Sylvia Escarcega

Transcript of Sylvia Escarcega
Interviewee: Sylvia Escarcega
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren and Maya Lea
Place: Chicago, IL
Time: August 23, 2015
Total interview time: 38:00

Copyright © 2015 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is August 23, 2015. My name is Dorothy Nygren. I’m interviewing a lovely lady named Sylvia about her experiences growing up and coming to the United States, and coming to Edgewater. Welcome Sylvia.

SE: Hi.

DN: Could you tell us your full name?

SE: My name is Sylvia Escarcega.

DN: Could you tell us a little bit about your growing up and where in Mexico did you live and to share a little of your childhood memories?

SE: Sure. I grew up in Mexico City and I lived there until I was 23 years old. So I do have some happy memories from that. I do remember going to the park with my grandparents and that was very nice. There was a city park like everything that you find here but I really enjoy the company of my grandparents. It was really nice. I also remember being able to go out on the streets and play in my neighborhood without an adult. That was very nice – the freedom that we felt. I remember being summer camp in the mountains nearby Mexico City. We also had all the freedom of movement without always having people looking at us and where we were going. What I’m narrating here are some memories of feelings of freedom and independence. I don’t know why I feel it was so important growing up. I also remember feeling that way in my elementary school.

DN: So it wasn’t so rigid?

SE: No.

DN: What was your favorite subject?

SE: It changed but since I was fifteen years old it was history. I decided I was going to study history and then I was going to study politics. Since I was fifteen years old, I knew what I wanted to do but when I was younger I wanted to be like my parents. Both of my parents are chemists. I wanted to be a chemist but then it didn’t work out.


DN: But then as you get older you shifted your interest to history and anthropology? Did you pursue that in Mexico?

SE: I did pursue my interest in history in Mexico. I got my B.A. in Mexico which is like an M.A. here. Then I pursued by anthropology career here in the U.S. I came to do a masters degree and Ph.D. in anthropology in California.

DN: when did you come to the U.S.?

SE: I came to California in 1991. My first year was in Sacramento and then I moved to Davis.


DN: Did anything seem a little strange to you when you came to the United States in terms of adjusting?

SE: There were a lot of strange things in terms of the culture and the social life. For example, in Mexico people are more spontaneous when people go out. They don’t make big plans to do that. Also parties – parties last longer in Mexico. You don’t pull your agenda out and say were going to have a party today. There’s not so much planning involved so that surprised me a lot. When I would invite people to have coffee, they would pull out their agenda and say, “OK, let me see. I’m very busy the next two weeks. Maybe the next three weeks.” I would say, “I don’t know what I’m going to do in the next three weeks.” I wanted to go today or tomorrow so that took me a while to adjust to the social life.

DN: The lack of spontaneity?

SE: Yes. Also the parties [here] are much more structured and the times. In Mexico, first of all you show up at any time during the day and then maybe you leave the following day.

DN: That sounds like a good time.


SE: It does. But also I came here married. That’s why I came here because my husband was here. Life changed a lot for me from living in Mexico City with my family to living with my husband in a completely different environment and society and culture with a new family. So a lot of things changed. I had to adjust to this life as well in an apartment. That was quite different. The other part is that in Mexico we lived with our parents. I had never lived outside the home until I came here. So a lot of things were different, just because of that but it would have been the same in Mexico. I was living outside my country. Also my English was not good. I had to learn English. A lot of things change.

DN: So a lot of things changed.

SE: Yes, and I had to look for jobs with very little English. I had an education but my degree was in history which didn’t have an application here. I had to try to repackage myself. I started my master’s degree. I ended up getting a job teaching kindergarteners – five-year old girls and boys – Spanish. So that was really odd because I never thought I would be teaching little girls and boys Spanish. I also started working for Macy’s. For me that was interesting because I was over qualified for some jobs and I was under qualified for some jobs. And I didn’t understand enough English language. That was very interesting for me because I had never worked before in my life in Mexico. I only went to school.

