Crossing the Borders of Identity and Philosophy
When he was ten years old, San Jose State Philosophy Professor Carlos Alberto Sanchez, ’98 Advertising, ’00 MA Philosophy, crossed the border from Mexico to the United States with a stranger. As an American citizen, he didn’t encounter any problems with immigration. He simply presented his birth certificate and “walked through the gate.” Once he arrived, the stranger, who his parents had paid to help him cross the border, dropped him off at a hotel alone to await his parents, undocumented farm workers who for years had worked seasonally in California, where Sanchez was born.
That night he spent alone in the hotel made him feel “wrong, misplaced, uprooted…the feeling your gut that you get when you know that all hope is lost—when someone you know is buried in the ground.” Overhead, helicopters circled and he was convinced that they were looking for him, that he was guilty of something. There was no way to contact his parents. He was less worried about his father, who had made the journey several times, but was concerned that he’d never see his mother or sister again.
“There was no way to know where they were or who they were with,” Sanchez says. “The only way to contact them was through prayer—through a divine connection that I didn’t understand and that I don’t think exists. But I tried. I just huddled on the bed and kept quiet, with the light on, and crawled beneath the blankets, until I fell asleep. When I woke, they were there and all was good. But I think it scarred me.”
The next day they arrived at the hotel covered in dirt after traveling through tunnels to avoid border security. The juxtaposition of their two journeys shaped what he later termed a “post-immigrant” identity, a sense of self defined by witnessing his family’s anxieties living as immigrants in the U.S.
“Even though I was a citizen, I still lived with the same fears that my parents had, that other members of my community felt,” he says. “I would work summers in the field, and whenever the green immigration trucks would roll up, everyone would run. I didn’t have to run, because I had papers, but I would run anyway, because I was scared of what they would do to me. While I wasn’t an immigrant, I lived in the wake of that experience.”
Sanchez graduated from high school in King City, where his father had arranged for his family to rent a house on a ranch in exchange for working nights, irrigating fields. Sanchez credits his admission to San José State to the persistence of an Upward Bound counselor who urged him to apply. As an advertising major, he became fascinated with Noam Chomsky’s critique of the discipline. That introduction to philosophy drove him to apply for the master’s degree at SJSU.
Despite his academic success, Sanchez felt a familiar fear emerge in his professional life. After he completed his PhD at the University of New Mexico, he began presenting papers on Mexican philosophers at American Philosophical Association conferences. When the time came to present his findings, he recognized the fear he felt as one of only a handful of Mexican-American PhDs in philosophy at the conference.
“That is when I made the connection that it is this same fear, the fear of being deported, the fear of being caught, the fear of not fitting in, was with me even though I didn’t need to feel it,” he says. “The post-immigrant experience had followed me all the way to my academic life. Now I am an immigrant in this new way, in the philosophical community.”
As a philosophy scholar, he brings yet another perspective to the post-immigrant conversation. Throughout his life, whenever he has heard his father called an “illegal,” it makes him consider the legality of his own existence. What makes a human “legal”?
In an effort to create a space for these conversations, Sanchez and a few of his colleagues formed the Society for Mexican American Philosophy. When he translates the work of philosophers like Jorge Portilla, which he says is an “exercise in time and space travel,” he immerses himself in language, history and culture.
“Philosophy is about making coherent connections,” he says. “Through my translation of Mexican philosophy, I am inserting myself into the conversation. For anyone who has had experiences like my own, I would say use it to contribute to a conversation that you feel you have not been a part of before.”
As a young child, Sanchez learned to cross geographic and cultural boundaries. As a professor, he says that it is his “responsibility to make sure that philosophy belongs to everyone.” Perhaps learning has no borders.