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A Mexican In The U.S. - 2002-03-20

English Feature #7-35822 Broadcast January 21, 2002

Over a quarter of the one million or so immigrants who arrive in the United States each year come from our closest neighbor to the south, Mexico. Many of them move to states like California and Texas that already have large Mexican-American populations. But others go wherever they can find jobs and a welcoming environment. Today on New American Voices you'll meet Cristina Encinas, a social worker who lives and works in Washington.

When Cristina Encinas came to the United States from Mexico at age 20 thirteen years ago, she had a degree in preschool education, but no English - and no work permit. For the first few years she lived with an elderly uncle in Florida.

"It was tough, because I was young, and I had no friends, and I didn't have papers in the beginning and around those times they didn't let anybody work, because they said that, as the owner of anything, if you hire an undocumented person you could get a 10 thousand dollar fine. So it was very hard. Fortunately, housekeeping doesn't need much, so I did housekeeping for quite a while. It took me two years to learn English, doing housekeeping, and then also getting my papers worked out."

Eventually Cristina Encinas became a legal permanent resident, moved to Washington, and found a job with the Latin American Youth Center, a non-profit organization that provides social services to young people from the inner city.

"We have a variety of programs, from transitional living programs, which provides housing to young people who are on the street, we provide job training, job counseling, substance abuse prevention, we have a charter school for new immigrants that targets teen mothers and teen fathers, we have another program called Youth Build, they train job skills to about 25 youths, they teach them so they can go to college if they wish to…"

About 70 percent of the center's clientele are young people of Hispanic origin. Cristina Encinas says that these kids don't necessarily identify with the specific country from which they or their parents came. Instead, she says, they tend to think of themselves as part of the large Spanish-speaking minority in the United States.

"I think that we all feel like we're all together - we have people from El Salvador, we have Peruvians, we have people from Ecuador, we have Dominicans, we have people from Nicaragua, from all over Latin America - and I feel that the language really brings us together. It's easier, it's just natural, I think."

But Ms Encinas herself retains her Mexican identity.

"Very, very strong. Because I came here too old. I feel that I'm Mexican living in the United States, although I don't think I will… I'm so used to here, and I'm doing so many great things here that I will stay. This country really gives you a lot of opportunities. But I'm very Mexican, I think my kids will be second generation, they will be more Mexican-American than I am, or than I consider myself."

Cristina Encinas says after the first years, she did not find life in America difficult. But she says that is not always the case for Mexicans in this country.

"For me - and I have to recognize that because I lived in a middle income household in Mexico, I had access to education - I think everything worked out for me very smoothly, and I'm very grateful for what I've been able to do in this country. But for a lot of my, you know,… yes, it's a much harder experience, especially if you don't have your immigration papers, if you're illegal in this country, you could probably, you know, survive, but it's hard. And I'm talking also of educated people. I have friends who are educated, but they don't have documents to work, so it becomes very hard, because you're very limited as to what you can do. There's only so many years of housekeeping and office cleaning that you can do, after a while it's tiring, and I see people who are fifty years old and they look seventy because they have worked physically so hard all their lives."

Ms. Encinas and her husband, a biochemist - who worked as a mechanic changing tires on cars when he first came to the United States from Mexico - have two small children. They speak Spanish at home, and Cristina Encinas is trying to pass on her Mexican heritage to them in other ways as well.

"I try to do everything that my mother did when I was little. We celebrate Christmas Eve, we always have pinatas for birthday parties, I make sure that I always have Spanish books that talk about my culture, things like that. What I really want them to do is to spend all summers with their grandparents, when they get old enough to travel, and stay there during the summer, not just to get the culture and the environment, but to be proud of who they are and where they come from."

For a very different perspective on the life of Mexican immigrants in the United States, tune in next week, when we'll talk about Mexican agricultural workers in North Carolina.