Frontera NorteSur | FNS Feature
She moves between the tables with the grace of the dolphins that sometimes delight the bayside diners of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Greeting customers in Spanish and English, the server has the poise, the demeanor and the intellect to work with an international clientele. Born in Mexico and raised in the United States, Danae is a student of European history, a lover of Romeo and Juliet, and a fan of thrash metal music. “I love Shakespeare!” she declares.
She also likes poetry, blackjack, Jack Daniels and tattoos.
Though seemingly at ease on the Bay of Banderas, Danae confesses she would rather be somewhere else.
“Honestly, I feel out of place here in Mexico. I feel that I don’t belong. It’s hard to start over in a place you don’t know,” says the waitress. “I actually feel more American than Mexican. Sometimes I feel out of place. I’d call myself a pocha. I’m proud of my parents and my Mexican heritage they gave me. I’m also thankful to my teachers and friends in the U.S. who gave me the culture I know.”
A pocha, or a pocho for a male, is a longtime slang term for a Mexican reared in the United States.
Sitting down for an interview, Danae makes it clear she would prefer to converse in English, which she calls her “first language.”
As the afternoon currents roll in and the bay fades from blue to gray, Danae recounts a life journey that began in the tough Mexican state of Sinaloa, extended into the U.S Midwest, touched Parris Island and Pearl Harbor, reached Afghanistan, and then took an unexpected detour back to Mexico.
Along the way, she’s encountered narcos, the Ku Klux Klan, proud U.S. Marines, Vietnam vets, dopers, strippers, tongue-gagging Guatemalan evangelicals, the Taliban, corporate offshorers, and other members of the “Pocho Nation,” who also wound up involuntarily back in their ancestral homeland.
Danae is all of 20 years old.
Because of possible litigation over her U.S. immigration status, the young woman, whose first name comes from a character in Greek mythology, agreed to share her life story on the condition that her last name not be used.
Danae’s story begins in 1993 in Culiacan, Sinaloa, the state capital of the Pacific Coast state known for its narco economy and culture. As an infant, Danae’s mother and step-father took her to Hamilton, Ohio, a small city which is located about 30 minutes from Cinncinati. Brought up in the Midwest, Danae was acculturated on a diet of McDonald’s, Taco Bell and the “best mini-hamburgers in the world” dished out by Ohio’s White Castle chain.
Her family was part of a new wave of Latino immigrants that settled communities off the beaten path of the more popular migratory destinations of California, the U.S. Southwest and cities like Chicago and New York.
In a paper submitted for a human rights writing contest, Miami University anthropology student Heather Hillenbrand noted the economic context of the new Latino immigration.
“Latinos are the only group of people currently coming into Hamilton at a significant rate; the city’s population peaked in 1960 at 72,345 (U.S. Census 1970) and has been steadily declining since,” Hillenbrand wrote. “This is largely due to a loss of many high-paying blue-collar jobs as the city lost its industrial firms based in paper manufacturing, iron works and machine works to outsourcing. Recent economic growth has largely been in low-wage jobs…”
The U.S. Census counted around 62,000 people in Hamilton during the 2010-2012 time frame, a slight increase from the 2000 census, with Latinos steadily inching up to 6.4 percent of the population.
Enough Mexicans moved into Hamilton, Danae says, that the city acquired a Spanish nickname: “Guajajalmiton.” According to the former resident, the name derives from the large number of people living in the city who can trace their roots to the Mexican city of Leon, Guanajuato.
In the early 21st century, racial and ethnic tensions boiled over in “Guajajalmiton.” In 2005, the alleged rape of a young girl by a Latino immigrant resulted in the burning of the suspect’s home, as well as a flurry of local agitation by the Ku Klux Klan.
While she was a young girl, Danae says members of the racist group passed out literature at a local shopping mall. “It was scary,” she recalls. “The KKK once tried to kick all the Mexicans out of Hamilton.”
But Danae says she acquired a more positive, enduring image of the country. When she was about 6 years old, the child saw a Marine, rose in hand, standing stoically among the crowd in an airport.
“I could remember him perfectly. If I could draw him, that’s him. How serene he was. I grew up with the mentality that I wanted to be that guy.”
Soon enough, the star-struck girl got a chance to don the uniform that so fascinated her. In the middle of the last decade, the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Especially in Iraq, the constant ambushes and roadside bombs did not make good recruitment hooks for the armed forces, and enlistments tanked. In return for promises of citizenship, military recruiters signed up the Danaes of the world.
The girl from Guajajalmiton was “15 about to turn 16” when she answered Washington’s call.
“There were immigrants from all over the world,” Danae says of her new comrades. “They were Europeans, people from China, Russia, signing up because they went to get their (citizenship) papers.”
In a 2008 report, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contended that U.S. military recruiters were violating the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2002, which established 16 as the absolute minimum age of enlistment. Further, the ACLU charged, the U.S. had agreed to a “binding declaration” that raised the minimum recruitment age to 17.
