Illegal Family Values

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A play in three acts


List of Characters 

Irma-I/ An undocumented immigrant from Nicaragua

Ernesto-E/ Irma’s husband

Adolfo-A/Irma’s Brother from Texas

Beto-B/Adolfo’s Companion

Julio- J/Irma’s son age 16

Justice of the peace

Alicia, Irma’s sister


ERNESTO and IRMA are from Nicaragua, where they met while working for a building supply distributor.  Work related travel acquainted them with  latino emigrants in Texas, who though often illegal, made a  living off the books. To escape recurring Nicaraguan social and political violence they decided to take  the leap.    Though quite young they were both employed  and owned a car, which  made it possible to get a visitor visa to the USA.  Shortly after arriving, they disappeared into the melting pot of the USA.

At first, many immigrants, legal or not, plan on returning to home and family. Yet a quintessentially American trans-formative process can take place, in which the immigrant, over time, becomes as American as hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, chile beans, and tacos- immigrants all. For Ernesto and Irma, legal paths to citizenship were barred; the alternatives were to go  back home, to continue  living the lie, or find an alternate path to citizenship. That is the focus of this story.

Note: The events are  all real,  but names and places are changed.  It is creative non fiction.

Irma and Ernesto both  had completed technical school in Nicaragua.  They had studied English since grade school. On immering themselves in the US culture  both had an intense desire to fit in, and continuously took extension and city college English courses; learning at such a young age, they  speak English with  little accent. They studied continuously and became more English literate than their average Texas neighbors.

They moved to California during the Texas housing crisis of the ’80s.   Irma did-does- housework; is, years later,  owner operator of a housecleaning business, though it is clandestine, and unregulated. Ernesto, who obtained false documents, and a new name, always had worked in heavy construction ; but now has degenrative  hip arthritis. Motrin and Vicodin allow him to function, but he has increasing trouble; now he has been without  since the economic crash of 2008 . His unemployment insurance has lapsed; he goes to Home Depot every morning hoping to be hired at minimum wage-or less- for the day. But his gait and limp are obvious, and he’s rarely chosen.

They have  one son, JULIO, a sophomore in high school. He is a good student, responsible and serious, hopes to become an engineer. He is unaware that his parents are illegal; unaware they are unmarried and he is a bastard;  unaware that even though his academic standing make it likely he’ll be accepted in college he will be rejected when it is found he is not a citizen. The impending crisis weighs heavily on Irma and Ernesto, who  have seen this situation among friends.

Irma has a younger sister, Alicia; and an older brother, Adolfo .  Alicia is a citizen. She worked as a care giver for a wealthy elderly homosexual in Riverside CA; he married her to provide her with citizenship and health care. At first their marriage was simply pro forma, but after seven years,  they remain in   a marital relationship.

Irma’s older brother, Adolfo,  lives in Texas, with his gay partner Beto,  an American citizen who has worked all his life as an airline attendant, but also claims to be a practicing Family Physician. He has so much seniority with his airline he can choose his flights, and flies only on weekends. He claims he can’t give up the joy of the flying  that paid his way all his life. It’s not clear if this is all true, but he appears to be knowledgeable about medical matters, and the commercial air business. Adolfo has never worked outside the home. Both Beto and Adolfo are sick and tired of Texas, perhaps  partly for social reasons, but chiefly because their house was recently foreclosed.

Irma and Ernesto were never married, though they present themselves as such to friends. For thirty years they have belonged to a diverse group of Latinos, mostly married couples, including many where an immigrant derives citizenship from a spouse who is a US citizen.  Their closest friends are from the Peru, and Chile.

Irma and Ernesto are in conflict about how to deal with the upcoming crisis in their son’s life- and theirs. Ernesto is willing to react to life’s challenges as they come; in this case  that  could mean deportation or return to Nicaragua. He   feels able and willing to deal with wherever life demands. He has kept alive his connections in Nicaragua with that in mind; he’s in constant contact by Skype and email. He notes that there are other options like Peru, or Mexico which  have  been developing rapidly. Julio, he feels, is young and   capable, will be able to adapt,taking his valuable education with him.

