On Being an (Ex) Undocumented Immigrant Father
May 20, 2011
By Alberto Ledesma
New America Media
Sofia and I had been making that turn since we had moved to Castro Valley. In those five years, the protesters at the corner of Castro Valley Boulevard and Redwood Road had become a constant example of the way politics worked in the United States. Each time, after I picked her up from abuelita’s house, we waited for the light to turn while she stared at the protesters.
“What does ‘Impeach Bush’ mean, papá?” Sofia had asked when she was in the third grade. Dozens of car horns had beeped in agreement. “You beep too, papá!” She had implored when our turn came to cross.
A few years later, at the start of Sofia’s fifth grade and more than 12 months after Barack Obama had been elected, she wondered, “Why do they still want to ‘End the War’? Didn’t President Obama say it was over?” That night in December of 2009, as we were again surrounded by the screeching of car brakes and the roaring of engines revving forward, I tried again to explain what I understood about the way American politics works, that foreign policies shift slowly between administrations.
This time, however, she seemed tired, dazed from spending too many hours cooped up inabuelita’s one-bedroom cottage.
It had been another hectic day at Berkeley, I had told her a few hours earlier.
“The 580 was packed. A red Tahoe overturned,” I had told her when she had opened the passenger door. “You’re lucky I picked you up when I did.”
As usual, she had remained quiet those few blocks before we reached the intersection. Instead, she had looked, as she usually did, out the window towards the Safeway parking lot, to the protesters all dressed in black jackets and blue jeans. They were now holding a “Beep for Peace!” banner.
Cars began arriving behind us while we waited for the red light to turn. Then she looked at me and asked, “Papá, what does it mean that you were once illegal?”
* * * *
The only thing I can think of is of that Saturday afternoon in April of 1977 when papá drove us to Hayward in his Ford station wagon. We are heading back home in the green 1969 Country Squire wagon that his buddy, Cheto, had sold him the day before. My sisters Silvia, María, and I are sitting in the back seat, enjoying the smooth ride back to Oakland, happy about the Spirograph drawing toy and Mother Goose potato chips papá had bought us at the K-Mart. We are trying to find any Mexican grocery store along Hay-ward’s Mission Boulevard. Mamá, who is sitting in the front seat holding my two-year-old brother, Julian, wants to cook us something special.
“Alli!,” papá says as he points towards the Hayward hills. At first I can’t tell what he’s found; but, he quickly turns the corner at Carlos Bee Boulevard and the wagon begins to climb the steep road. He parks in front of a lot that’s been over-run by ivies and dandelions.
“Esperen aquí,” he says with a smile, and then runs into the thick brush.
This is the first time we have travelled to this part of Hayward. Outside the station wagon, we are surrounded by recently built apartments, three- and four-story complexes made of beige-colored stucco and white-trimmed balconies decorated with ferns. Now and then, cars pass near us on their way up the hill. Mostly, they seem to be newer-model sedans, all piloted by blondes wearing sunglasses.
Maybe because she is sensing our restlessness or because she is feeling restless herself, mamá asks us if we want to step outside and wait for papá under the shade of the oak tree closest to the curb. Julian loves it. He runs from one patch of grass to the other while mamá hovers behind him.
Close to an hour passes and mamá can’t wait any longer. Julian is crying. The sun is making us thirsty even under the shade. Mamá has no choice. “¡Viejo! ¡Ya es tiempo!” From somewhere behind the bushes, papá’s voice screams, “ya mero!” Another 20 minutes crawl by.
It is Silvia who finally spots the “No Trespassing” sign nailed high on the light post. It is a barely legible cardboard placard that’s been faded by countless days of direct exposure to the Hayward sun.
“¿Que quiere decir TRESPASSIN?” Mamá asks.
Silvia is 14, almost in high school. As always, it is she who is expected to translate for mamá.
“Dice que no debemos estar aquí.” Whatever Silvia means, mamá knows that we need to go.
“¡Viejo! ¡Ya vamonos!”
Finally, papá emerges from the bushes holding a mountain of prickly cactus leaves on a piece of cardboard. He loads them in the back of the wagon and we are off.
On our way home, I keep searching for papá’s eyes in the rearview mirror. I want to ask him why he stopped and disappeared into some strange person’s lot without telling us; but mamá is too busy talking about the chile con nopalitos she will be cooking when we get home.
I can’t tell what Silvia or María are thinking because they, too, are slumped in the back seat of papá’s new wagon. So we travel down Mission Boulevard and onto East 14th Avenue never talking about what papá did. And that’s how it remains for years.
