Eva Castellanoz looks at family photos in her home in Nyssa, Oregon.

More than Words

Three families in rural Oregon retrace US immigration with their lives

The small border town of Nyssa sits at the easternmost edge of Oregon, between winding highways, four rivers, and wide-open ranchlands. Migration and labor have long shaped the community’s landscape, both physically and spiritually, since the home of three thousand was first incorporated at the turn of the twentieth century. Nyssa was home to the first Japanese American labor camp—offered as an alternative to internment in 1942— as well as a temporary home for the many braceros who arrived on temporary work visas in droves the same year. In the world of immigration law, change remains the only constant, and a deeper dive into the stories of three families in the rural community demonstrates how policy change, at all levels, impacts lives beyond just words.

As the US-born daughter of a formerly undocumented immigrant and an “anchor baby,” I’ve seen the ways my own family has navigated and maneuvered the immigration system in this country through my lifetime. Although my own family’s history shares similarities with the histories of many of the families interviewed, our stories and experiences remain radically different due in large part to legislation of the era.

Immigrants account for approximately 43.7 million people, or 13.5 percent of the US population. About one-quarter, or eleven million, are estimated to be living without documentation. In Oregon, one in ten residents are foreign-born and about one-third of the immigrant population is undocumented.

An irrigation ditch in Nyssa, Oregon

When Eva Castellanoz was just three years old, the midnight waves of the Rio Grande crashed into the makeshift raft she and her family clung to for safety. The coyote—a professional smuggler, not a shipwright—had built it himself. Her mother, an indigenous Otomi healer and her father, a farmworker of Aztec descent, soothed her and her three-month-old sister into stillness as they attempted to cross to the other side.

Before she was simply “Eva,” Castellanoz was born Genoveva Silva Juarez to Concepción and Fidel Silva in 1939. Her father had worked in agriculture between Guanajuato, Mexico and the United States for several years before the family eventually decided to make a permanent move to the US together. 

Fidel Silva was one of the first wave of laborers contracted under the Bracero Program which was established in 1942 and in operation until 1964. The policy granted Mexican men seasonal work permissions in the US and many flocked from their hometowns to the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

However, many of the 4.3 million braceros were faced with the choice of either leaving their families behind or bringing them into the US without proper documentation. The Silvas had suffered greatly during the years in which the father of the household migrated internationally each season. Even while working tirelessly, picking crops to feed those in the United States, their earnings and opportunity for growth remained meager.

Concepción Silva had given birth to six children in quick succession. The growing family continued to face poverty and difficulty accessing ample food and clean water in Guanajuato. Then when Castellanoz’s five older siblings died suddenly from illness, the devastation crystalized their next steps, leading them to the raft on the Rio Grande. The subsequent spike in Latinx communities around the United States show that other braceros made similar decisions.

Once aboard the dinghy, the Silvas found the structure shook violently with the rise and fall of the river.

“They believed the water and the air spoke,” Castellanoz, now seventy-nine, says. “‘Shh, shh,’ the water said. ‘Stay quiet.’” 

The plan had always been to cross over utilizing a coyote’s unauthorized services. Although they expected the fear, they never imagined they’d make the journey alongside eighteen other hopeful and determined immigrants. Then halfway to their destination, their collective weight caused the dinghy to capsize and plunge them into the throes of ice-cold rushing water.

Castellanoz gripped her father’s shoulder and her mother held her baby sister tight. They were soaked and terrified, but they made it out of the river alive. 

Here, Castellanoz voice breaks as she nears the end of her US origin story. We sit in the dimly lit room she dedicates to her curanderismo, traditional healing work. Her eyes, now filled with tears, remain fixated on the closet-sized altars for her parents and a slain niece.

On his death bed decades later, Fidel Silva recited the names of those who survived, but more importantly, those who did not. As he listed the drowned victims over and over again, he urged, and he pleaded that they may never be forgotten.

