The Mask Is Off is a lived experience of a Spanish Teacher whose fervent desire was to go to America. Fueled by myths and illusions, the rosy pictures painted of America by movies, television, and many Jamaicans who traditionally returned to the island, she came to America with a non-immigrant visa, over-stayed her time, becoming illegal, ending up working as a live-in maid, and the world of undocumented workers and America’s immigration system slowly comes into focus though her eyes.
The Mask Is Off, is a story in which any person who has come to America from any part of the world, as an immigrant, should be able to recognize a bit of him/herself. In her non-fiction, the author covers the subject of illegal immigration, immigrants in the process of acquiring their documentation, the green card, Amnesty, and illegal immigration scams. The debate over immigration- a volatile social policy issue- is already shaping 2012 presidential politics, and the narrator, a participant observer of the world of undocumented workers, particularly live-in maids, helps the reader to understand more clearly the big picture of illegal immigration, one of the most contentious issues facing Americans now and in the future.
She talked with excitement and wild giggles about some of the beauty spots she visited: Montego Bay, Blue Mountains, Fern Gully, Dunn's River Falls, Runaway Bay, Negril, Ocho Rios, Port Antonio. As she mentioned Negril and Ocho Rios, she rolled her eyes up and down with loud, wild giggles, her face crumbling up and showing creases under her blue eyes as if she had a face lift that was worn out. Her excitement and wild giggles seemed to suggest that her adventures in these beauty spots were overwhelming, and she was plagued by a longing to visit them again.
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Only seventy miles from Montego Bay, on Jamaica's west coast, Negril of an earlier period was a quiet fishing village with a laidback lifestyle, a beautiful mesmerizing Caribbean sunset, smooth crystal white-sand beaches uninterrupted for seven miles. Wooded hills plunging fiercely into the sea, scenic underground caves, off shore cliffs and deep rocks, crystalline waters and the warmth and friendliness of the sparse human population.
Papa and other older people said that Negril of an earlier period was overrun by land-crabs which were displaced from their homes, their shells removed, and they were cut into small pieces and mixed into a spicy sauce that contained, black pepper, onion, garlic, tomatoes and olive oil and served to tourists and expatriates who frequented restaurants of the many luxurious and sophisticated resorts, hotels and cottages, which the once quiet fishing village had given birth to.
Before the surpassing beauty and natural splendor of Negril made headlines of major newspapers and magazines, free-spirited, bare-footed and sandal-clad guitar-strumming, marijuana-smoking hippies with long disheveled hair and bushy mustaches, flocked to Negril, perhaps believing it to be the Garden of Eden—a paradise—and had come seeking adventure and a deeper experience of life and connection with the divine.
The news of lovely, unspoiled Negril kept making more and more front page headlines, and Negril became the pawn of world super powers, squashing the land-crabs and sparse population, and everything beautiful, lovely and unspoiled, becoming a bastion of tourism. Today, the atmosphere in the once quiet fishing village which served as a light house to guide ships around the rocky western coast of Jamaica, is one of sex, drunkenness, lawlessness, nudity, immorality, marijuana, or ganga-smoking and other hard drugs.
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On Tuesdays on my return to work, as I drove through quiet rich Profitsvillage with all its elegant airs, stately mansions, manicured lawns, lush gardens, and swimming pools, the neighborhood where I thought peace and tranquility existed did not look the same as when I first saw it. Profitsvillage no longer conveyed dignity, prestige, respectability, morality, and common decency but appeared to be a neighborhood of nightmares. A cold, distant neighborhood filled with secrets, hypocrisy, and deception masked and guarded carefully behind closed doors of exclusive private homes.
I had had a glimpse of the secret life behind the stately mansions, manicured lawns, and swimming pools: the exploitation of women without green cards. Secrets of rich, privileged white women with luxurious lifestyles who were out of touch with everyday people, having the gift of coaxing, bullying, insulting, and threatening tired, anxious, and frightened undocumented women into providing their homes with the security of steady, stable, twenty-four-hour on-call jobs with no guarantee of these women receiving a paycheck or their green card.Secrets of lonely, frightened, anxious, and isolated women in suburban homes of America not having the ability to assert their rights, not having any say in their working conditions, masking and hardening themselves to the brutalities of live-in work as they patiently wait for ten or twenty years for a green card that sometimes never materialized.
Secrets of women working for years, believing their employers had filed their sponsorship documents for the green card, only to realize they were never filed. Secrets of overworked women living in drafty basements, toiling six and seven days a week without a five-minute break or lunch and without holidays or overtime pay.
