When I was six, just as I was learning to read, I asked my mom what “alien” meant. I was confused, because here was this word in all the paperwork that always seemed to trouble her, and there were no pictures of little green men in outer space attached to it.
It means us, my mom said. We’re not from this country, so we’re aliens here.
When I was nine, my fourth grade teacher went around the room asking each student where they’d been born. I was living in Gainesville, Florida at the time, so as each student called out their birthplace — a few Gainesvilles, Jacksonvilles, Atlantas, mixed with nearby smaller towns like Titusville and Arcadia — Mrs. R placed a pin on its location on the map.
When she got to me I said, “Lima, Peru.”
“We’re not from this country, so we’re aliens here.”
Mrs. R stood stunned, holding her pin between two fingers. She had no place for me; the map she had pulled was of the United States. She waved her hand in a general, southern direction, until finally she pushed the pin into the map’s thin white border. “Oh. Well, we’ll just write it in right here.”
I do not remember a time in my life when I was not aware of being marginalized as an immigrant. I may not have known those words exactly, but their meaning has always been felt. So it’s a strange thing to be told at 33 — when I’ve written a book about what it means to migrate and try to settle into a new life and lose parts of yourself in between — that my book is so relevant right now. That it sounds topical or timely, as if I must’ve jumped at this opportunity, this moment when my community is being vilified and targeted and sent away in droves by an administration that got elected on the racist notion that Mexicans are rapists and bad hombres. There’s also the well-intentioned but equally upsetting reaction from white people who say my book is sure to do well because immigration is so important right now.
By Natalia Sylvester for BUSTLE
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