If These Policies Were In Place 100 Years Ago, My Family Would Not Exist

by Caitlin Radjewski
Caitlin Radjewski

All I really wanted to write about this week was the fact that I got super cute haircut. But I can’t do that. Instead, I think I need to tell you a story. I hesitate because it’s not necessarily my story to tell. But it is my children’s. And I am their voice until they can speak for themselves. So here goes.

Michoacán, Mexico, 1919

Martina and Valeriano Fraga, my husband’s great-grandparents, were desperate. Desperate and afraid. They were members of a peasant class with two living children to support. But even more dire than their poverty, the young family lived in the midst of a dangerous and violent civil war.

Caitlin Radjewski

As a young man, Valeriano had made his living as a vaquero, a cowboy, on local cattle ranches. However, early on in the conflict, the revolutionaries stole all the cattle belonging to the ranchers who employed him and this source of income was lost to him. He then supported his growing family by taking his produce to the city to be sold. Until farmers began being strung up in the trees and hanged as they traveled the country roads.

The threat of death became very real. Valeriano was himself approached on two occasions by men claiming they would hang him if they caught him trying to get his goods into the city. Lo vamos a colgar. This is the phrase recorded in a family history document. We’re going to hang you. These were not idle threats. Many people had already been killed. But, of course, if he stopped selling their produce how was the family to survive? Death by violence? Starvation? These were their grim choices.

The young family made the life-altering decision to leave. They sold what they had, and it wasn’t very much, to buy passage via train from Michoacán to the border with Texas.

Intending to enter the United States legally, when they got to the border they learned the cost to do so was eight dollars per adult. They had only four dollars left. And two small children, Esperanza and Erasmo. The area was inundated with families just like theirs, all desperate to cross the border. In that saturated market there were very few opportunities to earn enough money to make up the difference. But by chance, just as they were nearly completely out of money, they encountered a woman who knew a way to get them across the river. Illegally.

As the sun set and darkness fell my husband’s ancestors, carrying their children, waded into a shallow section of the Rio Grande. They crossed the water in a line. “Like ducks” Valeriano would later describe it. Then they climbed up the riverbank onto American soil.

They did not read or write. They couldn’t speak English.

Undocumented immigrants.

Eventually they would make their way to Michigan. They would own their own farm. They’d go on to have nine more children, one of which was my husband’s grandmother. They would raise a thriving American family. As they stood there on the doorstep of the United States I’m sure they couldn’t even have imagined all of that.

My House, Ohio, Today

Almost 100 years later, as I sit here writing, one of the Fragas’ great-great-grandchildren is happily rolling at my feet and shaking baby toys in the air. Another one of them is riding her bike with neighborhood kids as their great-grandson cuts the grass. And I’m wondering…what did I ever do to deserve peace and safety for my children? What did I do to deserve our prosperity and the right to live without fear?

And I’m also wondering, what would have happened if, after everything they’d gone through, Valeriano and Martina were met by today’s policies at the border? What would have happened if an agent had ripped baby Erasmo from a pleading Martina’s arms? When five-year-old Esperanza screamed for her Papa, would it have sounded the same way it did on the haunting audio we heard on the news? What would have happened if Valeriano and Martina had been prosecuted as criminals? If they’d never seen their two children again?

My husband would never have been born.

My children would not exist.

This beautiful life I am living, it would have never happened.

Caitlin Radjewski

What separates these people who gave life to my husband and my children from the people we saw sitting in cages? Nothing more than 100 years. What separates you and me from them? Nothing but the pure, serendipitous chance that we were born in the United States and they were not.

I’m not writing this to be political. Yes, my husband’s grandmother was an Hispanic American. Yes, my children are of Mexican descent. But that’s not even the point. At least not entirely. I know I will never change a person’s mind when it comes to their political ideology or their feelings on the complex issue of immigration. I’m not trying to change your mind.

I just want to remind you, despite whatever political tribe you’ve pledged unwavering allegiance to, that these people have names. They know fear. They laugh and they hope. They love. They are human beings.

They have futures.

The president signed an executive order to end the separation of families at the border. I acknowledge this as a positive step but please forgive me for being less than impressed. I urge you to consider why, if it was as easy as a signature on paper all along, was the heinous practice allowed to happen in the first place? I also urge you to remember those children already separated from their parents and their trauma.

Again, I am not trying to change your mind about immigration. But I am hoping that this story which shaped our family might help you to see the human being instead of the “other.”

I don’t write about politics on a regular basis. I have plenty of people in my life to whom I can vent my wrath with regards to this crazy time in which we live.

But this took up too much space in my heart. I had to get it out.

Stay tuned. I promise I will get to that riveting post about my bangin’ new bangs.