Secrets of women suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, fear, tension, and insecurity, not knowing where to turn for help and too afraid to complain or report the abuses and intolerable conditions under which they worked to authorities because no one will believe their stories, and they will be deported to their countries. Secrets of women accused of stealing, damaging their employer's property, and ruining their employer's clothes are fired unexpectedly, only after these women had asked for hundreds of dollars in back wages owing to them.Secrets of women whose sponsorship was cut off causing, them to lose all the time they had already invested working in their employers'
I believed I heard everything that could be rumored about illegal immigration. But in the midst of the many rumors that plagued INS, the labor department, and men and women without green cards, many other rumors persisted. It now seemed that undocumented workers were open game. Anyone could do anything they wanted with undocumented workers, and there was nowhere for them to go and complain and no one to defend them.
Many live-in maids like myself heard that illegal immigration was a thriving business, and any illegal immigrant could buy any fraudulent documents quite easily: green cards, driver's licenses, Social Security cards, credit cards, passports, government ID cards, and other counterfeit work documents. All one needed was one's name, 100 dollars or less, and five or ten minutes of one's time.
Many swindlers seemed to know the secrets of the dead and where they went, and many people who had been dead for quite sometime were resurrected and brought back to life, and their names and birth certificates were used to secure passports, driver's licenses, and other documents for illegal immigrants.
There were lots of swindlers in high and low places who arranged many green card marriages between American citizens, permanent residents, or even between undocumented immigrants and illegal immigrants themselves who acquired counterfeit documents and were posing as permanent residents and American citizens.
Fake prospective spouses were many and within easy reach. They doubled or tripled their earnings by marrying many different times to many different undocumented women from many different countries,
It was a miserable year. The holidays came, Christmas and New Year. My favorite time of the year was now a sad time. The holidays did not feel like holidays but more like a funeral. Part of me felt dead. So many things seemed to have died. But they did not die. Something had changed in me. I didn't feel like my former self, the idealistic, naive person of earlier years. I felt as if I were a body without a spirit, as if I was wearing a conflicting mask that was slowly being stripped off my face.
I missed my Jamaican holidays, especially the feeling of good cheer and engagement in merriment to melodies of traditional sounds and Christmas songs: "Jingle Bells, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing, "Silent Night, and many more. The festivities and jubilation of Christmas and New Year. So many parties and celebrations. Family and friends gathering to reminisce. Widespread loving and giving. The sharing of delicious food and drinks. The cool Christmas breeze embracing and caressing me, filling my heart with joy, peace, and good cheer. Beautifully and heavily decorated homes, stores, shops, gas stations, and supermarkets with lights and large streamers, accordion-style bells, and balloons. Community fairs and picnics, Maypole dancing, rumba dancing, quadrille dancing, and the merry-go-round.
I remembered Christmas as a little girl, a day everyone looked forward to, weeding and mulching flower beds, white-washing stones and tree trunks with temper lime using beaten banana stalks. Many people were given Christmas work to fix and clean the roads and sidewalks. I believed in Santa but was left out each year which had nothing to do with me being good or bad. Santa skipped over me because I did not have any.
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Many of them seemed to be looking at nothing in particular, although their eyes were transfixed on Mr. Harper as if they were looking at him, but perhaps they were staring dreamily into memories, past Mr. Harper and everything around them, to some distant place—their homeland and the family and young children they left behind. I smiled, and they smiled back an empty lost-in-thought, eager-to-please smile that did not mask the uncertainty, fear, pain, and anxiety in their souls as if they were worried about their children's well-being and could only hear the voices of these young children calling out "Mama, Mama, when are you coming home?
I wondered how many of these women were professionals in their countries, had master's and doctorate degrees from prestigious universities, arrived legally in America but overstayed their visas, becoming illegal and find themselves reduced to menial jobs: live-in maids, factory workers, meat packers, janitors, cleaners, cooks and dishwashers. I wondered what political and social instability plagued their countries that caused them to flee, leaving behind a brain-drain.
How many had lost their freedom and fled political violence and upheavals, murderous incursions, horrific repression and torture, knowing that if they stayed in their countries they would be killed because of their ideological beliefs? How many had fled their countries without prior planning and without resources, separating from their families and children to avoid wars of extermination, ethnic cleansing and the whitening of the population?
How many were deposed presidents and leaders of their countries, unwilling to leave their countries and all they knew, but were forced into exile on a moment's notice to faraway unfamiliar places, not even having the time to pack up and bid their families and loved ones tearful goodbyes? How many were the best writers, the best doctors, the best scientists, the best lawyers, the best engineers, the best professors, the best nurses-the entire talent of their countries-kicked out by despotic and repressive dictators that super world powers had created, armed to the teeth and sustained in their countries?
How many had come to America transported in dangerously crowded conditions, suffering from lack of air and dehydration after traveling for hours crammed on the floor or clinging to cargo ropes strung inside containers to keep them upright as trucks or trailers bounced along, bound for another destination to pick up more migrants before they were loaded aboard a second set of vehicle for the trip to the US border?