In 2017, a total of ninety-one migrants crossing into the United States died by drowning. Although unauthorized immigration has steadily declined since 2007 and fewer people are attempting to unlawfully enter into the United States from Mexico, the number of border-related migrant deaths actually increased last year. The death toll rose from 398 deaths in 2016 to 412 deaths in 2017, despite a 44 percent drop in border apprehensions (the most commonly used method most commonly used to track US-Mexico border crossings.) 

Although data on migrant deaths at the US-Mexico border doesn’t date back to the 1940s, risking your life was an assumed danger for all people making their way between the countries. Dying may have been statistically less likely to occur then than today, but hypothermia, dehydration, violence, and fatal accidents were all still common hazards.

When Castellanoz considers how her father spent the better half of a decade entering, leaving, and re-entering the US border from Mexico on foot, she says they were very fortunate. But his constant migration didn’t stop after the Bracero Program began.

The Silvas followed the harvest seasons between Pharr, Texas, and various towns in Oregon and Washington for more than ten years after arriving in the United States. Their two remaining children joined in supporting the family too.

“From five years old, I was working in the field,” Castellanoz says. She picked everything from strawberries and zucchini to green beans and flowers beside her parents and younger sister. Her summers were spent harvesting sweet corn in the sticky Texas heat and unearthing onions of all sizes during drizzly winters in the Pacific Northwest.

“If you filled a bucket of sweet peas, you’d earn a quarter,” she recalls of one particular field in Oregon. “Then the money stayed there because you’d buy your hot chocolate and hamburger from a stand nearby. It was so cold.”

She’d savor the sips of thick cocoa as the Styrofoam cup warmed her small hands and the drink heated up her achy body. Sometimes the grease of melty cheese dribbled down her cheek between bites of burger. The treats—sweet and salty—were a welcomed respite in a childhood too often dominated by work. 

“I was a girl who had to go to school, but we had to work before. That was terrible for me,” she says. “When it was time for the bus, you had to run to the house, clean your feet, put on your shoes, and get in for school. When you came back, you had to work too.”

Then when Castellanoz was around eight years old, her family was able to arrange lawful permanent residence cards, or green cards, for every member. “It was a lot easier back then,” she says of the process.

They continued working in the fields.

Later, Castellanoz and her family would join the thousands of other Latinxs who eventually settled their roots in Oregon. Although it was certainly not the first large wave of Latinx immigration to the state, the Bracero Program of 1942 marked a significant moment in the state’s history and it coincided with their own experience of Oregon. This period also set the stage for major growth of the Latinx population in the state during the 1950s.

After considering Texas their home base for many years, the Silva family decided to stay in Nyssa after harvest season in 1957. They had lived in the town intermittently for many years and loved everything it offered. There were affordable clothing boutiques, several bakeries, a hospital, many recreation offerings, and a thriving, welcoming Latinx community. Most importantly of all, perhaps, were the expansive plains painted with a Technicolor abundance of crops.

The Amalgamated Sugar Company has provided a steady income and year-round work for three generations of Silvas and Castellanoz. Their own sense of stability also gave them the chance to help others more readily.

Down the street from the house Eva lives in—the one her own family built together more than half a century ago—is a patchwork of dilapidating sheds and a previously damaged prefab home still in disrepair from storms and vandals. By the end of summer and my third visit, the shattered glass had been cleaned up.

In the summer, Nyssa’s heat is dry and unforgiving at over one hundred degrees on many days. In the winter, it’s brutally cold for months at a time. Eva walks the three-block trip to Casa Pósito, the prefab home, several times a week to sip tea—iced in the summer and hot in the winter—and sort through boxes and old memories. Casa Pósito was her parent’s first house.

Showroom cases inside display dusty but vibrant and intricate paper flowers. More artisan crafts are stacked in plastic storage bins nearby. She unpacks them proudly on our visit.

Castellanoz worked in the fields until her early thirties when an Oregon State University professor somehow discovered she was making traditional wax and paper floral coronas, or crowns, and was providing access to remedios, or alternative medicine, through her curanderismo. Her husband initially refused to let her leave the fields, but after three months of repeated visits from various OSU staff members, he conceded. 

