The passage of the South Carolina Immigration Reform Act gave rise to strong and sometimes threatening anti-immigrant rhetoric. In this interview, Elsa Méndez recalls the stress that she and many other Latino immigrants experienced as the bill was being debated. Overcoming her fear, she took part in public demonstrations in 2012 when SB 20 was challenged in federal court.
Marina López: How do you feel that the environment has been changing? You’ve been getting accustomed to living here. That is more peaceful and God is with you on the one hand. That makes you feel calmer. But on the other hand, the political situation has been worsening.
Elsa Mendez: Yes, totally.
ML: How have you gotten through this?
EM: In the beginning I wasn’t worried. Well, I was worried, but I guess it was that I didn’t take into account the weight of these things. I don’t know if it was because of age or because my focus was on survival. We focused on that and we didn’t pay attention to the rest.
And in recent years we have had to do it because it is in sight.
ML: What has changed Elsa?
EM: A lot of things, in the police, in how people look at us, in so many things.
ML: The police have always been here, Elsa.
EM: Yes, they have always been here, but not in the same way. Before, you would see a police car and you would say, “it is a cop.” These days, you see the police and you know that you don’t have a driver’s license, which is something so fundamental here because you can’t get around walking everywhere, and you feel like you’re a murderer.
ML: Did something like this happen to you?
EM: Yes, it’s happened to me because well, my license expired two years ago, to get it there are ten thousand journeys to make, to go to look for the place where they give them because here they don’t give illegals anything.
ML: You mean like you need to go to a state where you can still get a valid license?
EM: Of course.
ML: Where do people go now?
EM: Well, the last trip I made I went to New Mexico. I made it with a hurt back in a car. I travelled endless hours to arrive in New Mexico, and discovered that we could not get one.
ML: You went to New Mexico to see if they would give you a license—a valid license from New Mexico, and they didn’t give you one?
EM: No, and one makes such a terrible trip, risks their life, goes through places you wouldn’t imagine, that anything could happen, and leaves their children, exposes themselves to anything to get something as essential as a driver’s license.
ML: To be able to leave and take the children to school, to be able to go to the supermarket?
ML: Has anything happened to you or have you had any problems from not having a license?
EM: Yes, I have been stopped, but I have asked God to protect me and he keeps on protecting me. I started crying inconsolably I guess at the face of the police officer. It startled him, and he told me, “Go ma’am,” or something like that.
ML: When did that happen?
EM: It happened—it had to be, no, I can’t say the specific time because my memory is short but, it happened around here, he told me that I passed a stop sign and it wasn’t just like that.
ML: Here on Johns Island?
EM: Yes, here on Johns Island. He told me, “pull over to the side; give me your driver’s license, how long have you lived here?” Then they interrogate you in such a way that you can’t even think. The nerves and the anxiety of knowing that we aren’t criminals and you have to feel this way, so bad, it is terrible.
ML: But they didn’t take you?
EM: No, thank God no.
ML: Did the police frighten you?
EM: Yes, I guess, after having that experience, for example, they put a police officer here in the neighborhood to patrol, and he was in front of my house for almost two months. I do not leave often so they don’t ask me for my license. They came over to bother me about the dogs because I have the Rottweiler dogs. And he came up to my house and said to me, “Give me your driver’s license,” and I said, “This is the last straw, I’m not going out and I have been calling for the dogs,” but I thought about it, because I could have said, “Why am I giving you my license? Why do you come to my house and bang on the door, scaring my children?” because my children were frightened. And he came to ask me for my license. And yes I gave it to him and he said, “this license is expired, and if you leave this house, get in your car and drive, you will be detained.”
ML: And after that?
EM: After that I left with fear, I got in the car—I got in the car afraid.
ML: And you told me you were always in your neighborhood.
EM: Yes, I thought about reporting him because I felt harassed by him, and well, I didn’t do it.
ML: What happens now if someone needs to call the police? Do they feel the same peace of mind that you had before now? If you should need to call the police, would you be up to calling them?
EM: If we have to do it yes. These days, I think that what is going to happen will just have to happen, if I decide to live locked up, I won’t survive, so I trust in God and I go out.
ML: And one of the things that you told me earlier was that you participated in the demonstration after the passage of the immigration bill, right?
ML: Tell me in what things did you participate?
EM: In reality I learned of it by chance. It was not by chance. The first time that I found out they had a meeting I didn’t go to. They told me, I don’t know, we get together with friends and what not, and Andrea said something like if we are in agreement and everything, we had to go, we could not stay. And that kept echoing in my head, I said, “Yes, it is true.” Afterwards you called me, it wasn’t by chance, and you invited me to the Mass. And so I decided to go and it was hard to go there. We heard testimonies of people who have suffered even more, and who have been abused.
And after that I decided to go on the march. I knew that there were going to be police. And what were we going to do there? But I think it was one of the most free moments I’ve felt since I have been here because I screamed, and I screamed—nothing insulting, it was simply a cry for freedom.
ML: What was it you were yelling?
EM: “The people united are never defeated.” And in reality I felt that we were. (Sobbing)
ML: What was it that you all were asking for in the march? Do you remember?
EM: Yes that they strike down the law. I don’t remember the number.
ML: SB 20.
EM: Yes, that. And we requested that we be allowed to live with dignity like anyone, nothing more.
ML: To live with dignity, what does it mean to you to live with dignity? What is it that you desire?
EM: In having freedom, freedom to move about, freedom to be able to be people, but yes.