* * * *
If I were a more responsible parent, Sofia wouldn’t be sitting in the front seat of my sedan. She would be in the back, with me taking only opportunistic glances through my rear-view mirror to make sure she is okay. During the past year, however, I’ve become dependent on these little conversations we have when she is sitting by my side. There is no Nickelodeon, YouTube, DS, iPod, or her guinea pig, Tubby Tux, to distract us.
Except, this time I’m the one who’s quiet. I don’t know how to answer her question.
I glance towards her and notice that she still seems upset about me picking her up late, that her brown eyes seem as tired as mine. I didn’t think that it would be at 10 years old that she would ask me that question. The red van in the next lane honks when I start drifting. I hope that whatever I say turns out well.
“You know Sofia,” I stutter while staring at the road ahead, “I was about your age when my dad asked my mom to bring us across the border.”
Her eyes are focused on my lips.
“Things are complicated,” I tell her. “At first we thought that we were just coming for the summer. Then it became a year. Then I graduated from high school and met your mom.”
Now, it occurs to me, we are living in the same hills where my dad once stole cactus to celebrate buying his new car.
She is listening carefully, as if weighing the sincerity of each of my words. But I am lost.
“So, where did you learn the word ‘illegal’?” I ask her.
“I dunno. Somewhere, I guess.” She answers abruptly, the same way she does whenever she has done something wrong and knows that she will get reprimanded.
“Illegal is such a terrible word,” I tell her. “Its only purpose is to make some people angry at other people without either understanding the true reasons for their anger.”
I hear myself recounting only a few of the key events that happened when we crossed. All she hears is how María, Silvia, and I were smuggled in the back seat of some strange lady’s red Camaro. How we pretended to sleep so that the border guard would not ask us questions as he reviewed someone else’s birth certificate for each of us. I am not really explaining how I felt, how terrified I was about what we were doing.
I can tell that she is paying attention to my tone, to the inflection of each of my words.
“I really didn’t have a choice.” I tell her. And I am not sure if I believe it, am bothered because it almost sounds as if I am repudiating my parent’s decision-making, as if I’m critiquing two people Sofia absolutely adores.
Ahead, just past the KFC next to CVS Drugs, a blonde teenager in baggy jeans and a beige bomber jacket is waiting to jaywalk. I slow down and let him pass. And I remember my own transgressions.
* * * *
I am 16 when papá and I have our first real argument about our immigration status. I want to get out of the house: to stroll down East 14th Avenue with my friends on Friday nights. To hang out with the homies at the Giant Burger on 38th Avenue watching their lowriders hop by. To catch the midnight creature feature at the Grand Lake Theatre without worrying about what time I have to be home. But eight years after our arrival and we are still hiding.
Papá doesn’t seem to be in the mood for any argument.
“No seas tonto.” Don’t be a fool, he tells me for the umpteenth time. There are things that you can’t do “as long as you are ilegal,” he glares in my direction. “It doesn’t matter how good you think your English is.”
It’s not fair. The only times we seem to get out are when we go to Los Mexicanos Market for the week’s groceries. On Sundays we go to St. Louis Bertrand for the morning mass, maybe to the mall for Chinese food and strawberry Slurpees if the week’s been good. We travel as a group, always within sight of each other. Mamá’s greatest fear is that someone will abandon her in the middle of JC Penny’s just as the store is closing.
I’ve had enough of it. I am now in high school. I want to go places by myself, to explore this new world and the people in it, to be the kind of teenager that appears in a John Hughes movie.
That night, papá and I are sitting across each other at the kitchen table. He is drinking his Coors while I am toying with what is left of the chicken molé Mamá served us for dinner. There’s talk of more layoffs at the foundry. He is low man on the totem pole. Mamá wrings her hands on her apron and tells him that, con el favor de Dios, everything’s going to be okay.
If this were a different night, if it were a different event, I would think twice about what I’m about to do.
But this is supposed to be my first high school dance. I’ve been dressed for it since papá returned from the pool hall, my white shirt is still as pristine as on Sundays before we leave for church, in spite of the molé. And it’s getting late. And Roberto and Sergio are already waiting for me inside the high school gym. And papá is the only one who can give me a ride.
“I thought you were going to drop me off at school,” I say. There is something about the way I’m looking at him that seems to offend him. He frowns, his eyes fixed on me as I plead.
“My friends are waiting for me. The dance has already started. I told you about it this morning.”
He turns, pretends to ignore me, his eyes now focused on the television that’s been left on in the other room.
“This is not right,” I tell him. “You are keeping us locked up as if we were in prison.”
He turns to face me and tells me that that’s enough, that no one in this house is going anywhere tonight, that I’d better shut up and show some respect.
“Well, if you won’t take me, I’ll walk to the bus stop.”