Irma, by contrast, prefers to grab life by the throat and make it move in her direction.  She adamantly refuses to consider returning to Latin America. She  refuses to accept her son’s being denied the schooling he deserves. She. like Julio,  an American to the marrow, hates to even consider her former life in Nicaragua.They quarrel without resolution of their differences.

So  finally Irma  simply acts, unknown to Ernesto.  She convinces her brother Adolfo and his partner Beto  to move in with them. She will marry Dr-Flight attendant Beto to obtain her papers- and indirectly- Julio’s. The quid pro quo is that Beto and Alfredo will get out of Texas, have a  place to live while becoming  re established,  and in time, be able to marry here, where such things are legal.

The time comes when Irma must disclose  her plan to Ernesto, and to Julio as well.  Ernesto feels betrayed, and outraged. He throws up a host of objections: Irma will have to actually marry Beto, for several years before they can be divorced. It will become clear to friends that Irma and he were never married; to Julio that he has been deceived, and is an illegal immigrant bastard. Both Beto and Alberto will have to live with them a year or more in order to legitimize the Irma’s citizenship or green card status . Alfredo and Albreto will have to sleep on the sofa bed, or Julio will need to share a bedroom with one  of them. Is that healthy? No. Moreover, while living in such an insane asylum, Julio will be less able to keep up with the demands of High School.

When Irma explains to Julio,  he is shocked to find he is an illegal bastard; yet he is  filled with the omnipotence and optimism of youth; he resolves to move on to whatever is next. His chief concern is typical for a teen; he will be unable to disclose the situation to his friends.

But between Irma and Ernesto, there is no give;  during an exchange Ernesto becomes irate, slaps Irma. She falls to the floor dramatically, though the slap was minimal.  That makes him even more angry, but he’s humiliated himself, and runs from the house. Terribly angry, powerless, and ashamed, he flees to Mexico City,  charging the trip on their credit card. He is determined to recover his better  self there, confident Irma and Julio will ultimately follow.

Irma proceeds with her plans, feeling Ernesto will relent, if not immediately,  when she has obtained papers for herself and for Julio. Beto and Adolfo move to CA.  Beto and Irma marry in a quiet ceremony, which they carefully document:  wedding dress, cake, and photos.  She applies for papers. However, nothing can be disclosed to friends; they continue their elaborate deceptions while awaiting investigation by immigration authorities.

Beto covertly keeps in Skype contact with Ernesto, and  constantly urges him to return, at least for a visit; he obtains a Friend/Family reduced fare airline passage for Ernesto. Julio continues to be the ideal son, the solid  student. Alberto the  slightly neglected and irritable homemaker, is generally tolerant but vaguely fears Beto may develop a crush on Irma; or Julio.  Beto  remains the enigmatic, implausible physician flight attendant; all are still necessarily conscious and practical torturers of truth; they share the professional skill of lying with grace and humor.

Ernesto reappears;  he has found  that Mexico and other parts of Latin America are developing quickly in the ‘flat’ world; there is opportunity. They realize that two outcomes are likely, and they can live with either one: 1) They are deported; 2)the marriage ruse is successful.

They discover that the  actual outcome doesn’t matter, and can be awaited with confidence, by all. The future is unresolved so the audience- or reader- who writes as he reads-  can develop the ending that seems most true to life.



Illegal Family Values

Act I, SCENE 1.

A MODEST BUT COMFORTABLE KITCHEN-FAMILY ROOM- DINETTE, EVENING, June 1, 2011.    IRMA and ERNESTO at supper. Both middle aged Hispanics.

I/ Julito’s doing so well; I’m even happy with his friends.

E/ Yeah. Good kids; for teens. Remember at your birthday?  Three lolos came; said a proper hello to every adult, stayed until the cake; when they left every one se despidió.

I/ So?

E/ Are you kidding me!? That’s almost Un-American. Those gringuitos are here  with us so much they think they have to be decente. Abrazos y besos when they come; and again when they go! My God, they even talk with people not their age!  Lay odds they don’t do that at home.

I/ Oh. Yeah. They are good kids ‘Nesto

E/ What!

I/ Whad’ya mean What!

E/ When you call me ’Nesto; I know something’s up.

I/  OK.  I’m worried about after Julio’s graduation.

E/ Why? Almost two years away. Mañana.

