In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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In the United States a man can make a profit fixing used cars and flipping them. My father fills his driveway with vehicles. Parks them in the street. “Five cars at one time,” he tells my mother in Spanish. “Can you believe it — a poor boy from Mexico with all this?”
Step 1: Sit next to your father at the table.
Step 2: Pour milk into a bowl of cinnamon Life.
Step 3: Position the cereal box between the two of you.
Step 4: Read the back panel.
Step 5: Repeat Step 4 until he leaves the table.
My father memorizes the Preamble to the Constitution for his naturalization interview. He records himself reading it on a cassette tape: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . .” He plays it back, studies his voice.
Before leaving Mexico, my father worked on his grandfather’s ranch, but the opportunities he was hearing about in the North seemed too great to pass up. At nineteen he decided to cross the border for the first time.
My father learned English from John Wayne movies. Now he listens to his own voice on the tape recorder. He rewinds and records it again, trying to sound more American.
Degrees Of Separation
If I need to ask my father a question, I ask my mother. I’ve always done this, to get around the fact that he and I hardly speak. It’s not that we have nothing to say. We just don’t know how to say it. He doesn’t speak English very well, and I don’t speak Spanish very well, so neither of us is even going to try. We talk through my mother. She is the only one in the family who really knows him.
All I have learned about my father’s childhood has come from her. Here is a story she told me: My father had never seen a bicycle until the day his friend rode up on one. The boy taught my father how to find his balance, how to ride. The boy wanted the bike back, but my father wouldn’t stop pedaling around the ranch, and the boy finally left. The next day the boy retrieved his bike. So my father decided to make his own bike from wood. For days he gathered scrap lumber and worked on it, a hammer in his hand, nails in his mouth. He built as much as he could but was unable to finish it. There was no way for him to construct a wooden chain, to get the gears to turn.
My father wants his four American-born children to speak to him in English so he will learn the language better. He thinks he’ll find more job opportunities this way. My first-generation Mexican American mother speaks perfect English and Spanish. Her family owned a ranch in Southern California. She went to charm school. She’s not dark skinned. She helps my father navigate his double life as a Mexican and an aspiring American.
I’m fifteen when I come home with a black eye. I hang my backpack on a chair and yell, “I’m home!” A moment passes; then my father yells, “OK!” He says my mother and sister are at the store. Our conversations are like this: short and in English. I call to him again, asking if I can borrow his car so I can go see a girl. He enters the kitchen with the keys and sees my eye. I wonder if he’ll be mad, but he doesn’t say anything. He just winces. I want him to ask how it happened, but he doesn’t. He stares at me as if it hurts him, too. Does this make me happy? He drops the keys in my hand and asks if I need money. He presses a twenty to my palm, his way of showing love.
My father starts the car after the swap meet and says, “I don’t know how to get home.” I’m only eight. He wants to know if I can find my way back without him. I sit up and look over the dashboard. My father keeps his foot on the brake, waiting. “Go straight,” I say. He drives straight.
For the next fifteen minutes I direct him to turn left and right. He is pretending to be lost, claiming a sudden case of “amnesia.” I begin to wonder if he knows who I am. Somehow it is easier for us to speak to each other like this. “Turn,” I say, watching the road. “It’s that way.”
In my early twenties I tell a friend that I don’t talk to my father much. She says it’s because I don’t speak Spanish. This friend doesn’t let her sons speak English at home. All day they speak English at school. At home she insists they use Spanish. If her kids don’t speak Spanish, she says, how will they talk to their grandparents, learn their stories and history?
In the rare conversations I had with my father growing up, he used American sayings he’d picked up. On Sundays, heading out for the swap meet, he’d say to me: “You ready, Freddy? Let’s get this show on the road.” To him, being an American was like being an actor: you just had to learn your lines.
Jaula De Oro (Gold Cage)
There’s a song by the band Los Tigres del Norte that includes a bilingual exchange between an undocumented immigrant and his Americanized son. The father in the song can neither forget nor return to his homeland, and because he fears deportation, he hardly ever ventures out in public. The United States for him is a gold cage. He asks his son, in Spanish, if he would like to go back to Mexico: “Escúchame, hijo. ¿Te gustaría que regresáramos a vivir a México?” The son answers in English: “I don’t want to go back to Mexico. No way, Dad.”
