As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Silvia Soto—Nonfiction


“Yo vendo unos ojos negros, quien me los ha de comprar, los vendo por embusteros…” this is a line to a song mi nañita used to sing to me all the time when I was little. She was not a nice or sweet person. She was a very misunderstood woman most of her life, so that caused a lot of grief, and in turn, made her a sour and harsh person. But when she sang, she looked at me and smiled, an odd looking smile, but a smile, and in a weird way, for that moment, I felt that she was really seeing me, and in my young 7-year old mind, I felt loved by her, mi nañita.


We left Zinapécuaro[1] on June 26, 1986 and after all this time I still remember the date. I was 13-years old. On June 28 we arrived to Napa after a two-day bus ride from Morelia to Tijuana and a 12-hour car ride from the border to Napa. Shortly after our arrival, I got my menstrual period for the first time. Though part of the natural physiological changes of my body, the bleeding led the way to the pains and sorrows waiting for me ahead.

We were to stay here, in this country, for one year only. All we needed was to learn some basic English skills that would allow us to stand on our own two feet the next time the immigration official would ask us basic questions such as “how old are you?”, “where do you live?”, and “where do you go to school”. But one year turned into two, and slowly into three. By the time I started my junior year in high school, deep into my depression, I stopped talking. The story from my parents of “we are leaving at the end of the year” no longer felt part of me. Uncertain of what my new story looked like, or could even begin to look like, just shut me up into a dark space of silences and fears where I lingered around the reality of my house, work, and school.

I went through the motions of what I made up in my mind to be a normal life for a Mexican immigrant during her junior year in high school in the Napa Valley in the late 1980s. I do not now what that was then, and I do not know what that is now. I also did not know there was a name to the emptiness, sadness, and bleak outlook of life that I was feeling at that time. The detachment that I experienced from everything that surrounded me, and the darkness that would pull me with such ease and numb any sort of feelings became such a familiar space, that I embraced it fully.

I made it to college[2]. The uncertainty that surrounded me pushed me to the only sure thing…school. The structure, attention, and praised that I longed for at home was given in the assignments that I had to complete, the excellent notes that I received, and the academic structure the rigorous academic program provided. I worked hard, not so much because I wanted to excel academically, but because I needed the structure to keep me focus. School provided an escape to my reality and made some part of me feel.

Somewhere in that darkness I began to devise a plan to go back to Mexico. Since the family was determined to stay in Napa, and no family plans were in place to return to Mexico, I needed to figure out a way to move back. The only thing I knew was school, so I made school my way out.


When I arrived to Mexico City in the summer of 1993, everything seemed new. the city….Mexico City, De eFe. I have been there many times before. During the 10 years we lived in Zinapécuaro with my mom while my dad worked as a construction worker in Napa, we travelled to visit him every summer. The two-and-a-half-day trip from Morelia to Tijuana would take us to Napa. A 5-hour flight from San Francisco to Mexico City would take us back. Every year, the red-eye flight would land us in Mexico City in the morning. My mom, with six young daughters and about 5 pieces of luggage, would make her way through the Mexico City airport out to the busy street traffic to flag a cab willing to take us all together, AND the luggage to the bus station, la tapo. We would take an 8-10 hour bus ride from Mexico City to Morelia, where we would take another 1-hour bus ride to our home in Zinapécuaro. We made this trip every year for 10-years. The busyness of the city, the smog, the smells, and the noise was not a strange occurrence to me. Being in the city by myself was.


In September of 1993, UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México or Mexico’s National Autonomous University) was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ‘68 student movement. The variety of events taught me first hand details of this bloody chapter in Mexico’s history. When the government violated the University’s autonomy just days before Mexico’s Independence celebration in 1968 through the deployment of army soldiers to Ciudad Universitaria, then Chancellor Javier Barrios Sierra led the students in a silent march. He wanted to show that the student movement was not a disruption to society, but rather the work of students who were deeply engaged in the social, political, and economic developments of the city, and the country.

In commemoration of these historic events, on the evening of September 15 of 1993, Elena Poniatowska, internationally known Mexican writer, gave a talk at the main auditorium of the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras at UNAM. I remember seeing her standing on stage as I made my way into the auditorium. She looked so small in size, but had such forceful presence. I was in awed. The auditorium was packed, I could barely make my way through the space as Poniatowska addressed the students. She talked about her experience researching the details of the events of October 2[3], her determination to unveil the truth and to honor her brother and all the people who fell that day, and later, and those who are still missing. After she spoke, a short viewing of actual footage from that evening of October 2 was aired. The quality was bad, blurry, old, but the impact was very clear and strong. The film was very raw, so the scenes jumped around, beginning with scenes from the march, moving on to the actual rally, and to the top of the buildings at the Plaza de las Trés Culturas where some of the leaders stood, microphone in hand, addressing peoples, students, families, workers and all peoples who were gathered for the rally. Then, you see the camera moving fast, the image turns gray, a number of lights begin to pop on the screen,[4] noises on the background take over, and then you recognize the shooting sounds. The camera moves faster, loses focus, the images are really blurry, and you can see that the camera is at a great distance, but there is still some things moving in the screen that quickly stop. It took me a while to realize that the camera was capturing the bodies that were dropping as a result of the shooting. A spot in the distance moving fast, than boom, it just stopped….after the viewing everyone in the auditorium began chanting the famous “…cachun cachun ra ra, cachun cachun ra ra….universidad!!!!” I felt, even if for just a second, at home. I knew that I was meant to be there…

UNAM 1993-1994

The series of events that unfolded during the first few months in Mexico City informed the path that I was to take, and the path that I am still walking in my life now. The bus ride of my first trip to UNAM was short and fast. I had no idea what to expect of Ciudad Universitaria. I had seen pictures, photographs of the murals, but was overwhelmed with emoción when I saw the library near the Facultad de Filosofia y Letras, standing 6 stories tall, and covered with all the beautiful murals I had seen in books time and time again. I am here, I thought, I am here!.

My stay was a challenging period. I was home, but my language was rusty. The rigorous academic training most students had in my classes at UNAM were above and beyond me. My intellectual and political development was very dormant. You see, as an immigrant and ESL student, I was behind in my intellectual and academic growth. The shortcomings of the academic system had not prepared me to the level of the students at UNAM. And so up until that time, I was not very well versed in English and I was stagnant in my Spanish skills. I thought that all I had to do was try a little bit harder, but this somehow was never enough.

The environment at UNAM was very intimidating. The histories the place inhabited, the events that were continuously happening, the peoples that walked the hallways… It was a public institution, but the histories of the students as children of congress peoples, political economists, activists, and other intellectuals felt too much for a young student like me from a working class background. I had spent most of my life up to that point crossing borders back and forth, looking for a grounding force, and always feeling out of place. It would take years for me to own this relation completely, but going back in many ways, made me feel a lot more isolated and depressed. Here, in this country, I blamed the dominant culture and society for my misery, but who could I blame in Mexico for feeling soooo out of place?


Early into the 22-hour journey to the Lacandón Jungle to visit Zapatistas territory, I was sitting on the back of the bus, watching people, strangers really, but hermanos y hermanas en solidaridad and I wondered: What am I doing here? Silvia Soto Pérez de Zinapécuaro, Michoacán, que fué al kinder Felipe Rivera for one year, and cried that one day that her mom forgot to give her a peso to buy a small snack during break; Silvia Soto Pérez who went to la escuela Tipo Revolucion turno matutino for six years, always at the head of her class, always getting in trouble for talking too much, always having a lot of friends, always stressed; Silvia Soto Pérez who attended la secundaria Licenciado Rafael Carrillo turno matutino for one year before immigrating to Napa, California in 1986; Silvia Soto Pérez who attended catechism every Saturday and became a member of ACAN (or Acción Católica de Adolescentes y Niños or Catholic Action for Children and Adolscents) for three years; Silvia Soto Pérez whose life evolved for most of her early life around home and church; Silvia Soto Pérez with no histories of political or social involvement of any kind; Silvia Soto Pérez the daughter of Matías Soto Salinas, immigrant who worked on the fields of Texas, central and northern California to eventually join the laborer’s union and work in construction in Napa, California were our home still is; Silvia Soto Pérez, the daughter of Elena Pérez Carrillo, stay home mom, who raised six girls on her own in Mexico, while her husband worked in California to support the family; Silvia Soto Pérez the granddaughter of Marcelino Soto and Ascensión Salinas, my fraternal grandparents, my grandfather a campesino from el Carpintero, mi nañita, a homemaker, bored with her life, misunderstood, hard working woman always wanting more in life. Silvia Soto Pérez, the granddaughter of Salvador Pérez and Rosa Carrillo, my maternal grandparents, my abuelito Salvador, campesino, who used his calzon de manta, hat, and huaraches until the day he died, and my abuelita Rosa, homemaker, pottery maker, hard working woman. I knew labor, manual labor, hard working labor, story telling, family-old knowledges…This is maybe how I was able to connect with the Zapatista movement.