I/ Julio wants to go to college. All his teachers say he should. The Counselor says she’ll help him apply next year when he’s a junior.

E/ Duh. What’s the problem?

I/ Problem? The same as Jaime. I won’t let that  happen to Julio!

E/ The Contreras kid? What about him?

I/ Ay, ‘Nesto, ¡Por Dios! You never pay attention to anything! Jaimito was accepted to college, offered scholarships. But when he went to register he was turned down because he was ilegal.

E/ Oh. Yeah. I remember. He joined the Army. After, he can maybe get papers. Julio can do that too.

I/ No! ¡Nunca!

E/ What do you have against the Army? Colin Powell says the Army was the way to equality for blacks, for women; and for the poor. Now, it’s a way up for some kids like Jaimto.

I/ I’ve nothing against the Army. I love this country more than my American  friends. I want to be a citizen. I will be!  Not just for Julio; for me. Thirty years you and I have lived here one way or another, and done well. I am not latina any more. Haven’t been for decades. Julio will never be.

E/ So what can he do? That’s why he should join the Army.

I/ He do! No, ¡nosotros! What can we do! We brought him; we raised him to be what he is. Well. I can do something. I can do like my sister Juana.

E/ ¡Juana la loca! So I don’t have a stroke, I’ll go get a haircut before you go any farther.

I/ You can’t run away from this. Not from me!  I’ll see to that. ¡Un beso, amor!

They exchange a kiss, and a love ya’, and Ernesto leaves.  


ACT I Scene 2 Patio, that same evening. I/E are smoking, drinking a glass of red wine.


E/  Delicioso el flan.  Let’s do dishes right now, because after is the Giants and El A.       

I/ Not so fast, mi Viejo.  Here’s the deal, ‘Nesto. You remember Juana, my sister.

E/ There it is again. Nesto.

I/ ¡Callate ‘Nesto!  Juana married that guy in San Diego para los documentos.

E/ Yeah. The gay guy!  Got her papers. But-What d’ya know!- They’re still married four years later. Raro, ¿No?

I/ They take care of each other;  like one another. Comfortable, practical.

E/ ¡Sin Verguenzas! I’ll bet they both have lovers.

I/ Nonsense. But back to the point. There’s a man I can marry for the same reason; citizenship.

E/ You have a husband!  ¡Tu marido soy yo!

I/ Come on Ernesto; we’re not married. Es una invención. Now, if you look at it in the right light, that’s maybe a good thing, considering-  You know my brother in Texas?

E/ Of course; but he’s married to his crazy partner. I don’t believe a word he has ever spoken.

I/ No. They’re not married. It’s Texas, you know? Men can’t marry men there. I’ve spoken with them both.

E/¡Mierda! You are not going to Texas! I don’t want to hear any more!

I/ You’re right, I’m not going. They’ll come here.

E/ ¡Que! With us?  You want to marry your sister’s maricón?  Maybe I’ll marry him myself! He’ll go for me more than you!

I/ Don’t be a smartass. I’m sorry, Ernesto. It’s what I have to do. For my papers. For Julio. Not just for him, for you, for us.

E/ I won’t have it, Irma!


I/ Ernesto! I didn’t mean to hurt you! I just have to-



Act II Scene 1. Breakfast nook, afternoon June 6, JULIO and Irma. JULIO is a lanky sixteen year old, very conservatively dressed, shirt, pants, haircut.


J/ What’s wrong, mamá?

I/Sit here with me a minute. I have to tell you some things. Would you like something to eat? Tengo flan..

J/ No, thanks. What’s wrong?

I/ What’s wrong is- I lied to you. We lied, your father and I.

J/ What lie?

I/ Not lie. Mentiras. Plural. We lied for your sake- no; not entirely; that’s just another lie- We lied for our selves too. But the biggest lie is this:

You are not a U S citizen and neither are we.  We are all technically illegal. OK, that’s another lie: not technically; somos todos ilegales. We brought you here a small baby, came in legally on a visa, but stayed on illegally. Your father’s name was -is-  Garza; Garza-Hernandez. He bought is name; a false identity. I am still myself; my name is my name.

J/ I wasn’t born here? I’m not a citizen?

