It’s April 10, 1864 and Mexico is under Austrian rule. The elected president, Benito Juarez, the president of the people, has been cast aside and in his stead, Carlotta of Belgium and Maximilian of Austria have claimed the “crown” and built a castle in the Western Hemisphere’s largest park—Chapultepec Forest, in Mexico City. Maximilian became the only monarch of the Second Mexican Empire, appointed by Napoleon the III of France. On the 5th of May (cinco de mayo) 1862 a battle was fought and won by the Mexican people against the French in what is known as “la guerra de los pasteles”—the War of Cakes.
What most Americans celebrate as the “Mexican Cinco de Mayo” in Mexico is not a holiday, but more a reminder. Because two years after the War of the Cakes, Maximilian, appointed by his French Emperor cousin, would become the ruler of a sovereign nation. And though Benito Juarez had the support of the people, he did not have the capital to overthrow an emperor. At that point, those loyal to President Juarez united and became what was later known among elite circles as the “Rebel Circle of Scholars.” Among them, was Jesus Escobar y Armendariz, my ancestor.
Founder and Dean of Colegio Mexicano, Jesus Escobar had dedicated his life to study, phrenology, astrology, and travel. Among the collection of notes and letters in our family library is an invitation addressed to Jesus Escobar for President Lincoln’s inauguration, along with cryptic invoices detailing surveillance weather balloons sold to the Union during the Civil War years later. After Maximilian’s arrival, Jesus Escobar traveled to the United States to request help in order to denounce the Miramar Treaty (specifically, a foreign debt implemented by the French) but the United States, crippled and recovering from the Civil War, had no help to offer. He then went to London. Then Munich. And as his pleas landed on deaf ears, he ended up in Italy where he heard he could “provoke” a naval captain who had fought the Austrians in Venice, and still held an old-fashion grudge against Maximilian’s ancestors.
We grew up hearing this story, and would later read about it in family documents. But the part that always enchanted me was of Jesus Escobar falling deeply in love with the daughter of his Italian ally, Captain Zerman, and how, after Maximilian was executed by firing squad on the orders of Benito Juarez, Adelina Zerman emigrated to Mexico to be with her beloved.
Worn down by the events of the Empire, Jesus Escobar y Armendariz and Adelina Zerman married in England, and settled in a ranch in the northern Chihuahua desert, fifty-five kilometers south of the border. After that, the Italy-Mexico connection would become a long-lasting union in my family. My ancestors would help families immigrate from the Lazio, Umbria, and Piedmont regions into Mexico, welcoming them to America not through Ellis Island, but via New Orleans, and then down the Rio Grande into Paso del Norte—or El Paso, Texas. Jesus and Adelina had two sons: Romulo and Numa. The brothers founded Mexico’s largest university of agricultural studies: Escuela Superior Hermanos Escobar in Ciudad Juarez. Romulo would become the Governor of Chihuahua, and his brother Numa, the Editor-in-Chief of El Agricultor Mexicano and other publications.
Throughout our family history, our relationship to the United States of America was simple: we were neighbors. There is no history of anyone in my family spending more than three to four years in the country, always legally, and always upon invitation, and as Mexico was at one point one peso to the dollar on the economic front, there was frankly no need to ever want to move there.
My immigration story is one inevitably linked to tragedy. One August evening in 1987, my mother was taken to the hospital with what she said was “bad heartburn” only to never return. Thinking she had been transferred to a hospital in El Paso (my mother was born in the US and we, her daughters, had Certification of Birth Abroad documents), my sisters and I relocated temporarily to Ciudad Juarez to be close to her, and family. Two weeks later, we were told she passed. We were told she passed her second day at the hospital in Chihuahua, not El Paso. Neither my sisters nor me saw her at the hospital, said goodbye, or attended her funeral. I was young and I was known for having a wild imagination. Out of grief, I built an entire system of make-believe that became the centrifugal force behind my coping mechanism. Living in the borderlands became a symbolic emblem of a neverwas.
We would cross to El Paso every other day, mostly to shop or go to an amusement park, as my family thought that would be helpful to our grief. In that crazy and eternal borderland of “what ifs?” I made believe that my mother was alive and well, and had run away to the United States. My relationship to the country changed. I did not necessarily want to move to the US, but there was a sense that maybe if I did, I would find her. A year later, my father remarried. He married an Irish-American woman, originally from California, but who now lived in El Paso. My father insisted that we move to El Paso with him. The Escobars, whose legacy was rooted in the northern Mexican deserts, fought him: we did not belong in the United States, we had no need for the United States, there’s only greed in the United States. But my father had the rightful custody and traded legacy for something called “the American Dream.” He traded it for credit, for loans, for all the things that one could have but never own.
Moving to this country was not easy. We encountered cruelty and discrimination for having an accent, or for always using an “in” instead of an “on.” I realize now that a sort of depression is common among immigrants. Plenty of it has to do with missing home, of course, but for many of us, it is also encountering a culture so foreign to your own that, as children, we simply didn’t understand. The American Dream felt treacherous. The dolce vita of the Italiano-Mexicano culture was nowhere to be found in a “Say No To Drugs” environment. Cruelty abounded in middle school. The language was dry and prickly. Our first year here my older sister would not leave her room, and my younger sister became so ill from eating processed foods that at one point the doctors told my step-mother she had to learn to cook, because “fast food” could not comprise our diet.
Our only consolation during the difficult era of assimilation was the proximity to the border. My grandmother would cross every Friday to pick us up from El Paso and drive us to Ciudad Juarez for the weekend. Our holidays and summer break would be spent at the ranch, where we could be ourselves, connect to nature, and meditate. I still remember the feeling in the gut of my stomach from Sunday nights: when my uncle would cross us back to the US. As soon as it was time for us to come back, the dread would sink in and the anxiety would spike.
There, in that in-between, in that hour or two of waiting in a “line” to cross the bridge that connects Mexico to the US of America—watching Tarahumara mothers beg for money and men wash your cars only to get an “ahi pa’l otra” (I’ll pay you next time), I frequently asked myself: why do people do this? Why do people risk their lives to come into this country? As I watched the border patrol agents harass person after person who had been patiently waiting to cross, seeing them stick their flashlights through the window, shine the light in our faces expectantly and without a prompt waiting for us to say: “American citizen” I thought: If I, a dual citizen, was treated this way, how were the rest of our people being treated who crossed deserts for days for the hope of a better life? I have been in this country, on-and-off for close to twenty-five years now, and the truth is that I still feel, and will always feel like there is a part of me that never crossed the border, a part of me that stayed back “home.” Though I did most of my formative years in Zacatecas, Mexico, El Paso is presently where most of my family is. They relocated to this country after the cartel wars threatened our city and our country.
It’s 2018 and the United States is my adoptive home. Thirty years after losing my mother and my home, I still have a wild imagination. I have built an entire system of make-believe that has become my vocation. And in the crazy and eternal borderlands of “what ifs?” I have made believe that my mother is alive and well and that she lives somewhere in the American dream.