The American dream has always been conditional for this country’s marginalized peoples. For young, undocumented Mexican mother Aida Hernandez (not her real name, for reasons of protective anonymity), the U.S. immigration system exposed the cruelties and complexities of what it really means to be free.
Aida was born and raised in Agua Prieta, Mexico. After her mother endured years of physical abuse, she left her husband, Aida’s father, and set out for the border town of Douglas, Arizona, with 9-year-old Aida and her two other daughters in tow. But Aida’s mother’s next partner echoed the patterns of abuse. As Aida grew up, the turbulent and unpredictable nature of her mother’s relationships added to the micro and macro challenges that accompanied living as an undocumented citizen. As a result, Aida’s inner world reflected the chaos of her unstable adolescence.
Author Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a professor of politics at Whitman College and the founding member of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition in Washington state, presents Aida’s narrative in The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez as “somewhere between journalistic nonfiction and ethnography.” Bobrow-Strain’s genre-bending book isn’t so much an example of immigrant “exceptionalism”—the idea that Aida is deserving of citizenship because she’s “not like the others”—as it is an example of how American cultural and societal norms frame immigration as a meritocracy.
In the book’s extensive back matter, Bobrow-Strain writes, “By framing support for undocumented immigrants in the language of virtue and achievement—‘hardworking,’ ‘family values,’ ‘not criminals,’ and ‘success stories’—I, and some parts of the immigrant rights movement, had tacitly condemned people like Aida who could not fit their lives into our narrow windows of approval.”
The author’s tone, coupled with the overall narrative execution, shakes off the objective lens typically required of straightforward journalism. Bobrow-Strain is equal parts sympathetic and unabashedly honest in his re-creation of Aida’s life, seamlessly blending the intimate details of memoir into the historical and political context of U.S. immigration policies. Her journey to young adulthood is marked both by its universality (dancing to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, the anxieties of trying to fit in at school) and by the adversities specific to being “other” in America (dealing with undocumented citizenship status, Border Patrol).
While Aida’s story is not meant to serve as the sole representation of life as an undocumented immigrant, it’s a sharp portrait of a country where equality is designed only for those deemed worthy.