I/ Fifth lie: to let you think you are.  Your birth certificate is from a place on University Ave in Berkeley. It says you were born in Yolo GeneralHospital; but any investigation will show there is no record there.

J/ I’ve lived here always. Doesn’t that just  automaticallymake me a citizen?

I/ That’s what we have to talk about. The problem is, Julio, the only way I will become a citizen, and therefore you too, is if I lie some more. I’m good at that though.

J/ What do you mean?

I/ Here’s the hardest part-

J/ ¡Mama! What’s worse!?

I/ There’s a man who will marry me, so I can get papers.

J/ OK. You’re right that’s worse. What about dad?

I/ As I said, we never married in Nicaragua; or anywhere. I already confessed to you about that lie, remember? So I am free to marry now, so I can  get my papers. And get divorced after my citizenship. Not immediately, but by the time you go to college.

J/ Wow. That’s a lot to digest. Why did you guys do it, mamá?

I/ It’s hard to explain. We were 22, you an infant,  we faced  economic and social and political situations that you will, I hope, never understand. The killing. The ecomomic collapse. The social chaos. We simply had to escape. Now, after so many years, we’re like you. More American than most U S citizens. We worked, we invested, we saved, and we studied, learned ‘proper’ English,  and history. You grew up in a home of newspapers, books, and American culture. That is what we hoped for, worked for, and of course, lied for.

J/ What’s dad say?

I/ He’s very upset. To put it mildly. Choreado total.

J/ Where is he?

I/ No sé. Maybe Mexico; or Nicaragua. We quarreled terribly about this. But it is something I just have to do. Two days ago his work called to say he hasn’t showed; he’s gone -along with a couple of suitcases- and personal stuff. There’s a one way plane ticket to Mexico charged to our account. Overdrawn.

J/ No, Mom!

I/ Yes. He’s very hurt. But I know him. He’ll be back; there is something we share that’s sort of un-modern. It’s called commitment. No matter what. We have that commitment to you, too. I’ll always do what I must. So will your father.


I/ But Julio, there’s another detail…

J/Another detail!? A true detail this time?

I/Yes. Your uncle Alfredo and his partner will be moving in with us for- possibly a couple of years. You will need to share your bedroom with your tío Alfredo; his partner will be my postizo-fake husband, and appear to sleep in my bedroom; but actually, he’ll use the family room sofa-bed until the immigration investigation is complete.

J/ Aren’t they gay?

I/ Ofcourse. No harm no foul. You’ll  be OK. No importa nada. You’ll have to watch more TV!

J/ What about my friends? What will I say? And how about all your friends?  Do they know the facts or the lies?

I/ They don’t, gracias a dios. There are times in life, Julito, when one has to remain silent, even if it hurts, even when friends may reject you for that. This is a time when we have to stay true to ourselves, and keep our own counsel. That takes guts, huevos; character; and we all have what it takes. You, and your father and your gay uncle and his partner too.

J/ How will I keep up my studies –with all this- static?

I/ Don’t look so worried! Alfredo’s partner is a novel all by himself. ¡Un plato!  You’ll see.

J/ Ha! I’m afraid I will. I just remembered. He says he is a doctor, but is an airline steward. Do I have a choice?

I/ No. You are life for us, the fulfillment of our struggles and hopes. We are so lucky, so grateful to have you in our lives.

J/ He can’t be a doctor here anyway, no license.


There’s my ride, gotta go.

I/ Sorry to lay this on you just before you leave for school. It took longer than I hoped.¡Un beso, hijo!

Act II scene 2 

10PM June 16, 2011, Angel’s Camp, home-office of the JUSTICE OF THE PEACE.  Irma is dressed in a Salvation Army tablecloth, made up as a wedding gown. She holds a floral bouquet. BETO  Alfredo’s partner (B/) is arrayed in a black suit and bow tie, with a gardenia boutonniere.  He’s    medium height, rotund, balding, animated. Alfredo and Julio are also in  dark ill fitting suits.  The Justice of the Peace , J/ faces the group, bible in hand.

J/ By the authority of the State invested in me, I now pronounce you Husband and Wife. You may kiss the bride.

An awkward grope-hug follows, and a double blow-by cheek kiss is exchanged.  The bride and groom then pose alone, and with witnesses, while the wife of the Justice who has agreed to be (P/) takes flash pictures continually from various angles.

