“Iraq has been my most significant life changing experience. It was there that the textbook subject of immigration got a human face for the first time. While some people were fleeing the calamity of war, others were arriving from countries that were in worst shape. They were sub-contracted to do those jobs soldiers won’t do anymore, like cooking, laundry, and so on.
I met countless of them and heard their stories. They were everyday people getting themselves into a war-torn land, armed only with their hopes of a better future for them and their families. It was through their stories that I realized that immigration is an integral part of human nature. Some people say that life’s a journey…it is indeed”.
After serving a year in Iraq Mendez returned to Puerto Rico and finished law school. Three months later he was stationed at Ft. Bliss, El Paso, Texas. “It was so surreal to drive on the interstate, look out the window and see Mexico, then look out the other window and see the United States.
was so fascinated about the fact that you can walk from one country into another, that I had to go and see it myself. In those days’ soldiers were not allowed to travel to Mexico, so I would park on downtown El Paso, walk to the international bridge and spent hours staring at it; I was astonished”.
Seeing hundreds of people coming across the border on that bridge seemed surreal to Mendez, but it doesn’t end there. “I would stand on the left side of the bridge to observe the people coming from Mexico; then switched side to watch the people leaving the United States. I remember trying to make eye contact as they walked by, and see if I could get a sense of what they were experiencing.
Some seemed too exhausted to acknowledge I was standing there; some did not see me at all. But something magical would happen with those who did look at me and returned the smile. Regardless of which direction they were walking to, or their gender, age, color… when we made eye contact, I would see myself in them. I too had migrated in search for meaning; to fulfill my destiny”.