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Freedom Ride: Janneth

Janneth can never go home. She crossed the river between Mexico and Texas four years ago, a yellow brick road of raging water.
 
 
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The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride is taking place from September 20 to October 4. For more info, check out www.iwfr.org

Janneth is 23 years old. We’re the same age. Our lives, she tells me, are very different.

Janneth is on the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride. She sits across from me on the bus. We laugh about the Britney Spears sticker she’s been trying to rip off her compact mirror. She lets me borrow her CD player to listen to salsa music. We tease Jose, who sits in front of me. In those moments, we aren’t so different. It’s when I interview her that I learn our lives are only similar now because we’re both on the Freedom Ride.

“Your life and my life are very, very different. I’m not angry. It’s just, I’m a woman, like you. I have the same rights, like you. I want to do something, like you. But it’s very different because you’re an American and I’m an immigrant.”

Janneth is a woman, a singer, a dancer, a poet, a sister, a daughter, an employee, a friend, an activist and a union member.

But she’s also illegal, undocumented, alien, and foreign. Her English gets better, but her accent, her dark hair and eyes, are her ID. Whereas I went to college, Janneth cannot. Whereas I can get a driver’s license, Janneth cannot. Whereas I can travel by plane, Janneth cannot.

Whereas I had enough to eat growing up, Janneth did not. She remembers very clearly asking her neighbor for tortillas, saying it was for their dog. Begging for food would have been too much, so when little cockroaches scurried from the tortilla bag onto the table, Janneth didn’t tell her mother. They were delicious, she tells me.

Whereas I can visit my family on holidays, Janneth can never go home. She crossed the river between Mexico and Texas four years ago, a yellow brick road of raging water. It was nighttime. She took off her clothes and put them in a plastic bag, swimming across in her underwear. It would be over if the police caught her wet. She remembers the other people in her group screaming when her hand slipped out of the grip of the coyote, as the water took her down. She remembers, before she swam to shore, thinking about going back to her mother in a coffin.

Whereas I can choose my profession, Janneth has to settle for who will risk hiring her. She’s a janitor, cleaning offices and bathrooms while I sleep.

“I came to Chicago on January 26. I started working three days later. In the beginning, I worked a night shift until 1 am. I would sleep until 4 am because I would work the morning shift. It took me an hour to walk to work, and sometimes the snow came up to my knees.”

Now, she works only one shift and makes $8.45 an hour. She has an apartment with her sister and brother. She drives illegally, works illegally and lives illegally. Under current immigration laws, this could be as far as Janneth will get in the United States.

But Janneth has other ambitions; she wants to be a lawyer.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to reach my goals. If I have to work two jobs, I will do it. I don’t care if I have to walk, or if it’s raining. I came here to obtain something, and I will do it.”

Whereas I can shop in a store without being targeted, Janneth cannot.

“When I go to a store in downtown Chicago, the American people working don’t want to help me. They prefer to attend to other people, rather than me. If I say something wrong, they just laugh and say, ‘I can’t speak Spanish.’”

Janneth doesn’t get angry easily. In fact, sometimes on the bus, she can be too accommodating. But I see her hand gestures become more forceful, her words become harsher, when she talks not about the difference between her and me, but the difference between her and President Bush’s daughters.

“I think a lot about President Bush. He has two daughters almost my age. They have so many opportunities -- they can get a college degree. And what are they doing now? They make fake IDs. They are not worried about doing better for their country. They are American girls. I’m not American, but I want to do something for this country. I’ve had to work since I was 12 years old. I learned how to get my food. If I wanted new shoes, I had to work. They have everything in their hands, and they don’t take the opportunities.”

Whereas there are days it’s difficult to stay hopeful, Janneth remains determined.

“I know that I can do something. I will keep trying until I reach my goals. I think that I have a good future if I work very hard. I will do it with honesty, and I want to be treated with dignity and respect. We are not animals. We are people. We have lungs. We have hearts... After 9/11, when they were asking for blood donations, nobody asked, ‘Are you undocumented?’ It’s because we have the same color of blood.””

Janneth and I are women. We are both sisters, daughters, dancers, laughers, writers, singers, activists, lovers and dreamers.

Megan Tady is riding the bus from Chicago to Washington DC.