I’m ten and looking through the window at the neighborhood boys, who are talking to my father. I know they are speaking Spanish because he is smiling. The language must sound like home to him, like his village, Yahualica, a place I have never been and whose name I can barely pronounce. I picture a dirt road, a wooden bicycle. The boys want to fly the kite my father has made for me. I hate those boys for the access they have to him. Spanish is the key that unlocks the door to my father.
My tongue is uncomfortable with Spanish. I speak it slowly and carefully, if at all, certain I will use the incorrect verb conjugation. I fear native Spanish speakers will wonder who I am, where I belong.
There is a video of me speaking Spanish on my fourth birthday. Just one word, but it’s there, clear and confident, as if even my thoughts were in Spanish: My extended family — primos, tios, y tias; cousins, uncles, and aunts — have gathered under the shade trees in our front yard. My father is performing his favorite party trick, roping my older brother with a lasso. Then my brother walks out of the frame, and I cross my father’s path. He swings the lasso above his head, throws it over me, and pulls me toward him. Angry, I shrug off his rope, toss it to the ground in front of him, and yell, “¡Tu!” — you. But that’s incorrect. Watching the recording, I shake my head at my younger self. I should’ve used the formal usted, as a gesture of respect.
On screen I run away. Again my father swings the lasso over his head and lets it fly.
My best friend’s uncles live next door. These macho undocumented Mexican men talk to my father from their side of the fence. If I go outside and say, “Hi,” they demand I say it in Spanish: “¡En Español!” These men tower over me and bend down to speak with their Marlboro breath. I never reply to them in Spanish, but my father doesn’t yell at me for this. He just laughs. My father won’t speak to me in English — not in front of the neighbors. Still, he is proud to have produced a son who can fully embrace an American identity. At the age of eight I am cocky, brazen. I stick my tongue out at the neighbors when they ask for Spanish. I am an extension of my father’s American Dream. At the same time, he cannot fully embrace his own Americanness, because he’s afraid he will forget where he came from. And he cannot do that, especially not in front of these men. He remains loyal to his Mexican identity. Ultimately our loyalties will begin to divide us.
Perhaps my father didn’t realize he was raising a son who would become a contradiction to him: A son who is both Mexican and American. A brown boy with a Spanish last name and English pouring from his mouth.
The parents of the woman I am dating have some cement in their yard that needs to be broken up. I offer to help. They are naturalized American citizens originally from Mexico, and they like their daughter’s suitors to be Spanish speaking, college bound, and con respeto — respectful. I bring my gloves and shovel, a cap to keep the sun off. I prove my worth through my work. I have a lunch bag with almonds and a frozen bottle of water. I swing a sledgehammer through the California summer morning and stay until the job’s done. When my girlfriend’s mother speaks to me in Spanish, I try to think of the Spanish words to reply, but I can’t. I imagine she doesn’t see me as a real Mexican. I’m a foreigner wherever I go.
Sometimes I wonder if my father ever stopped feeling foreign. When he first arrived in the United States, his job supervisors could not or would not call him by his name, Juan. Instead they called him Johnny: “Good morning, Johnny.” And my father had to smile and say, “Hello,” in his best John Wayne English.
I imagine my father getting ready for work. He buttons up a shirt with a name stitched to the chest, over his heart. A name that is not his.
When I move to Minnesota, no one I meet speaks Spanish. I should be relieved, but here my brown skin is loud. I learn that some white people pay good money to make their skin as dark as mine. I learn a dead deer in a truck bed can be a rite of passage for a boy. I’ve never felt as Mexican as I do just standing at the gas station in Minnesota, filling up my tank. It would take me twenty-six hours, driving southwest, to get home to Southern California.
