Beyond  /  Longread

For We Were Strangers in the Land of America

Comparing the struggles of Mexican and Greek immigrants to the United States.

What gets hidden — what goes into hiding — when people immigrate to the United States? For us, it was an inconvenient syllable in a “long” Greek name, in a culture that favors names like Smith and Brown. It was my Papou’s age and status as a child, and in a broader sense his youth itself. It was an old family icon, later to shine forth with all its somber beauty but battered by the years and miles. It was also, I learned to my astonishment when I was about 30, my parents’ hushed-up legal marriage at a New York City courthouse, six months before their “official” 1960 wedding at St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church in Philadelphia. My father was a Greek immigrant, whereas my mother was born in Philadelphia to Greek immigrant parents. It seems that at about the time he met my mother, his visa was running out and U.S. immigration law, based then on national origin quotas skewed to favor northern Europeans, made it tough for Greeks to become permanent residents.

The Mexican people I interviewed in Pasco shared their own stories of things being hidden, and going into hiding, coming to America. The theme resonated, but the details were significantly different, and they speak to the frankly greater courage, audacity and tenacity needed at moments when hiding things meant survival. There was the money to pay for a family’s cross-border passage that a mother sewed into the hem of her skirt to conceal it from the “coyotes” — the smugglers — who brought them over. There was precious food and water, revealed and shared when families were cooped up in way stations with only dirty water to drink and no idea which side of the border they were on.

Mostly, the stories were of people having to hide themselves from fearsome danger, often showing great mettle, generosity and clever resourcefulness. One young father, Pedro Ruiz, told me how he and a fellow traveler had crossed the border in the trunk of a car after they had left their home villages and family goats in Mexico. The air was tight, the heat was intense, the road was rough, the car was racing along — and the other man started to panic. Pedro kept his nerve and gently calmed the other fellow, repeating: “You’re going to make it, this is so you can make it.”