Castellanoz’s life was whirlwind soon after accompanying them on international trips as a translator and delivering presentations on Mexican folk art. In 1987 she was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“This life is not my own,” she says often, expressing her trust in God’s path for her. After picking fruit throughout her nine pregnancies and living through poverty and abuse, she never imagined a life outside of the fields for herself. What transpired in the middle of her life was nothing short of a miracle.

I ask what the process is like for creating the quincerañera flower crowns. “Your hands and imagination,” she answers with a smile.

Through the sliding glass doors of the home’s living room, the barren two-acre property, stippled with brown edifices, is visible. This was home for a long time for the Silvas, but it also became the home for a rotation of many of the area’s undocumented farmworkers.

“For years, la migra came here because they knew that Mexican people without papers were living here,” she says. “[My mom] would gift them everything. She gave them food to eat the first week and the second week [they would start paying.]”

At its peak, Castellanoz estimates that her parents offered shelter to six households at a time. The sheds were constructed using cheap and scrap materials. Some were filled with families and their children and others were for single men. When it was busy, old cars were stationed and emptied for added sleeping space.

She remembers watching people sprint across the street from her house to hide or, at times, evade immigration officers during unannounced raids. Some scenarios were comedic, like when a woman hid in a single-sex bathroom and snuck out the back, but most were scary.

But her family felt safe offering refuge for the growing undocumented community because they had their green cards. Seventy years since she began living in the United States with her residence card, Castellanoz still isn’t convinced citizenship is the right choice for her although she would be eligible with sponsorship from her US-born children.

“I’m a Mexican citizen and I’m a citizen of the world,” she says. “We’re all citizens of this world—there’s nothing else. I don’t know if that feeling will change, but for now, I’m Mexican.”

In 1790, the United States implemented its first immigration law which established a process for naturalization reserved exclusively for white people. US citizenship would drastically change in the proceeding decades, depending heavily on new regulations fueled in response to national and global concerns and the cyclical political climate.

In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act passed allowing the US government to deport immigrants on suspicions of communist loyalty and both maintained and added quotas for immigrants from all regions—including Asia for the first time. Two years later, Operation Wetback was launched to target undocumented immigrants. In mere months, more than three hundred thousand people—including US citizens of Mexican descent—were forced into deportation.

There have been many other regulations on both national and state levels before, during, and after these two laws with varying impact on the livelihoods of those immigrating to the US within the legal process and outside of it.

Jose Luis Cisneros, left, with his wife, Marilu Cisneros Villaseñor. 

It was 1983 when Jose Luis Cisneros began seasonally migrating to the United States from Morelia, Mexico, for farm work. He was in his early twenties and was a new father thanks to the birth of his first son, Edgar. Back home, more than two thousand miles away, his wife, Marilu Cisneros Villaseñor, was surviving on a single income with a newborn baby. She had to work more than she ever had while he was away to keep them both fed.

Jose Cisneros’ own father had been a bracero in the US during the 1940s and his older brother had already started working in the north as well. Making the journey back and forth across the border was like tradition. Over the course of the next year, Jose Cisneros would earn enough money working on US farms for a couple of months at a time to hold them over for several months in Mexico. After a few seasons, the young couple found out they had another child on the way.

Then in the summer of 1984, a few short months after their second son, Luis, was born, Jose Cisneros decided he’d work up north for a full year before permanently moving the family to Nyssa.

“It was really hard,” says Cisneros Villaseñor. “He left [to the United States] when Luis was two or three months old. Then we didn’t hear from him and he didn’t send for us.”

One year later, he called with news that he’d finally arranged for them to join him in their new home in the Treasure Valley. Cisneros Villaseñor immediately sold off the little they had to afford the trip to the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. She spent nearly three weeks at the border waiting for the perfect night to cross with her sons.

They were brought directly across, most likely using someone else’s documents, though they can’t recall for sure. “We did not suffer to pass, thank God,” she says. 

Jose drove his cobalt Buick Skylark without a license from Nyssa to pick them up on the other side and bring them home.

