Two weeks ago, as part of my introduction as the 2016 PEN Canada-George Brown College Writer-in-Residence, I attended a series of meetings with faculty and leaders of the school who started by acknowledging that the college is located on the traditional lands of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.
Unexpectedly, this brief protocol of recognition ignited a powerful and personal realization of how my own heritage has influenced my career as a journalist, my life as a refugee, and how this may guide my future as a citizen of Canada.
My roots trace back to the Apache tribe, related to the Athabascan peoples in Canada, inhabiting since 1540 what is now the South-central region of the United States and North-central Mexico. Historians identified Apaches as fierce warriors, highly resilient, and loyal to their community. As with First Nations groups in Canada, Apaches were displaced, segregated and mistreated by both the Mexican and United States governments. In 1849, the congress of Chihuahua, Mexico’s Northern state located within ancestral Apache territory, passed a bylaw called “the scalping law,” which authorized the payment of 200 pesos for each apache scalp. By the end of the year, private contractors claimed and received 17,896 pesos from the government for killing and mutilating Apaches.
There were those that were determined to fight against discrimination. Sabina Mata, or Sabina Mala, was an Apache Indian, born approximately in 1833, 15 years before the land of her tribe was divided by an international border after a series of conflicts between Mexico and the United States that concluded in the annexation of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. According to family records, Sabina retained her identity by always wearing Apache clothes, except on the day when she was photographed; for such a unique occasion, she wore “civilized” attire.
Four generations later, Sabina’s aboriginal heritage of bravery, resilience and loyalty continues, and at least for me, one of her great, great grandsons, it has — inadvertently until that morning at George Brown College — shaped me on my path to settlement and integration in Canada.
Arrival in a country of layers
In October of 2008, just a few days after arriving in Vancouver’s suburbs, my wife and I walked into a convenience store looking for groceries, vegetables and corn flour to cook tortillas. As we entered the place for the first time, the owner looked at me, smiled and pum! a cascade of incomprehensible words came out of his mouth, followed by an awkward silence while staring at me, waiting for a response equally extended. He had mistaken my background.
Welcome to diverse Canada, where a Mexican buying food in the right neighbourhood may be confused with an Indian, a black man may constantly be stopped by the police because he “matches the description,” or an Aboriginal person may still live without access to tap water.
I now live in this great but socially complex country built over layers of differences, yet infused with a tradition of tolerance, freedom and inclusiveness. Some of these layers of differences are: West vs East; French vs English; Quebec vs Canada; Liberals vs Conservatives; First Nations vs non-Aboriginal; urban vs rural; concern over missing Aboriginal women vs indifference. And so on. History shows that under proper conditions, Canada’s social fabric may rip apart and differences can spur conflicts, as occurred in Quebec in the 1960s, or in Attawapiskat, where a suicide crisis earlier this year exposed the inequality that still exists in this country.
Coming to Canada as a refugee claimant, it didn’t take long to identify some of these differences beneath the country’s beautiful, idealistic landscape. It also forced me to draw on my Apache heritage of bravery, resilience and loyalty in order to move up between social layers. Arriving to the country in a vulnerable position as we did — fleeing from death threats from organized crime and corrupt officers, barely speaking English, and with no friends or family — immediately placed us among one of the lowest social layers. As a refugee, your name disappears; from then on you are identified and socially defined just by a combination of letters and numbers. The ‘9’ at the beginning of your temporary social security card creates an invisible barrier around you, restricting opportunities to those with minimum payment, and no benefits.
Despite being an educated, veteran journalist back in Mexico, this is indeed what happened to me. For my first job in Canada, I pushed a wheelbarrow filled with rocks, uphill for eight hours, for a house under construction in North Vancouver. The following week, with my whole body still in pain, I was hired to work as house painter from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Then came a week of being a salesman; a month as a glazier, fitting glass into window frames; and finally time as a janitor. With my wife, who during the mornings worked as housekeeper while I took the kids to school and cooked, I travelled across the suburbs from 4:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. to clean three to four offices and a three-story recreational centre.
I remember vividly those nights in a small public library located inside the recreational centre, with my backpack-style vacuum walking through the section filled with newspapers and magazines during a time when the war on drugs in Mexico and Ciudad Juarez, my hometown, was on the front page of every newspaper in Canada. There I was, removing dust. Every night was a battle against myself.
Enduring the winter
Moving up between social layers is hard and requires a combination of patience and resilience to succeed. I learned both while preparing my file for a crucial immigration hearing, as well as looking for opportunities to enter the university system as a student. When the package of evidence supporting my refugee claim was submitted before the hearing at the immigration and refugee board, it had 682 pages, most of them my own research completed during that fleeting time between jobs. Meanwhile, my academic endeavours initially failed miserably since, over the course of a year, no institution in Vancouver replied to my emails or returned my calls. But resilience saves you from drowning within those layers created by a social system that seems to define much of your present and future based on your country of origin, or the colour of your skin.
Resilience also helps you to keep your pace, to endure and strive when the winter — in your mind and in your city — arrives, especially when death or sickness of a relative overseas suddenly hits you and your family, as it did to us three times. Guilt and depression for leaving all and everything behind takes a toll on you, and since there is no extensive accessibility for newcomers to mental health programs, the healing process is slow, painful and filled with loneliness.
If you are brave and resilient, things will work out for you, eventually. It takes time, and will force you to frequently leave behind your comfort zone, but it is worth it. As you move on, you will find that layer, within the layers, of generous Canadians — those who don’t care who you are, or where you came from. They want you to succeed because by doing it, they succeed, and Canada succeeds. I have found them and they found me, and I am so grateful for that.
Here is when my heritage of loyalty comes to play. I was once confused with an Indian man by a storekeeper (and by the way, as soon as I identified myself as Mexican, the man learned some basic words in Spanish to greet me) but I would now like to be identified, as we all should, simply as a Canadian — regardless of status, gender or ethnic background.
Our wonderful and complex country is turning 150 years in 2017. May this anniversary be a good opportunity for the government and Canadian society to think about what layers can be removed; what policies and services — offering newcomers three free counselling sessions every year during their first three years in Canada, for example — can be improved to better facilitate integration. At the same time, we need to know how to bring out the best of our own heritage, because at the end, as Poet Maya Angelou wrote, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
The author became a Canadian citizen on June 11, 2015, nearly seven years after arriving in Canada. He lives with his family in Toronto.
6 Degrees — a three-day forum on inclusion and citizenship — runs Sept. 19-21 in Toronto.