By Tais | Issue 23
“Immigrant” has been my main identity in the many European countries that have hosted me since I was 23 years old in 1998. A “good” migrant or a “bad” one depends on others’ persuasion. Unbeknown to most I have lived on both sides of the border between legality and illegality with a refusal to understand why permits are needed to cross arbitrary borders that are drawn with the blood and hate of people who were neighbours before wars divided them. My life story is braided tightly with the increasingly prohibitive immigration law changes, traumatising world events, regression proto-fascist ideology like the Great Replacement Theory in policy and public discourse, and colonial idiosyncrasies in Europe and Mexico.
These are a few snippets from my tempestuous journey from a paperless, clueless yet fearless, eager to learn Mexican au pair in Finland, to undocumented over-stayer working in Ireland and Scotland, to a “suspicious” wife in Catalunya, a failed returnee in Mexico. From an unconfident Londoner to a proud single holder of UK Indefinite Leave To Remain who has conducted independent research in Bosna i Hercegovina.
‘How did that happen?’, I hear you ask. Indeed. People are shocked when I say I moved from gorgeous Mexico to Finland. So cold, dark and depressing, not just the weather. The perfect country with exceptionally high living standards, commendable welfare provisions and highest number of suicides per capita. Since day one I experienced racial profiling and witnessed discrimination against their own Indigenous people, the Sami, disdain for the Finnish Kaale, Roma, and the “shock” at the few hundred refugees from Somalia who started arriving in the early 1990s.
I entered Finland easily, on a tourist visa, not alone in a small boat but with a local friend in a big ferry from Travemunde, Germany. I had spent five days there attending the Zillo Festival 1998 and knew that was my opportunity to leave my increasingly violent Mexico, so I looked for jobs as an au pair in Helsinki before departing. I was a reckless 23-year-old with a 90-day tourist visa and no legal, financial or emotional support; the perfect candidate to exploit in domestic servitude, which happened to me twice in Helsinki.
However, my first taste of the unwanted migrant chocolate was before that, unsurprisingly, at US Border Control, due to a stopover in Newark on my flight from Mexico to Germany. I have never had a US visa nor wanted to migrate like many of my paisanos or even visit due to my political convictions, activism, and the particular hatred they have for Mexicans. Helpfully, in 1998 you could book a flight and did not need a visa to transit. However, upon landing in Newark they identified and rounded up all those without a visa, took our passports and put us in a detention room so heavily guarded you needed an officer with you to use the loo. The feeling among us was of shame, anger and impotence at being treated like hardened criminals. Looking back I see I was lucky because since 9/11 the US has banned passengers without visas from boarding even in transit, and enacted racist laws that allow them to put people like me in ICE cages. After a few hours of waiting in detention, we were allowed to board our connecting flights, and I was on my way to Germany, and a few days later, Finland.
After six months in Finland, having overstayed my tourist visa and getting exploited in two homes, I was penniless and in a rush. I found a position as a live-in assistant to a man running a shipping company in tiny Sligo, Ireland. In hindsight that had more red flags than a football derby, yet I still flew to Ireland in March 1999 when passport control was less strict than the Southern-Northern Irish Border. I lasted two weeks in Sligo and I managed to escape his indebted servitude. My desperation took me to the Samaritans who were incredibly generous. They helped me register as a victim of labour trafficking, and put me up in a hostel for people seeking protection.
Then they suggested I take the coach to Dublin to seek a better life. I got there with sixty Irish punts in my pocket, no plan, work permit or care. Bags of the good “ingenio Mexicano”, mixed with “luck o’ the Irish” and historical Irish-Mexican solidarity dating back to 1846’s St. Patrick's Battalion, saved me. I found my pot o’gold when I ran into a group of animal rights and antifascist activists the day I had nowhere to stay. They invited me to their house/commune and then I found a cash-in-hand job in a chip shop. Later on, I got hired as a support officer at an emergency shelter for homeless men run, terribly, by the Salvation Army.
My time in Ireland coincided with moments of great historical importance: the IRA bombing of Omagh (the family of a friend were survivors); the NATO airstrikes on Serbia after the 1992-1995 violent breakup of Yugoslavia was shown live on TV, and created another wave of Balkan refugees; the aftermath of the signing and ratification of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland; and the Republic changing its constitution to give up claims to Northern territory. I crossed that border many times in almost two years with my Mexican passport to party in Belfast with my incredible group of friends from both Irelands. That is when I realised that my Southern friends had to keep their heads down and “say nothing” more than me when walking by sectarian murals, and fortress-like police stations with small tanks parked outside. Then, I got restless so I went to Manchester (England, UK) where I got a job in a care home that was one of those god’s waiting rooms. My situation was so depressing, I had so much regret and pain that I went back to Mexico to regroup three months later.
Mexico City was there to pick up the pieces and break them some more. I was still the disliked insane scapegoat of the dysfunctional family but now also a valuable token to show off because I had lived in Europe. Status is everything for colonised minds. I felt re-traumatised and stranded in my own city. In my desperation to escape I took another au-pair job this time in Glasgow (Scotland, UK) with a well-off family that was not keen on foreigners but preferred having one as a substitute mother/maid than doing their job themselves. I was totally unsuitable and got sacked. Luckily I found spare rooms to crash and my inability to understand why we need visas to move and work mixed with a lax attitude of some employers got me a job in a care agency, then in a supported living project for Deaf people run by the Archdiocese of Glasgow. I also found a great flat in the East End of the city, near “Paradise” as they call Celtic Park. Even though I am no longer Catholic, I fit in perfectly and quickly learned not to cross the imaginary border to the Protestant areas. For good measure, I enrolled in college so my status changed to student and I was safe. Or so I thought. Over a year later I decided to visit Mexico and as I returned to Scotland I was interrogated harshly and they informed me that my visa had not been sorted so, surprisingly, they gave me a week to leave the country instead of deporting me immediately. That week changed my life. I met a Catalan guy. He had a job but was homeless. I had a flat but was paperless. Fondness and hopelessness brought us together. So we decided to get married.
