Illegal’s Portrayal of Immigrant Life and the Debunked Misconceptions that Accompany It



In this essay, R.M. will analyze the struggles of an illegal Mexican immigrant in Bettina Restrepo’s Illegal and its attempt to diminish any misconceptions of the “lazy,” “greedy,” or otherwise erroneous stereotypes of the illegal immigrant through the literary elements of first person point of view, symbolism of family connection and hope, and dismal diction.


Bettina Restrepo’s Illegal captures the hardships of the typical illegal immigrant family through the young Nora Morales’ eyes. The use of symbolism of family hope and connection, first person point of view, and dismal diction all serve to demolish the notion that immigrant families enjoy a simple and easy life after their passage to America in this eye-opening social commentary.


Bettina Restrepo’s Illegal opens with a reference to the promise that the protagonist, Nora Morales’, father had previously made to her. This promise, a pact to return from America in time for the girl’s quinceanera, coinciding with Nora’s genuine belief that it will remain unbroken, symbolises the hope and trust that Nora has instilled in her father. Restrepo creates a hopeful atmosphere through the naive characterization of Nora. This looming promise symbolizes hope, faith, and expectancy that this immigrant family may find relief in the glorified United States of America.
“The promises were becoming long, empty roads. No Papa. No money. No nothing. We knocked down the fence and sold the wood just to buy fertilizer for the trees... I looked at my skinny bird legs and frowned at the scars. My heart felt like it had fallen asleep since my father had left. It tingled for a few months and then the burn began to spread throughout my body. I wished he would just come home. He said all of this would be for a better life, but it seemed like things were getting worse. The school closed, killing my hopes that an education might be a way of fixing everything... A promise is just a lie you don’t want to tell” (Restrepo 51).


The essentially inevitably unkept promise then evolves into a symbol of the pain and conflict that most immigrant families face in everyday life. The reasons that many immigrants have for leaving their countries of origin are many times equivalent to the challenges they face in passage to America, and the entire process of assimilation. The notion that immigrants come to America and are automatically granted a better life than their previous abode is invalidated through this social commentary, and ultimately serves as the meaning of the work as a whole.


The first person point of view through Nora’s perspective most effectively captures the ambiguity of the immigrant life. The absence of her father, misconceptions regarding the actuality of immigrant life in America, and complete opaqueness of her future all prevail through an impotent point of view. The innocence of this character, due to her age and lack of proper education also contribute to the potency of this perspective. Specifically, Nora was taken aback by multiple episodes after her arrival in America. The need to acquire forged working papers, IDs, and other documents created unaccounted costs. The desperate need for jobs and inexpensive housing left the family wildly exploited in their employment and sleeping with rats.


“Mama pulled me into her strong arms. ‘We can start over. We may not matter to America, but we are important to each other,” Mama whispered into my neck. I didn’t answer. I felt like a flat tire- out of ideas on how to make this work. I guess I don’t know the difference between a dream and a nightmare anymore. America was supposed to be our dream. How did it turn into a nightmare so quickly?” (Restrepo 229)


If this family had known that life in America was not as glorious as it had been made out to be, their course of decision making would have certainly led them to a different result. This account through Nora’s eyes perfectly exemplifies the meaning of the work, and the social commentary within it. The life that the Morales family had left behind in Mexico was not much better than the one they found in America, contrary to popular belief.


The optimistic diction of the work quickly evolves into a dismal and hopeless recount. “I felt like I was a pleading child, begging for candy. Like a beggar in Matamoras. Where was my mercy? No voice whispered in my head. I was here alone” (Restrepo 172). The widely accepted American attitude of contempt towards immigrant workers opens the door for a disgusting amount of exploitation and abuse. “The more hurt I felt, the angrier I became. It was like the world had turned its back on me” (Restrepo 175). The feeling of isolation, unacceptance, and coldness from much of American society in actuality is heart-wrenchingly exposed through this young girl’s recount of her experience.


Though many believe that the life of illegal immigrants is extraordinarily improved upon arrival in America, this is notion is virtually always false. Just a few of the array of possible hardships faced by mothers, fathers, young children, and other family members and newcomers are presented in Restrepo’s social critique. The reality of the migrant life is most dominantly exposed through the use of first person point of view, symbolism, and inauspicious diction to ultimately disprove many ignorant misconceptions about the immigrant life in America.

(R.M. 2016)