One year into their new life in Oregon, the Cisneros family remained undocumented and without a clear sense of how they might become lawful residents. But they wouldn’t have to wonder for much longer.

The US Congress passed the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986. The law, known as Reagan Amnesty, was informed in part by a study on undocumented immigrants initiated by President Jimmy Carter. It offered undocumented immigrants a pathway to permanent legal status, and years later, citizenship for many of the 3.2 million undocumented people living in the US including the Cisneros family. The timing was celestial. 

The first Cisneros house was very small. The studio layout provided enough space for two mattresses, a fridge, and little else. The family of four lived there until about 1987—the year the Oregon legislature passed the bill that came to be known as the state’s sanctuary status law. 

Jose Cisneros spent the first few years of his time in the US in the fields picking onions, potatoes, beans, and any other crop that needed harvesting. After some time, he began fighting fires and spent the subsequent twenty-two years working his way up the ranks as a crew boss and squad boss. In 2003, his crew even earned a NASA certificate awarded following their two-month stay in Nacogdoches, Texas, following the Columbia space shuttle disaster. His team uncovered materials of investigative significance. Eventually, though, it became too hard for him to compete with the younger men entering the field. They were inexperienced, but they had fire science degrees. He quit and returned to working in the fields, but he looks forward to sharing the NASA chronicles with his future grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Cisneros Villaseñor also worked in the fields for a few years. But as soon as the family received their green cards, she was able to earn her GED at the local community college and train to work at a daycare. Eventually, she ended up at a local Ore-Ida factory where she’s worked for nearly two decades and is now nearing retirement with the company. 

Her daily work on the production line entails quite a bit of math and computer processing to make sure the water, salt, and butter levels are perfect before applying the lemon-colored coating to the frozen French fries. She’s proud of her finesse and comfort with the equipment, especially considering she was only able to complete up to the third grade in Mexico. Even though she still experiences racism from time to time in the workplace and elsewhere, she’s mastered how to most effectively quash those interactions. 

“A small, older woman [once said], ‘Hey! We’re in America. You shouldn’t speak Spanish here. I don’t understand you.’ I said, ‘You know what, there’s the [community college]. You can go to learn Spanish. I know because I went there to learn English.’ She didn’t say anything to me about that anymore.”

By 1994, the Cisneros family had grown to include two more children, Jeannette and Alexzandro. Then in 2002, Jose Cisneros and Cisneros Villaseñor started working on their citizenship process.

“A lot of it was driven by [Luis’] want to go to college,” says Sheena Cisneros, a fourth-generation Treasure Valley resident, former medical assistant, and Luis’ wife. The pair have been together seventeen years and she was there when the family still only had their permanent residence cards.

He desperately didn’t want to be in debt like so many of the peers he saw around him graduating from college, so he urged his parents to complete the process and allow him access to university funding.

Months before his eighteenth birthday, he and his father made the drive to Portland in the middle of the school year to take the test. Luis was exempt because he was still a minor.

“We got up at 4:00 a.m., went to McDonald’s and had a sausage egg McMuffin, and went to our appointment where we sat at a table with a bunch of other people,” Luis Cisneros recalls. “They gave us little flags and then our documents. And that was it.”

A weight was lifted.

“It was very hard—arriving to this country so young, without the language, without friends, without family. But we kept going and we behaved,” says Cisneros Villaseñor.

“And here we are, still echándole ganas,” adds Jose Cisneros.

Since the family received their citizenship, they started the process for their parents and a few of their siblings on each side. Ofelia “Mama Ofe” Villaseñor received her family-based visa after a seven-year wait well into her eighties.

“I never thought of coming here. Not even in my dreams,” Villaseñor says. “And here I am even though English has never stuck. [Someone] once asked me how I passed my citizenship test and I simply replied, ‘Luck.’”