P/ I don’t have a good shot of the kiss.

B/ My bride has a fresh case of herpes. Mouth, that is!

I/ I do not! Come here you clown! I’m sorry, your honor.

Irma grabs Beto and nails him with kiss.

(To P/) Did you get that?  Need another?

B/ I’m already breaking out. I can feel a cancer coming on.

I/(to J/) Do you do divorces?


Act II scene 3.A half hour later. The wedding party is seated in a restaurant nearby. Irma is looking at the camera’s digital photos, showing them around.

I/ That was fairly painless.

B/ That’s what you think!

I/ The photos turned out, don’t you think? Except this one, the groom looks sick.

B/ I was. I am. Bleeding internally from this Goodwill suit. I’ve never been so mortified in my whole life. Shouldn’t be surprised to shit black blood in the morning. We doctors call that melena, looks like black tar.  And these moribund shoes; who knows what they have suffered in their first life. The very thought make me nauseous.

A/ I told you the stuff was better at Deseret; but no. You’re too prejudiced about Mormons.

B/ No. I’m thinking of joining so I can marry a harem. Polyandry, what?   Alfredo, you can’t satisfy my deepest spiritual or physical needs. My existential axis is spinning counter clockwise.

I/ Stop that ¡Imbéciles!  I insist that you behave decently from now on, regardless of how you act in Texas. We’ll be in my home where I set the rules!

B/ I am perfectly serious, my darling love. You see I am convinced my former self was ignoble; now that I have joined the decent class, I see my inner needs were wanting. I am reborn into this high condition. It was only the Goodwill that made me doubt. The pants ride up so high, you see. Not suitable for people who are class.

I/ That’s pretentious! You’ll never be decente, beloved.  For our sake, Dear Beto,  behave-you uncouth Texas Crawdad. You merdico!

B/ Thank you my dear. You are too kind.

A/ Hey you two. Sober up.  We need to get home for the cake thing with all our fine clothes still intact.

B/ Cake?
A/ Irma made it. It’s cardboard with shaving cream but will look fine in a flash photo. It’s perfecto to feed at your crawdad face.

I/ The cake, some ready made invitations, and a wedding memory album should do it for the migra. We’ll frame the pics and set them around the house.

B/ You are quite tenaciously, gloriously, evil, my dearest. We should have married sooner. I’ll could have cured your herpes and neuro-syphilis too.

I/ That doctor fairy tale I’ve heard forever. I’ll believe it when the Pope gets an abortion. You’re the one with neuro-syphillis, for a fact.

B/ Well, if so, I prefer to be a damaged flight attendant than a damaged old lady in a table cloth.

I/ Well  you’re, a damaged Texan!  Nothing could be worse than that.


Act III Scene 1.

Breakfastime. Alfredo is preparing the table. Julio has been in the only bathroom  the shower running.  f

A/ Julio!!!  It’s 35 minutes! Hurry up! Beto is an old man, with an old bladder.   Depend on it!

B/ Ha! Not funny, dickhead.

A/ ¡Grosero! I’ll get you some new diapers at Walmart.  And if you haven’t pissed yourself yet, come do your own eggs the way you like. I’m not your cook or maid here.

B/ What’s ‘grosero?’ Probably if I knew Spick I’d have to kill you. Serve my breakfast. You’re the maid here.

A/  I cook and  clean up and wash and make beds and mow the lawn. While you–

B/ Whatever. Is she up?

A/ No. At least I haven’t seen her. Said she has a job at 9:00.

B/ She lives in that bedroom day and night.

A/ Of course she does. It’s her office: phones, computers, printers, files, fax/copier, supplies. That office owns her. Like the cleaning ladies she believes she manages. It’s a hard life if you ask me.

B/ I’ve two flights assigned this weekend, and need to get out of here. How long has that kid been showering? A/ Maybe 20 minutes


A/ Julio! Beto has to get to the airline!


J/ OK, OK. I’ll finish in mom’s bedroom.

I/ Bye, niños, I’m out of here. Call my cell if you need me. Let me know right away if Ernesto calls.