DN: So in addition to living outside your home, living outside your culture, living outside your language, and being in a place where your education didn’t get you too far, there was a lot going on for you at that time.


SE: Yes.

DN: When did you come to Edgewater?

SE: Well, before coming to Edgewater from California, I did come to Chicago. I got my first job and I got my Ph.D. I started to live in Evanston. I lived in Evanston for several years. Then I went to Mexico for a couple of years to do some research and to do some things. Then I came back to Chicago and I lived in Rogers Park for two or three years with a friend. When it was time to find my own place, I decided that Edgewater would be the best place for me because of its location, its diversity and I loved the restaurants. They’re great. I came here in 2011.


DN: Do you feel at home in Edgewater?

SE: I do feel at home because of its diversity, because it has a lot of things I like and enjoy. I love a lot the restaurants, the cultural life and the festivals. I like the people. I like living in a place where I see people from many parts of the world, where I can see many different nationalities. So I feel at home in Edgewater and yet I’ve been here only for four years and I’m still making it.

DN: Do you feel there is a difference between living in Edgewater and living in Rogers Park?


SE: Completely. Rogers Park to me always felt more dangerous and more segregated. I lived very close to the Howard [CTA] station. We knew there were different times of the day when you were not supposed to be out. Sometimes when I would arrive by myself a taxi driver would come and tell me, “You’re not supposed to be walking on your own.” The first impression that I got when I came to Edgewater to look at houses and apartments was not to feel that sense of danger. So yes, there is a big difference about the way I feel in terms of safety. And also restaurants and cultural activities are different. Rogers Park seems to be a much more residential area and nothing else.

DN: You said Edgewater seems to be more diverse not just in terms of its restaurants but also in terms of its population and Rogers Park seemed to be more segregated. Could you talk more about that?


SE: In Rogers Park there is a place where African Americans live and congregate, and another part where Mexicans and Hispanics congregate, and another part where young professionals and Caucasians, were located and did things. So it was more segregated. And also there was a younger community. It was different. But here in Edgewater people are more mixed in housing. Maybe I do not know Edgewater very well, but I cannot see an area and say, “Oh this is where all Mexicans live.”

DN: I think you said your building also has a lot of diversity.

SE: Oh yes. There are people from Russia, the Ukraine, China, Pakistan, India, Puerto Rico, Mexico, African Americans… people from different nationalities. All kinds of different backgrounds are represented in my building. This is fascinating.

DN: So how does that diversity that surrounds you help you feel at home?


SE: Well that’s not what I had in Mexico. It is very homogeneous and in fact very segregated, not so much in terms of racial segregation but in terms of culture and social classes. Social circles are very small there; social circles here are very big. So it doesn’t resemble my experiences at home that I have here, but that’s what I want. As an anthropologist I like to learn about many different cultures and people from all over the place. I like seeing that around me. I like that.

DN: How do you feel after being here for several years about your identity? Do you feel American or Mexican or something along that gradient, or everything?


SE: I still feel Mexican. I am a permanent resident. I haven’t changed my citizenship and it is hard for me to actually think about changing that citizenship. I know I have to do something about it. I have lived here half of my life or more now, but my heart, my family is in Mexico. And Mexicans, my social circle, my family circle would not see with very good eyes that I changed my citizenship. So I do feel Mexican living in the U.S. I feel I am an immigrant living in the U.S.

DN: Do you feel as though people treat you as an outsider coming from another culture?


SE: Yes, not all the time. I have to say it depends. In my neighborhood, people are very accepting because they are coming from foreign countries, from everywhere. A lot of us speak with accents. A lot of us do not have full vocabularies. [Is there] Discrimination in my neighborhood, not necessarily. But in other places in Chicago, yes.