In 1990, after years of seasonal migration between Mexico and the United States, Manuel Ramirez moved his family to Nyssa—the Thunderegg Capital of the World. All nine family members, including Ramirez, wife Maria Guadalupe Avila, and their seven children, were born in El Occidente de México and entered the US without documentation. They were a few years too late to qualify for Reagan Amnesty, which had provided a path to citizenship for the Cisneros family, who had arrived less than half a decade earlier. Without a viable pathway to citizenship, the Ramirezes and their legal status remained stuck. 

“[My husband] started coming to [the US] in 1983,” Avila says. “He was in Los Angeles his first year, but he didn’t like it much.” Because everything was so far, he spent too much of his day traveling to find work. Then a friend told him there was a place in Oregon that was calm and bursting with job prospects. 

A distant cousin of Avila’s husband was working as a coyote and agreed to help the whole family cross together. Within a few weeks, they were more than twelve hundred miles away from Nayarit, the small state in Western Mexico where they’d started. In the Sonoran Desert, they approached the Unites States in the back of a pickup truck with another coyote and group of people. The black night suddenly lit up as a US Border Patrol truck careened toward them. They stopped their vehicle and ran in all directions.

“I felt like a disaster,” Avila says. “I didn’t know where my youngest son [Mario] was. My [daughter] didn’t come out from hiding for a long time until after [the Border Patrol] left. I very much regretted having tried to come.”

“I remember a tree trunk saved me,” says Lorena Ramirez, Avila and Manuel Ramirez’s only daughter. “I stayed there, glued to the tree, because the [officers] were passing through with lamps.”

She studied the movement of the light and adjusted her body accordingly to stay in the shadows. “It was traumatic for all of us,” Avila adds.

After the officers left, everyone slowly emerged from hiding, one by one. The Ramirez family can’t remember if anyone was picked up by Border Patrol that day, but they immediately noticed Mario was still missing. The Ramirez coyote quickly called the other coyote. His inkling was correct—in the scramble, Mario had run to the wrong coyote. The whole family was safe, but it was too risky to continue. They turned back to the Mexican border town to spend another night.

It’s common for people to repeatedly attempt to cross into the United States before succeeding, but Avila was ready to quit. “I was no longer going to try it anymore because of what happened with my kids,” she says. “I did not want to! But what can you do when you’re almost there?”

They succeeded on their second attempt and were reunited with the youngest family member.

Maria Guadalupe Avila with her granddaughter, Kailey

The Ramirez family spent the first two years in the United States living in a one-bedroom house in Nyssa with their seven children. Eventually, they saved up enough to buy a house on a crowded cul-de-sac located directly across the street from the Amalgamated Sugar Company, neighboring the Cisneros’s. The dirt road was narrow, and the houses were packed tight. Neighbors had no option but to grow close.

The Ramirez family loved Nyssa, but they realized that being undocumented anywhere in the country was difficult. The Ramirezes were subjected to heavy workloads with low pay and a lack of employment options. In school, Lorena Ramirez felt she was lied to: when she graduated high school four years after arriving in the United States, the promise of college wasn’t attainable because she wasn’t eligible for a scholarship or student loans, and didn’t have money to pay out of pocket.

But then the Ramirezes learned about a woman offering services to undocumented immigrants seeking residency. The woman said she could get the family members temporary legal work permits and residency cards. “We didn’t really know what we were getting into,” Avila says. In retrospect, something felt off—wiring money and never setting foot in a court room. A work permit of sorts arrived, but Avila’s instincts told her it wasn’t legally sound.

At the same time, Avila’s eldest son was going through a similar process of his own. A year later, when he produced the work permit during an immigration interview, they said it wasn’t valid: it was a fraud.

“[The scammers] told him if [he] sent $2,000, his residency would appear,” Avila says. “It was lies. Nothing like that ever arrived.”

A friend recommended Avila get in touch with a lawyer in Los Angeles. She was weary after her and her son’s experiences, but she tried anyway, driven by the desire to live in compliance with the law.

This time, the Ramirez family—excluding Lorena—were properly admitted into the immigration court system where their case sat in limbo. “They didn’t protect us, and they didn’t give us [our residency cards].” Avila says. “They gave us time to see if the law would change to allow us to fix our papers. They weren’t bad judges.” 