As the caravan of busses slowly moved through the dirt roads in the highlands of Chiapas, leading us to the first Aguascalientes, Guadalupe Tepeyac, I saw the fields of corn. Extensive fields of corn surrounding small dirt houses, not much different from the house of my abuelito Salvador and abuelita Rosa, and how I imagined the house of my Abuelito Marcelino. People, through out our journey, lined up along the narrow road, waving and wishing us well. I felt as if I knew their faces and the place where they stood, and then, I focused on an old man, who continues to stand in my memories. He was standing a little bit behind the rest of the people, his sombrero was worn out, faded from all the sun time has placed on it, his black sweater does not cover the white shirt he is wearing under. He was old, his face and posture revealed a hard life, and yet, he was standing on the side of the road, away from the work I was sure was waiting for him, sharing his hope, wishing us well. He waved, did not smile, just waved.

In my mind I juxtaposed his face with that of my abuelito Salvador. Though I don’t remember my abuelito Salvador’s face, only from the picture that now sits in my parents’ home in Napa where he always looks somewhat out of place, not always, but sometimes. I never met my abuelito Marcelino, but he was a campesino too. The old picture in my house in Zinapécuaro shows him in overalls, what he would often wear when working. Whereas my abuelito Salvador worked the fields of corn, bean, and squash, my abuelito Marcelino worked in the sierra, treating the pine trees, and tending to the resin. They were both kind and giving men. All the people who knew them remember them that way, and are always prompt to share stories about their kind ways. They shared whatever little possessions they had, and that is why they are so loved.

So I think of how I relate to this movement, to the Zapatistas, so many miles away, so far away from my so called reality, and then, the image of these two men, my abuelitos, comes to mind. As an immigrant I wonder if their memory, if their spirit can transcend the distance. I don’t visit their grave, I don’t necessarily pray for them, nor ask for their protection, but that day, on that bus ride, I saw my abuelitos’ faces on that man. I did not know my relation to the Zapatista movement would last this long. I had no idea that while riding that bus towards Zaptista territory with all those people from Jalisco defending their lands and rights would be the beginning of the ride of my life.  But I remember that man. I remember his face and the ways his face taps into my memories. Memories that bring me closer to the people in my family who worked the fields, who understood the relations with the land, who understood the respect and dignity this relation entailed, and who lived it everyday of their lives.

[1] Zinapécuaro is located in the north-east part of the state of Michoacán, in between the city capital of Morelia and the state of Guanajuato.

[2] I received offer letters from UC Berkeley and UC Davis. My high school adviser told me to go to UC Davis, UC Berkeley would not be a good space for me. So not knowing anything about college, I accepted UC Davis’ offer.

[3] Poniatowska’s book, La Noche de Tlatelolco honors the students activisms by recording their experiences, the bravery, the hope, the faith that the students had to change a system that pushed their spirits back by violently killing thousands of them.

[4] [according to Poniatowska’s book La Noche de Tlatelolco, before the shooting began, there were a number of artificial lights (cuetes) that were thrown from the helicopters that were circling above the Plaza]

Silvia Soto is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Associate in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She earned her PhD in Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis and her Master’s in Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico. She is currently working on the conversion of her dissertation, “Unstoppable Clamor: The Reconstruction of Mayan World in Chiapas”, into a book length manuscript. This testimony reflects her journey into some of the spaces she has navigated as part of her ongoing path of life.

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