Pursuit Of Happiness
Be a go-getter, but don’t get caught up in the moment. Keep that poker face and play it by ear. If you’re last but not least, you can work your way up. Little by little. It’s all in a day’s work. Actions speak louder than words. When opportunity knocks, reach for the stars on the other side of the tracks, where the grass is greener. In the home of the brave. Where the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Who is the father of this country? Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States. Where do you work? What does “We the People” mean to you? Name one state that borders Mexico. Name one problem that led to the Civil War. Who are your friends laughing on the other side of the fence? What time is your son coming home?
My father passed his citizenship test. He prepared by memorizing the answers to common questions, so he could pretend to speak English during the interview. Perhaps my father and I are not so different. I’ve been in school all my life: taking tests, collecting degrees, refining that résumé, pretending to speak Spanish and sometimes, with a lot of luck, succeeding.
When my father decided to leave his grandfather’s Mexican ranch to pursue a better life in the United States, he waited three months. Three months, he figured, is how long it would take for the calluses on his palms to heal; for his skin, out of the sun, to lighten. He knew he could get through the border patrol on a seventy-two-hour visitor’s pass with his hazel eyes and smooth hands and light complexion.
The first time a publication arrived in the mail with a poem of mine in it, my mother said my father pointed to our last name on the back cover and smiled at her as if to say, I told you so.
For many years I didn’t know my father was deported multiple times and had to cross the border again and again before he finally got a green card and lived here long enough to become a citizen. The only story I knew was of his arrival and the realization of his dream: a house and car for his family, a large front yard for his kids to run around in. Now I know that he worked in cotton fields and factories at first, places that could pay him under the table. I know that for a while he wrote the name of my mother’s high school on job applications that asked about his education. (It was easier to get away with this back then.) When Mom said, “But you didn’t go there,” my father would laugh and say, “Technically, I did go there” — meaning, to talk to her.
In the summer of 2005 I took a job as a gardener, mowing lawns and raking leaves with my best friend’s father and uncles. These men were Mexicans who had entered the United States without legal papers, men who never took their eyes off the road, who always drove the speed limit. They worked from early morning until all the houses and businesses they’d been assigned that day were done. I worked by their side in triple-digit heat because Curtis, our boss, reasoned, “If the mailman can work, so can you.” Each day I’d come home more sunburned. In the shower I ached as I watched dirt swirl down the drain. I was nineteen, the same age my father was when he first crossed the border.
The day I started the gardening job, I wanted to prove I could endure, and I made the mistake of bringing only a bottle of water for lunch. At noon, when I had nothing to eat, my best friend’s father, José, offered me his cup of tapioca pudding. I shook my head. He smiled and lifted the cup to me again. I took it, said, “Gracias,” and slurped it down. I never failed to bring a full lunch again.
In the fall I left to attend community college. My courses were planned out. Curtis said I could come back anytime.
A few years later Immigration picked up José. Within a week a new worker had arrived to take his place: drive the truck, sculpt the rosebushes, and shape an elephant from a client’s overgrown hedge.
I consulted spanishdictionary.com to check some of the Spanish words in this essay. I won’t tell you how many times.
Walls, Types Of
Language. Machismo. Border fences. Silence.
When I first dreamed of being a writer, I chose the pen name Michael de la Torre. I thought de la Torre projected power and a European heritage. I practiced writing it in cursive. I imagined signing documents, contracts.
Spanish for and. A connecting of what might otherwise remain separated. Tu y yo. You and I.
When I remember my father at his happiest, he is watering the grass: his thumb over the end of the hose, spraying the front lawn in a slow back-and-forth motion, his other hand in his pocket. He scans the street, watches each car that goes by. Is this — his house, his cars, his American-born son, his well-maintained lawn — what he dreamed of? Or is he thinking of what he lost, what he can’t go back to?
Perhaps this is actually the memory of when I was happiest.
My soccer ball thuds against the wall in the front yard. I could be seven or eight. I kick the ball closer to him, stop it under my foot, exaggerate my breathing. He takes his thumb from the hose. I don’t need to say anything. In this moment we are un papá y su hijo: a father and his son. I turn my head to the hose and drink.