After a few more years, the judge granted Avila and her husband residency. They appealed for the case to include residency for their children as well and won. But it was bittersweet. 

“When we began the process, [my husband and I] didn’t want to involve our daughter—our only woman—because we weren’t sure if it was safe,” Avila says. “We thought, ‘If they send us away, send us all, but not her.’ Then when they gave us residency, I regretted it. We were now in a situation, not sure what to do, with her stuck outside.” 

Lorena Ramirez, the daughter of Avila and Ramirez, was left out of her family's residency process.

Today Lorena Ramirez lives in the little beige house she grew up in with her own family. Her husband and their two daughters, six-year-old Jocelyn and ten-year-old Kailey, are all US citizens. On the day I visit, it’s their eldest daughter’s birthday. The girls wait patiently as we spend nearly two hours recounting the day their abuela and mami made the journey to the United States when Lorena was fourteen—not too much older than Kailey is now—and what life has been like since.

Lorena Ramirez spent nearly thirty years living in the United States without documentation and without a pathway towards legal status. When a legislation change in 2001 made it much more difficult for undocumented people to qualify for residency by marriage, she hadn’t met her husband yet. And when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was introduced by the Obama administration in 2012, she was ineligible because she was thirty-six—five years over the age cutoff.

She says the most difficult thing about being undocumented was seeing the many doors of opportunity close because of her status. She often felt deceived and left behind: “It’s awful to see your peers keep leaving [to college] but you can’t. You can’t get a good job and you can’t even drive—[not without] a social security card or residency.”

Seeing her own stress and trauma trickle down to her daughters was even more painful. The girls would cry every time the entire family left on trips to Mexico and their mami had to stay behind. Lorena Ramirez also found herself scolding her daughters if they sprinted to the door when there was a knock. 

“[One time], I took my daughters to McDonald’s. People notify others [about Immigration and Customs Enforcement sightings] by cell phone—sometimes it’s a false alarm but sometimes it’s true. Well, they had said that in the McDonald’s where I was, there had been a raid,” Ramirez says. “They weren’t there, but the fear had already taken over. I told my daughters we had to leave, and I wouldn’t even let them eat. Then I took them home and put an armchair behind the door because I was paranoid they were following me.”

With the mention of McDonald’s, Jocelyn perks up from the videos she’s watching on an iPhone. “Ya vamos?” she asks. She knows it’s her big sister’s birthday and McDonald’s would be the perfect place to celebrate. She settles back into the cartoon.

In 2017, more than a decade after marrying her husband and after spending approximately $20,000 on legal services and fees, Lorena Ramirez secured an appointment in Juárez, Mexico to determine the outcome of a waiver request that would allow her to stay in the United States with a permanent residency card. Current immigration laws established in 1996 require those applying for residency to do so abroad. But those who enter and remain in the United States unlawfully for more than a year are barred from reentry into the country for ten years, which poses a huge risk.

Ramirez passed the physical health portion of the consular exam and within months, she was at a hotel the night before the interview with her husband and Kailey. They were quizzing her on the questions that could be asked.

The next morning, they waited for her name to be called at the US Embassy and Consulate. Her lips swelled from the intense anxiety. 

While they waited, they overheard a young man morosely tell his mother he had been rejected because of his tattoos. They saw entire families clap when the person they were waiting for emerged from the building with a smile. They also saw entire families burst into tears when the person they awaited came out already crying.

“You can lose all your hope there,” Ramirez says. “It’s tragic. Only the person who lives through it knows what it’s like.”

Even though she entered the building as an undocumented immigrant and emerged with her paperwork finally in order, she says she was overwhelmed by a complex mix of emotions. On one hand she was thrilled, but on the other, she saw herself in every heartbroken family.

“[The process] was fine because they gave it to me, but for all the people who still don’t arrange their papers after that? It’s always been like that. That’s why I say [the US Consulate] is where they separate families,” she says.

