Anchor Babies

My great-grandmother Maria Elena was the first to hear the music. Since she lived in Tijuana in the 1920s, it didn’t have to carry far. The music wafted through the windows of her modest home and filled her teenage mind with curiosities and a restlessness that she couldn’t yet put into words. Thanks to American Prohibition, wealthy Californians and Hollywood stars were descending upon her town looking to entertain themselves with horse races, casinos and alcohol. She wanted the life she imagined they lived—the one she pictured in her mind as the sounds of the streets lulled her to sleep every night.

She married a worldly young Mexican banker who had drifted into Tijuana along with the rush of American noise and who oozed the exposure and experience she wished she had. Marrying a man who embodied her childhood daydreams, she found herself young, pregnant, and inspired. She decided her child was to be my family’s first “anchor baby.” In 1927, at nine months pregnant, when most women are resting peacefully at home, my great-grandmother crossed the border like she had done so many times and gave birth to my grandmother in an American hospital.

An “anchor baby” is a child born in the United States to a noncitizen. It is meant to be a derogatory reference to a child whose role is to “anchor” the family into the United States, eventually gaining U.S. citizenship and eligibility for social programs.

My great-grandmother didn’t know the term, and she never intended to illegally immigrate into the United States. She was not poor, she didn’t need a job, and she wasn’t uneducated. All she knew was that she wanted to be a part of the United States. And the only way she knew how to do this was to create a tie to her dream with nothing more than the force of her will and the will of her body.

Her daughter, my grandmother Maria Louisa, did indeed benefit from my great- grandmother’s maternity pact with America. She identified with her birthright—speaking perfect English, bussing in from Mexico to attend Sweetwater High, and worshipping Mickey Rooney. Barely a teenager when World War II began, my grandmother found herself swept up in the “Rosie the Riveter” recruitment effort. She took a factory job in San Diego making airplane parts. She was raised in Mexico but she constantly traveled back and forth. When the war ended, she settled back into life in Mexico with her family.

Yet the music she heard was different than her mother’s. It was Judy Garland and son huasteco, Shirley Temple and mariachis. She didn’t feel the urge to discover what she had already experienced. Already enjoying the freedom to move between Mexico and the U.S., she longed for love and family above all else. One day at the movies, she turned around and locked eyes with my grandfather—handsome, smiling, and the love of her life. What ensued was a combination of chaperoned dates, stolen moments, and romantic boat rides with her name written in roses. Marrying the man who was reflective of her deepest desires, like her mother before her, she soon gave birth to my mother Cecilia.

My mother’s first journey into the U.S was the result of a lucky gamble. A new alternative to betting on horses, Fronton Palacio Tijuana Jai Alai opened in 1947 and was soon the hottest ticket in town. My great-grandmother won the biggest jackpot.

Now, with visas in hand, my great-grandparents could finally buy a house and they chose to immigrate to quaint Bonita, a community in southern San Diego. My mother waited impatiently in Tijuana until the summer when she could travel to visit her grandparents on what they called “el otro lado,” the other side.

My mother couldn’t believe how beautiful and clean the other side was. She was told that things worked differently there. The houses all sat in perfect manicured rows with pools, and there was this magical place called Pizza Hut. Back in Mexico for the school year, my mother counted on music to get her through the day. She physically invoked it into her life. Riding her bike up to the border, she would raise her dusty transistor radio into the dueling radio signals that mirrored the blood in her veins, as the notes crackled in from American radio stations. Her first words of English were the lyrics to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou.” As with her maternal predecessors, they filled her mind with thoughts of a new life, a new opportunity, and a new beginning.

Papers proving my grandmother’s citizenship—but more importantly her extensive work in factories during World War II—ended up being the documentation that was needed for my mother to realize her dream of U.S. citizenship. My grandmother’s commitment to her dual identities had inadvertently paved the way for my mother to become the next link in the campaign that my great-grandmother had started forty-five years earlier. She packed up her things, crossed the border one last time, and never looked back. Five years later, I was born.

My great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother. They built upon one another’s legacies, each climbing even higher, but anchored in the dreams and ideals of the past. Maybe this is why the music I now hear is a resounding consonance, a chorus obligating me to honor their melodies.

Yet this passage cannot end with me, because the story must always end where it began—with a voice that stole away in the night to give birth to a child and to a conviction. The same convictions are born every day in the hearts of immigrants. While others vilify them, they personify the true nature of an anchor baby—one who is guided by inevitability under the surface. May the family tradition of immovability continue, as I strive to honor my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother by proudly telling their stories, and those of others like them.

Alejandra Campoverdi is the Senior Adviser, Innovation and Communications Strategy, for Univision News. She is the former White House Deputy Director of Hispanic Media and is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. A version of this article was published in the Harvard Kennedy School Review.