I see him getting up from his seat as if in slow motion. His brown irises are frozen on me and his jaw is tensed. Suddenly, I feel the weight of his palm across my left cheek. It doesn’t hurt. Really. There are no more words. Instead, he turns, stomps to the front room, and closes the door.
An hour later, after I’ve locked myself in the back room, it is mamá who coaxes me out and walks me to papá’s station wagon. He is waiting for me there, ready to take me to the dance, his jaw still tensed and his eyes still fixed forward. As always.
* * * *
As kids, we always think that our parents have more power than they actually do. Undocumented immigrant kids are no exception. I never thought in those early years of being in the United States that mamá and papá were as desperate as I was to understand how to make sense of being undocumented.
As a kid, I thought mamá and papá were in full control of their decisions, that it would be just as easy for papá to stop going to the pool hall and mamá to stop her infatuation with religious discipline as it would be to flip a switch. Now, a father, I am beginning to realize they were as lost as I was.
Truth be told, I don’t know what I would have done had I been in my father’s shoes. Mine, after all, is not the perspective of someone who was driven by a need to provide for his family and consciously chose to cross the border illegally—how I hate that word. I was brought over, a refugee created by what my parents decided was best for us, like so many other kids who have had so many other fights with their own undocumented fathers and mothers.
One thing that I am convinced of, however, is that only through active communication will we be able to come to terms with the psychological ravages that being undocumented causes within families. This, after all, is what Sofia’s question made me realize. It is better to share even those ambiguous moments of truth than keep her in the dark about a painful experience that has already profoundly shaped who I am and, by extension, who she is. My undocumented immigrant heritage is also hers, just like my father’s anxieties are now mine. What matters is what I do with them. That’s why she deserves to know. And that’s also why every other kid whose parents have also experienced being undocumented in the United States deserve to know what their parents went through.
But unlike so many now living in limbo and in fear, my family and I were lucky. We were able to legalize our status during the amnesty of 1986. We are now all citizens and vote regularly during elections.
* * * *
Eight months after Sofia asked me her question, her elementary school had its last open house of the year. The parking lot was already full by the time I arrived, late from work again. I parked at the market across the street. It was a long enough walk that Leticia had to call to ask where I was, to say that the teacher was already addressing the parents.
My own elementary school — and Leticia’s for that matter—was never as nice as Sofia’s. Manicured lawns, flat-screen computer monitors, new books, and pristine black-boards. We moved to Castro Valley so that she could have what we never had. Then again, this is exactly what my own parents must have thought when they first visited my own elementary school. They had never gone past the third grade in Mexico, had brought their kids across a dangerous border, to East Oakland, so that we could have a better life. When they had enrolled us in our own elementary school, it must have appeared to them as luxurious as Sofia’s school now appeared to me. Maybe even more.
“It’s been a pleasure to teach your children this year,” Sofia’s teacher was finishing her comments when I walked in the door. The teacher was young, still enthusiastic about her work, in spite of what state budgets portended.
“Please have a look around. See what your kids have created. And please take all your child’s work home when you leave.”
Parents struggled to stand up from the minuscule chairs. Soon we were brushing past each other, examining the projects students had produced for this exact event. There were posters covering every inch of the walls. Sofia directed us to her desk.
“This is what I did,” she said as she picked up a stack of papers.
That’s when I saw it. It was a laminated roll of paper as wide as a strip of toilet tissue. She had recorded all the major events in her life and predicted what she hoped to experience up until 2029. She called it “Sofia’s Life Line.”
There was a cartoon of a baby swaddled in a pink blanket for the first event. Under it she had written, “I am born. San Francisco, 1999.” Above the cartoon she had also written the words, “Yay! It’s a girl!”
I don’t know why, but seeing her images moved me. There was an innocence to them. They seemed uninhibited by limits, as if she had enjoyed drawing each of them, as if she had taken her time to sketch each one and gently elbowed her friends so they could see the clever things she had thought of. I smiled, proud of what she had captured with each stroke of her pencil.
I unfurled the timeline and read each event. She had recorded the many times we had moved since she had been born, first, from San Francisco to San Lorenzo, then, from San Lorenzo to Alameda. She had drawn our move to Castro Valley, a tiny U-Haul truck with smoke coming out of its tailpipe. She had also drawn events in my own life that we had discussed in our rides from abuelita’s house; I was a smiley face stick-figure with glasses and a buck-tooth smile holding a magazine with the following caption, “After five tries, papá’s story finally gets published.”
Yet, what made my eyes tear up, what made me look at her and feel the urge to pick her up and hug her in front of all her friends—something she passionately dislikes—was the last item of her timeline. In 2029, Sofia wants to publish her own book. And, if my work continues to inspire her, I will keep writing forever though I may never publish another word.
Alberto Ledesma is a Writing Program Coordinator at UC Berkeley.