My grandpa was a ‘Dreamer’ who crossed the Rio Grande

by Jennifer R. Nájera

My grandpa was an undocumented immigrant. I think his dreams of a better life for his family must have been very similar to the dreams of the parents of the young people with DACA status, who protested on the steps of the Supreme Court last week.

My grandpa was from a small, rural community in Guanajuato, Mexico, where he worked tending sheep and farming. When the town experienced a severe drought, he and my grandma decided to move to Mexico City to look for work. After some time working at a soda bottling factory, my grandpa was still not earning enough to provide for his wife and their three little girls. So in 1945, he left Mexico for Texas.

It was a good time to come to the United States. The U.S. and Mexico had just enacted the bracero program, which was a binational agreement to bring Mexican guest workers to the United States. My grandpa was not a bracero, but he had a compadre who told him that there was plenty of work in Texas.

After a dangerous crossing, my grandpa began to work for a farmer in the lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas — for free. He figured that if he could show how hard he could work, the farmer would give him a job — and he did.

A year passed and my grandpa sent for his family. My grandma and my three eldest aunts crossed the Rio Grande in the middle of the night, the three little girls hiding under a blanket in a small boat. My oldest aunt remembers that they would peek their heads up from time to time to ask for food as they crossed the river. We must have looked like little birds, she told me.

During the 1940s and 1950s, there was a lot controversy around the bracero program. Many claimed that it was spurring undocumented immigration. The government increased the presence of the Border Patrol and authorized its agents to conduct immigration raids, including the so-called Operation Wetback in 1954, to send people back to Mexico.

At the same time, powerful farm lobbyists were able to negotiate rights for farmers who wanted to keep their work forces stable through a process of “drying out,” or selective legalization. Sometimes this occurred en masse, and at other times in smaller groups. In south Texas where my family lived, the Immigration and Naturalization Service periodically granted “exceptions” to farmers in the early 1950s to legalize their workers.

This was how my grandpa and his three eldest daughters gained legal status. It would take longer for my grandma, because she had contracted tuberculosis and was not eligible for legalization until several years later.

My mother, born in Texas, was a natural-born citizen. Their family in 1950s Texas was very similar to those mixed-status families of today — parents and elder children who were undocumented and younger children who were U.S.-born citizens. Fortunately for them, the political climate at that time enabled them to adjust their status because it was more attuned to the region’s economic needs. Today, a similar policy for migrant workers and their families would cause a political uproar, even though we all know that it would make economic sense and would provide long-needed humane immigration reform.

I was born in California, about 20 years after my family’s legalization. Growing up, I had the privileges of a U.S. citizen. But as the granddaughter of undocumented immigrants, I know how easily my life path could have been different. My mother’s parents could have been deported. She might have been raised by my aunts, whose legal status was also precarious. We probably would have lived in poverty most of our lives and had limited educational and career options.

Instead, that exception granted to farm laborers in Texas in the 1950s allowed the granddaughter of an undocumented migrant the opportunity to go to Stanford and eventually teach at the University of California.

As a professor for the last 13 years, I have met dozens of undocumented young people making their way through college. Some of them are the activists you see in the streets and protesting in front of the Supreme Court. Many others are keeping their heads down and desperately trying to have normal, stable lives, while fearing for the safety of themselves and their parents. All of them are hoping that their college degrees will be able to help their families to be more economically secure. All of them recognize that their parents — like my grandfather — are the original Dreamers.

Jennifer R. Nájera is an associate professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside and the author of “The Borderlands of Race: Mexican Segregation in a South Texas Town.”

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