Preserving Tradition, While Chasing the American Dream

Preserving Tradition, While Chasing the American Dream

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COACHELLA -- It is Sunday, and as is the tradition my mother wakes me and my sister up early in the morning. Tired, and sometimes complaining, we use our bare hands to cook for the entire family. The sides of my thumbs feel the burning sting as I gently dig through the soft dough of the homemade memelas. Memelas are a fried sope (akin to a small, thick tortilla), made with corn masa (dough) and pinched at the borders so it can be filled with sour cream, queso fresco (fresh cheese), and salsa among other ingredients.

Making memelas is one of the many traditions my family has preserved since our departure from Mexico 11 years ago. While we keep many of our Mexican traditions, we are also very much driven by the American Dream, like so many others in this country.

In the year 2000, according to the California Department of Finance, 217,576 immigrants were admitted as legal residents. We are part of that number.

My siblings and I have faced many challenges, from learning a new language to letting go of our agricultural customs and learning to cope with the American lifestyle.

Like many of the families that immigrated to the United States from Mexico, my family moved back and forth constantly in search of agricultural labor. In fact, every single member of our family older than 16 has worked as a grape picker. My two older siblings, Erika and Jaime, now 25 and 28, gave up the opportunity to obtain an education because they began to work intensively in their teens due to our family’s lack of economic stability. Nothing comes easy in life, not even in a land of freedom, such as the United States.

Learning English was the primary challenge for my siblings and me; integrating into a school was extremely difficult. I was unfamiliar with the language and had no prior knowledge of anything other than agriculture. Education was deceptive at first. I was discouraged due to the cultural and language barriers.

I remember clearly how one of my teachers in Fresno (where my family lived for awhile) commented on my intelligence, in Spanish: “Uy, esa niña no sabe nada!” which translates to, “That little girl does not know anything!” I was in the first grade. She perceived me as ignorant, and she completely gave up on helping me reach the basic academic standards.

In our 10-member family, there are only two life paths to follow. The first, and more promising one, is to attend school and go to college, and as my parents always recommend, become doctors, lawyers, teachers, or even engineers. The second, however, is to repeat the same vicious cycle of a labor-packed life.

Most will try and achieve the first, but in modern times with recent budget cuts it is becoming more difficult to achieve that. Three of my older siblings have attended or are currently attending a four-year university. Three others are on their way there, including myself. It’s a goal I’ve set for myself; a way to achieve a different life in this country; and my status as an immigrant only motivates me further to accomplish those goals.

But not everything I wish to change. On Sunday mornings, I continue to make the memelas, a reminder of our life and culture in Mexico, a preservation of our traditions, of what we refuse to leave behind.

Maricruz Cabrera is a youth writer and reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a new youth-led media project of New America Media that was established to train young journalists, provide a platform for local voices and explore issues of community health in the Eastern Coachella Valley.  The project is supported by a grant from The California Endowment.