I may not look like a Mexican, but my accent, or the way I dress, or the way I act, or the way I use my hands identify me as a foreigner. Most often, people don’t know exactly where I come from because I have clear eyes or light eyes, mixed. People wonder where I come from but I strike them as a foreigner. But I’ve noticed also in some stores I may be followed or people are not very sure what to do with me, to follow me or not. Even when I was teaching at the university, I did notice that some students did not like the fact I was a foreigner with an accent; a Mexican woman teaching them. I did feel that some people treat me differently because I am a foreigner, but some other people didn’t. Also I think it’s normal. It’s not something that makes me very upset actually.

DN: You said when you were in a store you were followed. Why do you think that would happen?


SE: I think they thought I would steal something or take something without paying.

DN: So they were profiling you on the way you looked?

SE: I think so, although most of the time people don’t know how to deal with me or where I come from based on the way I look. But I do notice also how you dress matters. Sometimes it’s not a matter of racial profiling, but a matter of where you fit on the socioeconomic scale. Maybe you were having a bad day and you were dressed in pants and tennis shoes or sandals, or you look dressed down. It would make a difference because of that and how they perceive you.

DN: Have you ever been followed or racially profiled in Edgewater?


SE: No. This actually happened in Skokie and downtown.

DN: I see. With your professional background being an anthropologist and studying indigenous people, as well as having that particular experience yourself in your own life; do those experiences reinforce your professional view? What kind of thoughts do you have for putting that connection together? Does that reinforce what your professional literature says in your own personal life, or is it different? How does that intersect?


SE: No. The reason I have studied immigration is that I am a migrant myself. I can relate a lot to what people go through. Of course all of us are different because we come here for many different reasons. People from Mexico come here for many different reasons. I came here because I got married to an American but not because I was necessarily looking for an opportunity. I thought I had all the opportunities I needed or wanted in Mexico. And then I got married to an American. Even among Mexicans there are many different reasons. But still I can relate to what they go through, what they have to face because a lot of us are treated the same way; the same discrimination; the same opportunities.

Even in Mexico we are treated differently. The fact that I am a migrant. It did affect my identity too. Even though I continue to identify as Mexican, I have always felt mestizo [mixed blood]. In Mexico I am mestizo. I may have indigenous relatives in the distant past but my life, my community, my identity, my culture is Mexican. When you come here, your identify changes because there is a lot of emphasis to having to identify ethnicity and racially. I would have to explain how it is in Mexico. If you are mixed, you are invisible. But here no. Here you cannot be mixed. You have to be something. When I was faced with – or when I had to choose something – I thought I could create my own sense of engagement, [my own] cultural identity. I discovered I have a lot of connection to indigenous culture. It made me want to rediscover that part of my ancestry and heritage to indigenous cultures more than when I was in Mexico.

DN: That’s quite interesting. Do you see yourself as staying in the United States or going back to Mexico?


SE: It’s hard for me to know because I think I’ve made a life for me here. I do enjoy the opportunities I have here. Health wise there are more opportunities here. On the other hand all of my family lives in Mexico and my parents are there and they are aging. We are two brothers and sisters. Both my sister and I are here. My brothers are in Mexico and I don’t think they will take care of my parents very well. So I may have to go back to Mexico to take care of my family but I honestly don’t know.

DN: It sounds as though you have a strong feeling for where you came from. You’ve lived here long enough that you feel comfortable and at home here. You have made a unique adaption to your own identity and where you feel you want to live your life. I don’t know that you have to make a decision or rather that there are so many options out there that it’s hard to know what direction to choose, and I think whatever direction you choose you will feel comfortable.

SE: I feel open to going wherever life leads me. Even if it’s not Mexico or even if it’s not here but somewhere else in the world. I‘m open to go in whatever direction I want to. Even though I feel rooted in my culture and my family, and I feel rooted here, I still feel very moveable.


DN: I think my next question to you would be, from both a professional and personal standpoint, what social justice issues do you see for immigrants?