By 2010, Danae was serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan. Her baby face turning somber, Danae declines to discuss combat details but says “many friends” were killed. The US, she insists, lost many of its “best” young people in a land long known for chewing up foreign invaders. “It was like a band of sheep following the cattle to slaughter,” Danae reflects.
In her own Afghan chapter, survival depended on fellow Marines, the “lucky charm” of a loved one’s photo and letters from back home.
Years later, Danae has a perspective on America’s longest war. She’s met much older vets, from the Vietnam War era, and compares Afghanistan with Vietnam. The young vet holds a certain respect for her former Afghan foes, considering them among the most “patriotic” people in the world and willing to fight “tooth and nail” against the most technologically-superior military machine the globe has ever witnessed.
Danae admits her tour of duty resulted in “a little bit of PTSD.” While in public, she keeps a close eye on following cars, suddenly closing doors and even little children, who in Afghanistan might have been strapped with explosives. The nightly fireworks that boom on the beach and light up the sky over Banderas Bay are “the worst” call-backs to a nightmarish time, she adds.
Barely into her third decade of life, Danae says she grew up real fast and missed out on the abandon of youth pursued so relentlessly by many of her teen peers. “Wisdom comes with age,” she observes, “but your childhood only comes once and it never comes back.”
For all her sacrifices, Danae still doesn’t have citizenship papers. According to the former U.S. resident, she was instead giving an ultimatum by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to board a one-way flight out of the country within 48 hours.
The startling order came one day in 2011, when ICE agents came knocking on Danae’s door while she was inside watching a DVD and thinking about reenlisting in the Marine Corps.
To this day, the ex-Marine claims she doesn’t know the exact reason for the deportation, but acknowledges that the ICE agents showed her a paper she supposedly signed that permitted the action. Technically, the order is not a deportation,
Danae clarifies, since she could go back to the U.S. either on a student visa or with citizenship papers. Practically speaking, however, an order to leave the country is just what it means.
Arriving in Mexico with a suitcase, a laptop and a dog, Danae suddenly found herself living with a difficult aunt in the bustling city of Guadalajara and, to her surprise, acting as a surrogate mother for three cousins. Together with other young deportees and military vets from the “Pocho Nation” diaspora, Danae found work through a temp agency in Guadalajara’s call centers, specifically with Bank of America and T-Mobile.
Answering questions in a flawless English, the customer service rep assisted often befuddled, older callers who had trouble with a credit card bill or operating a cell-phone. Corporate America’s onetime voice to the world describes stressful days filled with calls from “idiots” like the women who couldn’t work her cellphone to function because she had taken the battery out of it, or the nasty individuals who would end conversations with racist rants.
“If they heard an accent, they would call you a Filipino even if you weren’t a Filipino. ‘Wetbacks! You’re taking all our jobs!.”
For her skills in diplomacy and public relations, Danae earned about $3.50 an hour at the Bank of America job and approximately $4.00 per hour for the T-Mobile gig, she says. The regular Mexican benefits of social security, government housing and savings accounts were part of the package. While the pay was much better than the wages paid at Guadalajara’s numerous, foreign-owned electronics industry plants, the money was still about half the U.S. minimum wage.
While she was living and working in Mexico’s Silicon Valley, Danae met and married a U.S. citizen. The couple then moved to Puerto Vallarta, where the union soured after Danae ended up being the sole breadwinner and caught her “lazy” husband cheating with a man, she says.
Needing a well-paying job in a tourism-dependent city where such positions are few and far between, Danae then accepted a job as a hostess at a strip club. She soon was “graduated” to a drink girl, enticing customers to purchase expensive drinks while holding conversations with them. According to the bilingual woman, the management fired her after she refused to have sex with customers.
Nowadays, Danae works at a place where the table action is more mundane. Along with a few dozen other U.S. vets, the 20-year-old says is contemplating a lawsuit against the U.S. government for its alleged failure to live up to the deal of citizenship papers for military service.
” A lot of hopes and dreams were in that,” Danae says of the government’s bundle of promises. ” A lot of families were in there, and in 2011 everything was gone.”
When she is not working, Danae devotes time to online studies in history that will hopefully culiminate in a bachelor’s degree from a Mexican university. Her goal is to earn a master’s degree and go on to a doctorate, perhaps leading to a teaching position in academia.
Danae is fascinated by European history, especially World War Two, Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust. Her voice projects a sense of duty as she explains why it is important to know about genocides that most people prefer to forget. “There is so much there that needs to come out to the world,” Danae muses. “Everything happened because we let it happen.”
A young woman who came of age in the hear of the Buckeye State, Danae doesn’t mince words when it comes to the immigration reform quagmire on the Potomac. Only the Native Americans, Danae says, can lay claim to a non-immigrant status in a nation of immigrants.
“(Politicians) should cut the bull..America was built with immigrants,” she adds. “If they should get rid of the immigrants, they should start with the Senate and Congress, because they would all be gone…”
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico