By on May 17, 2017

How Wyoming’s young Latinos are navigating a web of prejudice and an uncertain fate.

No one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city

running as well

no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

– an excerpt from Home by Warsan Shire

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In Gonz Serrano’s case, his mother didn’t put him on a boat. She put him on an inner tube. He was six years old when she pushed him across the Rio Grande as part of their long journey from Guanajuato, Mexico, to Burns, Wyoming, where his father was waiting. The first time someone called Serrano a wetback, his mother was confused: “But mijo, your back never even touched the water!”

It was 1993, and Burns had a population of 272. Soon, the family moved to Albin, population less than 100. Serrano’s family was one of many Mexican families that would eventually settle in Albin during the 1990s. Now, like Jackson Hole, Albin is more than 30 percent Latino.

Serrano doesn’t remember the journey across the river. He doesn’t remember much from before Wyoming. He didn’t know he was part of the largest immigration wave from Mexico, spurred by poverty, violence, and a feeling of hopelessness for the future. His family left two years before a massive economic crisis devastated the country. Since then, nearly everyone in his family has immigrated to the US.

In Mexico, Serrano lived “in extreme poverty … in a house that was made up of stacked rocks and concrete … I remember scorpions on the walls and taking cold showers with a bucket in the middle of the room where there was a drain.”  If he’d stayed, Serrano said, “there’s little doubt I would’ve ended up selling drugs, then most likely getting killed.” Since the family’s departure, violence has increased exponentially in the area. According to the San Miguel Times, Guanajuato has one of the highest rates of violence in the country, including more than 100 homicides a month.

Moving to Wyoming ensured Serrano a future he wouldn’t have had in Mexico. Now, his memories are like those of many who grow up in the West. He recalls a happy, rural childhood surrounded by friends and family, most who worked in the agriculture industry. “I grew up working in the fields. We’d go out there with our grandpas, uncles, and friends, and we’d pick weeds from the wheat field.”

However, as for many Mexican immigrants in the state, an idyllic childhood always carried an undercurrent of fear. Serrano barely remembers a home other than Wyoming, but he was recently reminded that he cannot afford to feel too safe. He is currently caught in one of the confounding binds of immigration policy. “There is no path to citizenship,” he said. “It’s an obstacle course.” When his father died when he was 16, his family struggled amid the grief. He dropped out of school, and his family moved around. In the chaos, Serrano failed to register for the draft when he turned 18. Several years later, he accidentally let his green card lapse. When he went to renew it, he discovered that because he hadn’t registered for the draft, he wouldn’t be able to apply for citizenship until he turns 31. He is 30 now.

Until next year, he waits, he hopes, and he advocates for others: “It never really goes away. You find yourself really paying attention to your speed as you drive … you think about it constantly. It could happen any second.” This fear permeates even those who’ve been here most of their lives: “People forget that not everyone chooses to be here. I forgot I was supposed to be worried about being deported. I’m from here. I went to school here. I graduated from here.” Now, Serrano cannot afford to make a mistake. “If an undocumented person makes a mistake, it can be a death sentence in some ways.”

This limbo has become especially excruciating under the Trump administration, which has demonstrated a commitment to more deportations, even of those who were previously safe—like people with minor criminal histories, or those protected by the DREAM Act. For many immigrants in Wyoming, the future is uncertain.

“We’re going to fight this to the end”

It wasn’t until Serrano was a teenager that he realized that some would rather exclude him from their vision of the state. When his dad died and they moved to Cheyenne, the slurs began, the run-ins with the police, the racism: “I started to notice there was a difference between people. The north side was rich and white, Mexicans lived on the south side.” This de facto residential segregation is a hangover from a time of more institutionalized racism, when it was not uncommon for restaurants to refuse to serve people of color or for stores to hang signs reading, “No Dogs, No Mexicans.”

Prejudice is no longer so blatant, but Serrano sensed a quiet unease, an underlying resistance to people like him. Once, he took his little brother out to eat and overheard a conversation between two teachers. “One was talking about how ‘those Mexican kids don’t listen.’ I was just thinking how my little brother would feel hearing that.”

From a young age, Serrano learned to be on high alert around law enforcement, an awareness that has intensified over time.

Several years ago, Serrano was preparing to move from Cheyenne to Oregon and was standing outside his going away party with some family members when a police car pulled up and an officer started questioning them. “The cops said, ‘we have reports of a stolen bike,’” Serrano recalled. “We told them we didn’t have any bike, that we were having a going away party. All of a sudden, there were seven cop cars in the corner all asking us questions, and we were just saying ‘we didn’t do anything.’” Eventually, Serrano asked if he could record what was happening because it was making him uncomfortable. The cops left.

“We know we’re targeted,” Serrano said. “Deep down we always feel it … they tell us we’re safe, but we’re really not … I was taught to fear the cops, to fear white people. My family had too much to lose.”

Serrano is one of the co-founders of Juntos, a Cheyenne-based group that advocates for members of the Latino and undocumented population. Juntos organized the recent May Day March in solidarity with laborers across the country. On May 1, a large group walked from downtown Cheyenne to Governor Matt Mead’s office to deliver a letter asking that he formally protect Wyoming’s undocumented workers.

It wasn’t the first time Serrano marched for the rights of those in his community. More than a decade ago, Serrano and his sister organized an event in solidarity with undocumented workers. As they marched, people hurled insults from cars, calling them “spics” and “wetbacks.”

Every time Serrano is called a slur or feels a surge of fear when a police car passes, anger is his first reaction. “It’s always the first thing to come up. But it’s so important to not let that take you over. I try to take everything I’ve learned up to this point, everything I have … that’s how we win in the end. With love. That’s how we do it, that’s how we have to do it.”

Many immigrants in Wyoming face this tension. In learning to manage near constant fear and anger, they convert pain into love for their communities and homes, and into a struggle they don’t necessarily know if they’ll win.

“My whole family, we are undocumented and unafraid,” Serrano said. “We’re going to fight this to the end.”

“Less and less and less”

Serrano’s experience in the southern part of the state is echoed by young Mexican heritage people in Jackson Hole.

Anna Morillon was born and raised in the valley, and is now a student at University of Wyoming. Her family has been here for generations: “My grandparents were some of the very first Hispanic people to settle in Jackson.” Back then, it was easy to get visas to work in the U.S. Now, her parents own a cleaning company and a Mexican goods store near the Town Square. “We’ve been here since the beginning,” Morillon said.

Morillon has always been a bridge between cultures. Until third grade, she was the only bilingual person in her class. “A lot of the kids coming in did not speak English, so I would be a translator for their parents,” she explained.

Even as a young child, Morillon was caught between two emotions—a feeling of solidarity with her community, and shame that she was a part of that community. “For a while I was embarrassed. I heard negative comments like, ‘oh all these Mexicans are coming into town,’ so I would try to disassociate myself as much as possible from them. But also try to help them out.” As Morillon describes it, the children of immigrants struggle to find their place. “Kids want to disassociate themselves from who they are and where they come from,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of Hispanic kids who say they don’t want to speak Spanish, they only want to speak English … the stigma of being Mexican makes kids deny their roots.”

Morillon loves Jackson Hole, but she notices the glances, the subtle ways she is made to feel less than. “People always assume that just because I have a different skin color I’m stupid.” Recently, she was in line at Smiths when she realized she forgot her wallet and said she’d have to go get it from the car. The man behind her muttered, “Just like a typical Mexican.” She turned around and said, “Excuse me?”

He was shocked that she replied.

“I wasn’t going to let him humiliate me like that. He didn’t apologize, he just left the line.”

She knows it’s harder for people who are more vulnerable—those who aren’t bilingual, or who are undocumented. “I know one woman, she’s a single mom who works four jobs and gets four hours of sleep. People are so nasty to her because they assume she doesn’t have papers, that she’s stupid, that she doesn’t speak English. … It makes you feel less and less and less.”

Morillon’s perception that people feel like they live on the fringes is substantiated by data compiled by a 2015 assessment by Eriksen-Meier Consulting. It demonstrated that in Jackson Hole, 60 percent of the Latino community are first generation (and therefore far more likely to be undocumented), 36 percent are second generation, and 4 percent are third generation.

Of those polled in the immigrant community, 55 percent said they felt included in the greater Jackson community, 45 percent said they did not. Forty-five percent also said they don’t feel that their voices are heard or that their opinions matter. When asked to elaborate, participants wrote comments like, “I feel marginalized”; “Why don’t they take us into account?” and “Language, racism.” One person wrote a barrier to being heard was “accessibility of housing.” They suggested “more propagation of information. It is very hidden here.”

When asked what they would like to improve about the community the most, respondents overwhelmingly said more affordable housing. Many also highlighted the need for renter’s protections, and others wrote about discrimination. Answers included: “Humane feelings toward the neediest class”; “Law enforcement is prejudiced” and “Information and more help for how to contribute to the community.”

One person wished there would be “no discrimination by which we are outcast.”

Another said they wanted to see “the Anglo community communicate more with the Latino community.”

“To listen to the minority,” was someone else’s wish for the community.

“More housing for Latinos,” read another comment, “because we are the ones who do the dirty jobs.”

Several wished they could obtain driver’s licenses, something Wyoming law currently forbids. And some wrote that they wished for legal status, to “have access to social security.”

To feel consistently marginalized takes a toll, especially when compounded with socioeconomic difficulties. Though Latinos constitute around 30 percent of Jackson’s population, the highest concentration in the state, many struggle to make ends meet. Immigrants’ average income is $26,000 as compared to the average $72,000. Morillon has witnessed the toll this takes: “I’ve seen a family of 10 live in an apartment for two.” She struggles when so much blame is placed on immigrants. “They’re not supposed to drive without a license, but they have to get to work,” she said. “You’re expecting them to go on the START bus with their kids day and night. The system is so broken but so much is asked of people.”

The system seems broken partially because of how difficult it is for people to achieve legal status. It took Morillon’s mother 25 years to complete the process to become documented. “Was she supposed to not drive that whole time?” Morillon asked. Fear was a constant companion during those 25 years, and it hasn’t gone away.

“My own parents are afraid and they are here legally,” she said. “My dad is scared his store will get closed down.” Morillon grew up knowing people who got deported, or watching friends’ parents be deported. She recognized some of the five people most recently arrested by ICE. “I saw people I grew up with.”

Now, Morillon feels it is her obligation to speak out against the damaging stereotypes about her community, and to take pride in her heritage even under an administration that has broadly painted Mexicans as criminals: “I grew up in Jackson, but my roots are in Mexico and I will always defend them.”

“It’s our job as immigrant kids”

Victor Zarate, 19, was also born in Jackson Hole. His parents arrived about 30 years ago, though neither has been able to achieve legal status. They moved to the United States because they couldn’t find any work in Mexico. “You can’t control anything there. The only choice they had was to leave. They came here for one reason only. To work,” he said.

Growing up, Zarate always noticed disparities. He was occasionally called a wetback, but the differences also took more subtle forms: “My white friends traveled, they got to do things I never did. You look at yourself in the mirror and you see a Hispanic kid, and you have a wish to go somewhere, but we can’t. We don’t want to lose what we already have, we have to work. So immigrant kids don’t get the same opportunities.” He always noticed that “Hispanics work in the kitchens, they’re not seen. Behind every piece of fruit and vegetable is an immigrant.” His parents dreamed of more opportunity for their kids—Zarate was never allowed to go to sleepovers because his mom said he needed to focus on school.

Zarate has recently noticed an uptick in people expressing prejudicial viewpoints. He’s felt hurt by commenters online suggesting that Jackson will be a cleaner place if ICE deported more people, and that immigrants come to this country to commit crimes and steal jobs. “It really hurts because I thought we were a more connected community,” he said.

Zarate was very close to two of the most recent Jackson deportees. He says one of them immigrated here when he was a toddler, after his mother escaped an abusive relationship in Mexico. He was on probation for possession of a small amount of marijuana. The man has a newborn, and Zarate says he’s “been working hard to have money, to get an education, to be somebody.” The deportation was painful enough, but it hurt to see community members speak as if the deported men were less-than. “They say things like Mexicans are only here to steal jobs and steal housing. It affects you. You wish to not be living this.”

The people closest to Zarate are fearful right now. His mother was concerned about him speaking publicly about immigration issues, but Zarate sees it as his duty. “I don’t want my parents to be afraid. I will do anything to keep my parents safe because I’m a U.S. citizen and those are my parents and I claim them … they had the courage to come to this country when there was a chance they wouldn’t make it.”