SE: First of all it’s been a very important part of my life to be an activist for many years, not only for indigenous people but for immigrants – marches, movements and other things. I come from a family of immigrants myself. I think there are many things that happen with immigrants, especially the ones that come from Mexico. A lot of them are undocumented. They are discriminated in their jobs. Their wages are so low. They have no benefits. They cannot get good housing. They cannot get good health care access just because they are undocumented or they are in a very precarious position. There are many things that have to be done. No human being is illegal. And I have done a lot in my own work, maybe not at the moment in my own activism. I’ve always been sensitive to what is happening, to help get referrals; the right to have voices, to become empowered, the right to be where they [immigrants] want to be.

DN: I think I’ve asked all the questions I have so far. Maya, do you have any questions? While you’re thinking about it, Sylvia, this is your story. Is there anything else you would like to share with us or talk about? We covered a lot I know.


SE: One of the very important things that have to be addressed is that immigrant stories are all the same, but we are all completely different persons. Sometimes we come together to fight for something. Often we are so separated and we don’t create communities. I really like diversity but often politics act in a society to put people in the same category. I understand that it is easy, in a simple way, to put people in the same box, but that’s not really who we are. It’s hard for people to understand the situation of the immigrant. We are all very different. One thing that I have to say is that the U. S. is very open to immigration, sometimes more at one time more than other times, but still immigration is still a part of the fabric of U.S. society. The fabric of society and culture is set up in such a way for immigrants to come here. In places like Mexico it is more difficult where communities are more closed and not so open.


DN: Yes, we are a country of immigrants but we also have a history of discriminatory immigration laws. We have to remember the history of America is one of diversity and founded on immigration. Thank you for that thought.

ML: My sense is that you probably have a set of intersecting social circles. If you end up going back to Mexico, do you think you will be able to recreate that feeling of fluidity in your social life or do you feel there are barriers of class, of nationality, of ethnicity to that? Do you think you would strive to find opportunities for the kinds of the sort of freedoms you’ve enjoyed here? I ‘m guessing you would miss some of that sense of exploration?


SE: Yes. If I were to go back to Mexico, I would have a more constrained social life of circles that you are describing. I love to talk to my brother; he tells me about his friends. They are all married among each other and know each other. Their social circles are very rigid. My parents have a very active social life but it with their friends from many years ago. I miss that, and I like that and I embrace that so I would not mind that. I don’t know that I would try to recreate what I have here, although I do like having friends with different parts of my life. Actually I have always done that, and I might try to recreate that, but not because I would miss it but maybe because it is who I am in a way. I have always done that.

ML: And that would enrich the stability and ease of the more familial ties.

SE: Your social circles are the ones that put the constraints and monitor that the rules are not broken. You have to stay within the confines that are given to you, but on the other hand….


DN: I wanted to talk about gender a little. It’s not necessarily directly an immigrant issue, but do you feel it’s compounded in any way?

SE: Gender is a big part of who we are. In Mexico, there are certain expectations so my experience as a woman is always definitely different than a man of my same background. When I first started to teach at the university, a Mexican-American writer’s advice to me was “Sylvia, keep in mind that here you are going to be considered a Mexican maid by your students. They are going to be wondering why they are being taught by a Mexican woman.” I was stunned by that. Stereotypes exist not just for Mexicans but for women. Gender is always there.

DN: Do you feel if you were a man, the students wouldn’t feel as though they were necessarily being taught by a manual laborer, but because you were a Mexican woman the stereotype is that you would be a maid? That would be the way the students would think about you and it would be hard to break out of that mold?

SE: Exactly.

DN: That’s unfortunate because that’s shutting the door for communication between people.

SE: You can shatter the stereotype. You can also have entertaining dialogues with the students and they can grow and you can grow with them. It is not something that needs always to be there.

DN: It’s interesting to have the knowledge that the prejudice is there so you can have the idea of what tools you can bring with you to shatter the stereotype.

SE: Definitely you can have that discussion. For women it is very hard. For men maybe more invisible, which is really not true in reality.

DN: I think we will stop the interview now. I want to be respectful of your time. Thank you so much.

SE: You’re welcome.