Our 2006 low-key wedding was in the canals of my beloved hometown Xochimilco, a UNESCO Heritage site, which, for the first time, made me popular in my colonised family, which was so unbearable we went to Barcelona (Catalunya, Spain) for a few months and I was legal for the first time in Europe, but unhappy. Mexicans and Latinxs are not the invisible minority in Catalunya or the Spanish State, but big targets for patriots of all sides. We still have a Coloniser-Colonised abusive relationship like my marriage since the beginning. Even before meeting me his family discouraged him from marrying me because they thought I only wanted a visa. Migrants, it seems, are not allowed feelings. Ironic since his family and friends come from Republicans who fought Franco in the Spanish Civil War and Mexico and Latin America had welcomed their refugees. Despite my unwavering support for Catalan independence and commitment to learn Catalan, I was not accepted. Then I made what has been construed as a stupid decision but I call principled and do not regret: moving to London after three months. Mexicans entering and working legally in Spain can get citizenship after only one year. A useful token gesture, substitute of reparations and true decolonisation to create the illusion we are welcome in the so-called Madre Patria. My decision was partly because of my mental health, but mostly, as a staunch anti-colonialist, I refused to become Spanish, kiss their flag and swear allegiance to the colonisers' King. I realise it could have saved me a lot of trouble in the future and given me the freedom of movement Brexit took away again, but I aim to walk the talk. It could be seen as hypocrisy that I swapped one brutal Empire for another, but my personal ancestral trauma is exacerbated more by Spain and I knew I could do more in the UK. Regardless, anti-fascism is the standard way to be for me, even if the “movement” is not what it says on the tin.
Back to my unequal migration experience, though: my ex and I moved to London in 2007 and, as the UK was still a member of the European Union, I acquired the right to enter the country legally as an EU Family Member Resident. The country that had deported me and told me I had no right to be here months earlier opened the doors with a smile, suddenly finding me worthy because I was attached to a white European man.
Fast forward, all the people, adventures, discrimination and precarity, and helplessness about the injustice in the world, have taken a great toll on my already precarious mental health and landed me in hospitals and unsuitable therapies. When my husband left me, my status changed yet again. I was trapped in limbo, destructive attachments and addiction issues. A kind friend who was a retired immigration lawyer helped me apply for residence on human rights grounds even after another messy break up. Now I have the precious Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK without having to be behind a UK or European citizen.
Since I got my permanent residence I have got a forever home, been diagnosed neurodivergent, completed a Masters in Refugee Studies with Merit in 2022, remained involved in social change campaigns, and volunteered abroad a few times. I went to Chiapas, Mexico where, despite being of Indigenous descent, Europeans were given more voice in Zapatista communities. Then I did a few stints in Bosna i Hercegovina volunteering with asylum seekers on the Balkan Route, and carrying out independent ethical research on the Bosnian War and Genocide, which I presented at an international conference. All this confirmed my theories that white supremacy and hierarchies are reproduced in activism and research everywhere; and that as a citizen of the world committed to solidarity and connection, I may not fit in anywhere, but I belong in my little lonely haven I have created in this pluricultural bit of London.
Needless to say I could not have started out the same way in the current world run by war, terror and narco-states. I am now considering applying for UK citizenship to feel safer in this extremely xenophobic climate. Naturalisation is not my aspirational holy grail but I wish to cross the last fictitious frontier for my own peace of mind, as well as a tribute to my father and ancestors, reparations for ongoing colonisation, a reward for my courage and resilience, and a way to heal from trauma. I am recovering slowly by reclaiming my otherness, borderless Indigenous identity and stolen pride, taking a stand as a non-aligned activist and breaking into exclusionary academic circles across continents. For me, my existence in Europe is, both, a personal victory and counter-colonial resistance.
Tais is of Indigenous descent, working class, born and bred in Xochimilco, Mexico City, and with roots in Michoacan, too. She migrated to Europe alone in 1998 at age 23 and has lived in 6 different cities in 5 countries. She has been a UK resident for 16 years.
She has studied history, cultures, languages, geopolitics, both formally and informally, and holds a UK Master's Degree in Refugee Studies with a Merit. She has worked in heritage, community work, education with disabled and neurodivergent people like herself, and campaigns for borderless solidarity, the rights for LGBTQIA and excluded communities. She is a committed anti-fascist campaigner and has also worked in the field with Indigenous Peoples, and supporting asylum seekers and migrants.
Tais has conducted and presented her independent research internationally on various topics including ‘Latin American Populism’, ‘The Far Right European Identitarians’ and 'Cultural acts of resistance during and after the Bosnian Genocide' in Bosna i Hercegovina’. Her focus is on interconnectedness and active radical international solidarity, migrant-led resistance, colonisation, genocide and ethnic cleansing, cultures and remembrance, anti-colonial heritage, focus on survivors and minoritised peoples as subjects of change, not objects of pity.