As the child of immigrants, Zarate feels strongly that it is up to him to tell his family’s story, and to resist injustices when he sees them: “My generation is going to fight. It’s our job as immigrant kids to speak out because right now people like my parents are too afraid to speak.”

“Their kids go to school with your kids”

Juntos is working to alleviate some of that fear. One of its priorities is to help immigrant families fill out emergency paperwork so that if a parent is deported there’s a plan for their children. People from Juntos coach folks on what to say if ICE arrives at their door, and educate undocumented people about their rights. Serrano says that these trainings provide so much relief to people—any way they can feel in control, he said, is important.

Lena Graber, who was raised in Jackson Hole and is now an attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in California, says this fear is not unfounded. While deportations were high during the Obama administration, she says they’ve taken on a new tone.

“ICE is less predictable and more indiscriminate,” she said. “A lot more people are disappearing.”

For example, those with prior deportation records have no right to legal hearings and can be deported by ICE on the spot. Recently, Graber has heard reports of ICE arresting these people and transporting them to Mexico within hours. Their families will not know where they are until they call from across the border. This method is more extreme and new. “These disappearances have been under Trump, not Obama,” she said.

Part of the problem is that there is virtually nothing requiring ICE to keep its word. For example, the ICE spokesman for Wyoming has said that ICE will not target those with low level crimes, but there is nothing holding agents to that, and the data demonstrates that agents’ behavior on the ground sometimes diverges from policy. In Jackson Hole, 75 percent of immigrants with previous convictions arrested in Teton County between 2002 and 2015 had misdemeanors, not high level crimes.

“This is the crisis of our immigration system,” Graber said. “People are up for deportation even if they’ve never so much as pulled someone’s hair.”

“That visibility is

so important … you know these people.

Their kids go to school with your

kids, you’ve got to

take notice.”

Because ICE operates as a separate entity, local law enforcement across the country have severed ties, refusing to cooperate or communicate with the agency, especially as court cases increasingly demonstrate that ICE’s use of detainers is unconstitutional. “The agencies that do cooperate with them usually do so out of habit,” Graber said, “or because they’ve never thought of it, or because they were asked.”

However, they are under no obligation to do so.

It is incredibly difficult for undocumented residents to become documented, and if they are undocumented, they are deportable by an organization that has little oversight. The constant possibility of deportation causes a fear that, as Zarate said, can cause some to live in the dark, to feel safe only in the shadows.

“That visibility is so important … you know these people. Their kids go to school with your kids, you’ve got to take notice.”

Serrano rejects this. Part of the May Day March was to show that undocumented people are here, that they are unafraid, and that native-born people interact with them every day: “That visibility is so important … you know these people. In Wyoming, you definitely do. You stand with them in the grocery store line, their kids go to school with your kids, you’ve got to take notice. When you see your kid’s friend out marching it has to open your eyes a little bit. That’s the most important thing, to remind people that we are still people.”

Strawberry fields

Part of being an undocumented resident is to be familiar with fear. However, there’s also a power and a pride that comes with that history. Serrano feels every day. The morning of the May Day March, for example, he was eating a strawberry. As he ate, he remembered a time he was outdoors with a filmmaker friend. He commented that the view was beautiful. The filmmaker agreed, but added more for him: “He told me what he saw. I saw the depth, the texture, everything he saw. He gave me his eyes for a second. He gave me his filmmaker eyes, and it blew my mind.”

Lending perspective is the most powerful thing anyone can do, Serrano said. And that’s what he hopes Wyomingites can do for one another. That day he saw that strawberry with an immigrant’s eyes: “I know my people picked, processed, and shipped that strawberry to me.” If everyone could see the world through this lens, to build an awareness of the contributions of undocumented laborers, everything, he says, would be different.

“Perspective gives you patience,” Serrano said. “Anger is easier. You want to lash out and fight when you don’t understand something or somebody else. Patience is harder.”

Taking the time, then, to reorient and to see something differently humanizes those who seem so distant, like the undocumented worker picking strawberries in California, or slicing the same berries in the kitchen of a Jackson Hole restaurant. PJH

About Sarah Ross

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