article Hilda! Thank you for sharing your family’s story.

    1. Hilda Shymanik says:

      Thank you for always reading me Andreea! I appreciate your comments.

  3. Joseph (Jody) Quillian says:

    This kept my interest from beginning to end, Hilda. I will share it with my husband Jorge (who is originally from Puebla.). I am a Dallas, Texas, native who, after retiring from teaching first grade for 27 years, started a second career in 2009 as a legal interpreter here in Dallas … a gringo who loves Spanish and who has the utmost admiration for Mexicans. In December Jorge and I are moving to Querétaro, México. I will miss my Dallas (my home for 67 years now) but am excited about our new life in Querétaro. Jorge and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary in November. Thank-you for sharing your story, Hilda! Un abrazote from Pepe (my adopted name in Spanish)

    1. Hilda Shymanik says:

      I grew up in Mexico loving “gringos”; now I live in “gringolandia” loving Mexicans! Thank you for your kind words about my compatriots. Queretaro is a beautiful state that you will enjoy, and it is surrounded by beautiful areas. Guanajuato, and San Miguel Allende are really close by, but the valley surrounding the state of Mexico is also a delight. I had a vacation in Valle de Bravo with my family and I loved the scenery and the magnificent crafts you can buy there. Enjoy your change of pace in Queretaro, Pepe!

  4. Joseph Quillian says:

    Hilda, thank-you for sharing your story. It kept my interest from beginning to end. I am going to share it with my husband Jorge who is originally from Puebla, México. I am a gringo native from Dallas, Texas, have lived here for 67 years, and who is going to experience “desarraigo” soon: Jorge and I are moving to Querétaro, México, in December. We are super excited! In November we will celebrate our 30th anniversary.

    I retired in 2008 after teaching first grade in a bilingual setting here in Dallas for 27 years. In 2009 I obtained my state license to do legal interpreting in Texas. I have enjoyed this second career for close to 12 years now and love it as much as I did teaching.. Last year Jorge retired from teaching third grade in a bilingual classroom in Dallas for 25 years. We will combine our teacher pensions and live comfortably in Querétaro — we plan to do a lot of volunteer work.

    Spanish changed my life. In fifth grade I realized I wanted to have Mexican friends. I started to study Spanish and wanted to learn it well to honor the people I admired so much … and still admire. I had no idea then what an impact it would have on my life, both professionally and personally.

    A big hug to you, Hilda, from Pepe (my adopted name in Spanish since fifth grade). 🙂

    1. Hilda Shymanik says:

      Heed Sandra J Aidar-McDermott’s words: “Sometimes I like to think that our experience is not one of desarraigo but of doble arraigo.” I loved the concept!

  5. Elizabeth James-Irizarry says:

    Thank for sharing your story! Many of us have lived in different countries for different reasons, but that made us not only bilingual and for many multilinguals, but also bicultural. It’s like entering in a whole-new world, but most importantly, it gives us a deep understanding of other cultures and empathy for others. It empowers us to help others.

    1. Hilda Shymanik says:

      I absolutely agree! One of the things I have learned from the experience is that where we are born is just a geographical accident. It does not make us any different from other human beings. I embrace the similarities and learn from the differences. And yes, empathy is something bicultural and multicultural people have in common. Thanks for you comment.

  6. Genevieve N. Franklin says:

    Such a thoughtful and nostalgia-and-gratitude-provoking article, Hilda.

    1. Hilda Shymanik says:

      Thank you for your comment, Genevieve!

  7. Ruth says:

    Beautiful story, Hilda.
    I had a similar experience growing up part of my life in Guadalajara. Loving and living in the city and country that accepted me with open arms when I was a very young girl. Every year my siblings and I returned to Los Ángeles during vacations, especially summer vacations to attend summer school and later for the summer job that provided the working experience and spending money for the school year. There were entire school years in which we stayed in Los Ángeles and attended school in two countries.
    I studied at la Universidad de Guadalajara and unknowingly, I too became a cultural broker. This provided me the necessary tools to enter into the labor force in the United States at a different level from my Mexican counterparts. I had an education that helped me become a State Certified Spanish Language Court Interpreter.
    I thank my parents for raising us with pride in our bilingual heritage. I did the same with my own children born in Guadalajara and now working adults in this country

    1. Hilda Shymanik says:

      Thank you for sharing, Ruth. I have always felt Mexican because of the 20 years I lived there starting at such a tender age. Therefore when I arrived in the USA I was grateful for all this country offered me as if it wasn’t my own, although officially it was. I love both my countries of “origin”. I feel that way about both!

  8. Evelyn Armenta says:

    Hilda, wonderful story, thank you for sharing it with us!!

  9. A Salguero says:

    Thank you for sharing your story with our community. I am in full agreement with you. You have experienced the best of both worlds!

    1. Hilda Shymanik says:

      Such blessings, with all the upheavals! Thanks.

  10. Hilda Shymanik says:

    I appreciate you reading my family’s story, Evelyn!

  11. Gio Lester says:

    Thank you for introducing us to your família, Hilda.

    1. Hilda Shymanik says:

      A close knit family. It’s such a great experience to relive some of these part of my past and learn about my Mother’s story as well. Thanks for reading, Gio!

  12. Miguel Dominguez says:

    What a story!!
    It touches all of us who migrated for different reasons.
    This story reaffirms some of my foundational beliefs about family, migration and cultural values in the USA.
    Almost made me cry.

    You should consider writing a book.

  13. Maggy Serrano says:

    Thank you for your beautiful story, Hilda! Yes, write a book!

  14. Reme Bashi says:

    Thanks for sharing your family story! I agree with your sister, families like ours have the best if both worlds. Also, these life experiences on both sides of the border make the best training for future Interpreters. I loved your story!

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