B/ I’ll be back Tuesday, my loves. Both of you. If the weather doesn’t mess me up. Rio this time.

I/ Crawdads like bad weather More garbage in the water.

A/ That’s not funny.

J/ Sorry to say, I find it hilarious.  All of you in fact. I’m off to school, see you at five.

Act III scene 2

5 PM May 2011 Same set as ActI scene 1. Beto and Alfredo lounging on the sofa bed watching TV. Enter Julio.

J/ Hey guys!  I got 1340 on the SAT!

A/ You didn’t pass?

B/ It wasn’t a perfect score. Isn’t that 1500?

J/ There’s nothing you can do to bring me down! Even if you are still here in the morning I’ll still be me: Superbrain.

B/ Stuporbrain works  every morning for you, kid.

(The Doorbell rings.)

Someone answer the door.

A/ You’re someone.

B/ I think I know who it is. It’s for Julio.

Julio opens to:

J/ Dad!

They embrace, unable to speak. Ernesto kisses Julio on both cheeks. Adolfo and Beto pile on.

E/ Where’s our wife?

B/ Our wife? In her cave. Doesn’t know you’re  coming.

J/ Dad, why’d you tell Beto and not us?

E/ He told me.  We’ve been skyping. Three weeks ago he promised if I’d return he’d arrange  the airline ticket.

B/ I did. I’m desperate. No normal crawdad can live with our wife without help. I don’t know how you managed all these years Ernesto. Or  ‘Nesto either.

E/ You are too kind. Except the plane ticket was one of those things for friends and family of airline employees. There were 4 stops, and two long delays during two days.

B/ My apologies, Ernesto. I claimed you as my significant other. Which is true, in a tortured sense. The airline is so afraid of being politically incorrect they didn’t know how to react; so they just issued the ticket.


Irma! Someone to see you! (aside) The other crawdad.


I/ Eresto! Nestito, Nestote!  (to Beto) Con permiso,   my dear husband!

B/ You are still the infamous cheat and liar, my lady. I am considering suing for divorce.

I/ You are too kind!

E/ Good! But Irma, first I have to say I’m sorry out loud-to everyone-for being such a fool. I was an idiot.

I/ I shouldn’t  have acted alone. I’m sorry for that. Ernesto, you- you,- are what matters to me. Otherwise nada importa nada. My husband, the  husband  I  truly love is back.  Ernesto! ¡Amor! I’ve missed you so!

B/  This is painful for me. More fearful than  a Texas Rattler bite is the sting of an unfaithful woman.

E/ Your other husband kept me informed. He’s a sneak, and a liar just  like us. The very day the immigration evaluation he claimed onset of clinical depression, bleeding ulcer, and  malignant acute and chronic gonococcal arthropathy.

B/ I need a lawyer.

I/ I can confirm he has all of those. He’s Antipático además.

E/ Anything you got here we can get in Mexico.

I/ Like gonorrhea? Go back there this instant. ¡Vete!

E/ I will if you come with me. I have several great offers. English is a big deal there now; and I reinvented my resumé. Es fabuloso  when you lived in another country and nobody knows you were unemployed.

J/ I have an early acceptance offer from Sac State, with a scholarship.

B/ Do they want to get their Latino level up.

E/ That’s terrific, Julio. Beto told me. I’ve been  babas with pride.

I/ I don’t have the papers yet. But I have something to say: Julio and I agreed that if they did’t come through it’s not the end of life on earth. We’d join you wherever. I’ll go with you ‘Nesto.

J/ Me too, dad! After college!  I’ve  been  on line taking college Spanish;  Alberto and me, we speak  all the time. Marvelous what education can do if you don’t go to school!

I/ Alberto and I.

E/ So we are agreed, are we? We can stay or go. There are big economies and beautiful cities popping up all over the globe.

I/ Besides, if we’re deported the Government pays the fare. I think. Don’t they?

E/  Don’t we. Is this a great country, or what!

J/ Welcome back Dad!

A/ Bienvenido Ernesto!

B/ Please reclaim this woman!

I/ ¡Todos attención! We’re going to Pollo Loco. A very suitable venue for this crowd- unless there is a Liars Locos around.

J/ That’s at the Legislature.

I/ You mean of Mexico or California?

E/ All of them.