Josefina Lopez: Undocumented Dreamer from Way Back

by Josefina López as told to Jeremy Rosenberg

My father came to the U.S. as a bracero. This was the guest worker program initiated during World War II because most of the capable men had left. Women started working in factories and hundreds of thousands of Mexican men were brought in to do the jobs that there weren't men here to do.

My father was one of those men who came. After working contracts he decided to stay in Los Angeles. He was undocumented for a couple of years; he got deported four times. Eventually he was able to get help from a friend and bring in my mother. Then my sister was born in the country- that helped my parents get legal residency.

My family came from San Luis Potosi, in a little town called Cerritos, in central Mexico, about five hours north of Mexico City. It takes thirty-two or thirty-eight hours to drive from there to here. My father used to drive it all the time. When my father sent for us, it took three days and several buses to get from Cerritos to Tijuana.

My father met us in Tijuana. I always wondered how my parents then smuggled me through. We are very light-skinned in my family - we have a very indigenous side and we also have a very light-skinned side. When I was born, I looked like a white girl - I was blond with curly hair. And so, I guess my parents paid a white woman to smuggle me in. Back then, the [border agents] didn't scrutinize everything. So this white woman took me in with her as a little baby and they just assumed I was her child.

I was in this country-and in this city undocumented for thirteen years. When people talked about the undocumented as 'aliens', I really internalized that. I felt like I lived on an alien planet because it was very weird to feel like you weren't an acknowledged part of humanity. Eventually my father got a green card and when Amnesty was passed we were now here with permission.

Portrait of playwright, producer, novelist, and 
screenwriter Josefina Lopez by artist John Carlos
de Luna.
The Amnesty law definitely had an impact on me. I was a back before it was cool to be a I became legal and so did my whole family. And it changed everything for us. It gave me the freedom to finally do what I wanted-to go to college.  After the U.S. invaded Iraq, my husband - he's French America and I moved to Paris for eighteen months. But otherwise, I've lived in Boyle Heights. This is an incredible neighborhood where throughout the years, the Jews and the Italians and the Japanese - and all the people who weren't allowed to live in the 'white' part of Los Angeles - ended up living. And, of course, Mexican.

I write predominately about Latinos and Latino immigrants - many of them, Mexican Americans. Los Angeles is sort of the capital of the Mexican American experience so the city and the neighborhood infuse my work. I worte a play called "Boyle Heights",'''which deals with being an immigrant and coming to this country and the cycle of life and coming back home.

L.A. is full of immigrants. It's kind of the other side of Ellis Island.  There should have been a Statue of Liberty on this side. We got jipped, you know?Because this is the gateway for immigrants coming from the west and the south.

A version of this story first appeared in the Arrival Stories column series posted to the KCET Departures website. Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenber via


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