Life has been much less stressful for the entire family. Ramirez still finds herself worrying about the future, though far less often. She no longer jumps at the sound of the doorbell and, perhaps best of all, she says, her children will no longer be afraid. “Now we’ll never have to run from McDonald’s without eating again.”

When I ask the family if they feel comfortable posing for a picture, Lorena Ramirez prefers not to. Even though she has her residency card now, she worries about new policies, created at any moment, that may change or revoke what’s still in place. Even though Washington, DC, is farther than her hometown in Nayarit, Mexico, decisions there ripple widely and affect her family’s life in Oregon.

“We’ve left the ranch where they were destined to do the same as their father,” Avila says. “We live day by day, and even though we work here every single day, our life is much, much better.”

“What we want is unity,” she continues, now smiling down at her nieta. “Not what’s happening right now where parents are being separated from—”

“—their children,” finishes Kailey.

I promise to leave a cupcake for the birthday girl as a thanks for being so patient on her day. She holds her grandma’s hand as they leave the house.

At the local mini-mart, two blocks away, they are out of cupcakes. Instead, I pick a tiny chocolate cake with edges coated in sprinkles. The bakery attendant gladly pipes Kailey’s name and age in white icing. In less than ten minutes, I’m back at the Ramirezes’ house, but this time all alone. They left the door unlocked so I could leave Kailey’s treat inside, safe from melting in the summer heat.

I clear a spot for the cake in the center of the coffee table. To the left of the kitchen archway, a dozen Ramirez photos are artfully arranged in a frame. The sunlight peeks through the butter yellow curtains to illuminate their smiles. The metal trim around the picture frame spells out the word “family.”

The Ramirez family home in Nyssa

I think about my own family and where our American origin story fits into this jumble of erratic immigration laws, amendments, and repeals. I wonder what our lineage might look like if abuelita had been deported a second time. I think about my mom’s citizenship—only two decades old—and laws that may now seek to delegitimize us. 

Most of all, I think about our country’s immigration system and how the fate of so many people in our society is destined by luck, and how so many of us will never know what immigration survival’s guilt is like or have to worry about leaving McDonald’s in fear of our safety and leaving our children behind.


Editor’s note: Interviews with Eva Castellanoz, Jose Luis Cisneros, Marilu Cisneros Villaseñor, Maria Guadalupe Avila, Lorena Ramirez, and Kailey were conducted in Spanish then translated to English by Emilly Prado.

About this process:

My research for this Emerging Journalists, Community Stories fellowship project began prior to submitting my proposal and continued in the first few months of receiving the award. I conducted dozens of pre-interviews with undocumented individuals, ranging in age from seventeen to thirty-four, in-person and via phone and email to identify common themes and concerns in their experiences of living without documentation in the United States. Then, from Sunday, August 19 through Friday, August 24, 2018, for five nights, I chose to visit Ontario and Nyssa, Oregon for this fellowship reporting project. As I had already visited the area twice on-assignment for a different reporting project earlier in the summer, I chose to further examine this community because I developed a strong understanding of the town, its rich history, and saw the need to further highlight the stories of Oregonians living outside of metropolitan areas. I first learned about Luis Cisneros after reading his feature in the local newspaper, The Argus Observer. Throughout the fellowship project—before, during, and after on-the-ground work in Nyssa—I consulted with my mentor, Inara Verzemnieks who offered vital guidance, as well as Oregon Humanities’ Kathleen Holt and Eloise Holland. —Emilly Prado


Community, Culture, Family, Identity, Immigration


2 comments have been posted.

Wonderful story, emotional, meaningful and well researched! I’m a photographer working on a fellowship application and ran across your article by happenstance while in the site. My fellowship project is similar in many ways to what you’ve done. Your storytelling and personal success in your field/fields is inspiring. Thank you and keep up the good fight:-)

Jeremy Hill | January 2019 | Hines Oregon

Vital. insightful. Beautifully shared, communicated, and photographed. Necessary. Thank you, Emilly.

Intisar Abioto | December 2018 | Portland OR

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