José Ángel N. came to the United States from Mexico in the 1990s with a ninth grade education. An undocumented immigrant, N. traveled to Chicago where he found access to ESL and GED classes. He eventually attended college and graduate school and became a professional translator. He recently answered some questions about his memoir, Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant.
Q: What prompted your decision to come to America?
José Ángel N: My decision to come to the U.S. was prompted by the lack of opportunity in my home country. Although this phenomenon seems to be coming to an end now, migrating to the U.S. has been a reality for millions of Mexicans for over a century. In fact, when I was growing up, many people from my background—people from poor urban areas with a low degree of education—viewed migrating to the U.S. almost as a rite of passage. When I realized I would not ever find anything other than a dead-end job in Mexico, I felt that the only alternative I had was to head north.
Q: How old were you when you left home?
N: I was about to turn twenty when I left my native city.
Q: Was it always your plan to come to the United States alone?
N: Actually, I made the trip to the U.S. with a distant cousin. In addition to that, many older relatives had already come and established themselves here before I came. When my time to leave came, some of them had already been here for a few decades. They had made a whole life here and had children who were born in Chicago; some of them even had grandchildren already.
Q: Beyond professional opportunities, has your education helped you overcome the adversity of living a life “amid the shadows?”
N: Even though I didn’t begin college until many years after coming to Chicago, my education became the great pillar of my life in the United States. My study of philosophy and literature provided me with a true sense ownership of my own life. I am a firm believer in what the ancient Latin philosophers used to call amor fati, or “love of one’s fate.” It is an idea that at first seemed indoctrinating and dogmatic to me. However, over the years it has become a principle that has taken deep roots in me—it has taught me that a life “amid the shadows” is as good as any other. I will always be grateful to this country for the education it gave me because, ironically, it has helped to better deal with the challenges and frustrations of undocumented life in America.
Q: You’ve stepped back from your work as a professional translator. Why did you pull back from the career that was a large part of what you’d hoped your educational opportunities would provide?
N: I did not step back voluntarily. As I write in my book, it was my status—or the lack thereof—that forced me out of that position. Ever since I lost my job, close to three years ago, I have continued to translate, except that I am now involved in other types of projects; some of them strictly literary. I will soon be updating my website to include a few translations I’ve done of some authors I admire, such as Lord Francis Bacon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edmund Wilson, and Richard Rodriguez, among others. I have also tried my hand at translating a few works into English. These are all amateur translations, however, which I’ve undertaken as a mere literary exercise.