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In Plain Sight
Only one of us is an alien. But it’s not the one you think.
Published July 2010
We slowly roll up to the border crossing at Blaine, Wash., to re-enter the United States from Canada, and, although it’s absolutely routine for us, we’re nervous every time. I have black curly hair, olive skin, and a Spanish surname. He is blue-eyed, and white as a snowball. Who gets the double-take? Me, of course. Once I was asked to get out of the car and interrogated about the city and even the hospital where I was born. It made me so nervous that for about 10 years afterward I carried my Social Security card everywhere I went. And if I lived in Arizona, with its ongoing crackdown on illegal immigrants, instead of Huntington Beach, I’d start doing it again.
Yes, three of my grandparents were Mexican. But the truth is, I’m not the alien. I was born in San Antonio. The alien is my husband, Paul, born in Canada. He has lived legally in this country for decades—which, for the record, is the way my grandparents did it, too. They wanted to be Americans and they wanted the same for their children. Paul followed their example. No phony documents. No overstaying his visa. Instead, he spent hours standing in line, filled out reams of forms, and worried constantly about whether we would be separated.
Paul persevered and got a working visa, then applied for a resident alien card soon after our wedding in 1987. That meant I now had to join him on his trips to Orange County’s Immigration and Naturalization Center, where the waiting room had all the ambience of The DMV From Hell. Full of Asian and Latino families with young children, it had signs prohibiting food and drinks. (Interminable waits in a room full of toddlers without sippy cups and crackers? They’re kidding, right?) I looked around at all the dark-haired, short-statured peeps and realized I fit right in. Paul, however, stuck out like a dot on a domino.
Eventually these visits culminated in what I call the Nightmare Newlywed Game, just like in the 1990 Andie MacDowell-Gerard Depardieu movie “Green Card.” Immigration officers blanched or smiled when we told them the sandy-haired guy, not the Latina gal, was applying for permanent residency. We answered questions about our history and personal habits, such as: Where did he take you on first dates? What kind of cold cream does she use?
I was terrified because Paul, a former UC Irvine faculty member with a doctorate in music, is the classic absent-minded professor. He can explain minute details of Canada’s role in the War of 1812, but he can’t remember to pick up milk on the way home. Miraculously, we passed. Two years later officials called to see if we were still married. I was glad we’d tied the knot before 9/11. After that the question wasn’t just, “Are they coming here to take our jobs?” It became, “Are they coming here to blow us up?”
These days crossing borders, which we do frequently, isn’t as easy as it was in the 1980s. When we first met it was all about “NAFTA we hafta”—meaning you could zip across both the Canadian and Mexican borders with nothing more than a U.S. driver’s license. We did this the whole time we were going to school in Ann Arbor, where we met in the University of Michigan’s dorm for foreign and graduate students—a real United Nations. My suitemates were Weilai from Thailand and Yuriko from Japan. Paul’s roommate was Medhat from Egypt. I was the only American in our hall. Talk about misguided profiling: The student-housing wonks kept giving me South American roommates. They had no idea my Spanish was feeble.
One Friday night, when Yuriko and Weilai were out for the evening, I needed to know the combination for the dorm fridge lock. So I knocked on Paul’s door. I remembered he was Canadian. I hoped he wasn’t Quebecois because I had only studied French for a semester. One look at Paul, who came to the door with wet hair, wearing nothing but a towel, and I wouldn’t have cared if he were from Mars. Soon we were inseparable and our cross-cultural adventure began.
Said my sweet, future mother-in-law on our engagement: “I think they’ll have such interesting-looking children.”
Years later, after we settled in Orange County, Paul became the stealth immigrant, losing his Canadian accent and acquiring a California tan and a taste for the spiciest Mexican mole. On our frequent trips to Canada, I was the exotic foreigner. At parties there, we’d hear rants about legal immigrants in British Columbia. Pakistanis, Taiwanese, Haitians, Jamaicans—the list went on and on because Canada, in the last few decades, had opened wide its borders.
The culture clash in the ’80s and ’90s grew louder as Hong Kong money poured into Paul’s hometown of Vancouver and waves of immigrants changed the city’s skyline. None of our family and friends stopped to think that the minute we crossed the border into the United States that Paul was an immigrant, too.
If we had settled in Arizona, I’d now worry more about him than me, about whether he had identification with him at all times. So, we continue living our multiculti lives and hope a similar law never comes to California, though immigration already is an issue in the gubernatorial and Orange County sheriff elections.
As the number of our nieces and nephews grows, I urge Paul not to fret that he’s a stranger in a strange land, or that we have no children to keep a vigil at his deathbed. My red-blooded American family loves him, even if he doesn’t look as much like an immigrant as we do. And we still have our homespun Texas humor.
“Honey, you’ll never be alone,” I say. “I promise, at the end of your life, you’ll be just like Davy Crockett at the Alamo, completely surrounded by Mexicans.”
Anne Valdespino is an Orange Coast senior editor.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell