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Saturday, September 25, 2010


I’ve been invited to give a talk somewhere around here pretty soon. They want me to talk about this “post immigrant” business I’m trying to capture with the stories I tell. I decided, since the host is an organization called the “Institute for Social Responsibility and Ethics” to connect the post-immigrant experience to higher education. I figure I know a lot about both—or enough to be able to pay for this fancy keyboard and this 10 inch screen!

I was thinking about what it is that I’m going to say—something like: education is sacrosanct for immigrant parents; and my parents always encouraged me to…blah blah. (which they did). But then I started thinking about all of my graduations and the type of experiences these were for them—for my parents.

If memory serves me right, I graduated high school is 1994. My mother was there, but she claims she couldn’t see me. My father was at home, and now claims he wasn’t—that he was next to my mother at the stadium where the graduation was held. But this is a lie, because he was back at the house grilling meat and drinking beer (in my honor, of course!). When we got home, about 6 of my friends were waiting for me (3 died over the next 6 months…gangs). My father let me drink—my friends were happy. We drank and ate meat and drank some more. My father was proud of me; but he was also proud of himself. Somehow, his son had “finished” school. There had been nieces that had finished school, but no sons, no nephews. So he could brag. They couldn’t afford class ring, so my mother bought me a gold bracelet that I still have around here somewhere. It had my name on it (it doesn't have it anymore).

My college graduation came 4 years later. Everyone was there: my father, mother, R, A, P, and Jenny…my niece, and a couple of aunts. My mother insists she couldn’t see me. My father claims he could see me just fine. After the graduation we went to Red Lobster. Both my parents were very proud, but, simultaneously, and I could see this in their faces, a bit embarrassed. They didn’t know what they were supposed to be proud about. It was as though they felt someone was watching them and expecting them to say something like: we knew this day would come. But they didn't. This was not foreseen, planned, expected, discussed, projected....I bought my dad a giant beer and told him everything would be fine. My mother’s smile was uncanny, a mixture of pride, shame, and mourning.

Then I got a Masters. This time, my dad stayed home. My mother came. She asked somewhat mockingly: otra vez? Which, when properly translated means: you graduating again? I thought you were done—when will you be done? We had a quick lunch. I went to my parents' house and my father grilled steak. He asked me what was next. I said I didn’t know. He said: as long you’re happy. I said thanks. He gave me $100 and told me to do what I loved.

No one attended my last graduation—the one with the PhD. I didn’t go, and I didn’t tell anyone there was one. I called home after I defended my dissertation and said: lla! My mother said great and told me that my brother’s car had broken down and my sister had to go pick him up and my dad was mad that no one had mowed the lawn and P and A were fighting over bathroom cleanliness. Finally, she asked if I was coming home now, that I had been gone far too long, and it was time. I said I didn’t know. My father got on the phone and said he was proud of the kind of man I turned out to be, even if he didn’t know exactly what it was that I did. He asked me when I was coming home. I said I didn’t know. Then he said: we’ll be here when you do. I said: you always have been. Then he said: not always, but we’re here now. And, good job, mijo.

I’m wondering if my experience is unique in this respect. I like to think not, for fear of hurting my own feelings with the thought.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

El Fil

My father is going back to Mexico to die. His American experiment is over; he says he just wants to go home.

My mother called me, hoping I could talk some sense into the man. If anyone has a chance, she insists, it’s me. “Tell him to get a job—he still has a mortgage to pay!” He’ll listen to you, she says.

She has a point. If my father will listen to anyone, it would be me. I am his oldest son. But more importantly, I am the reason why he’s persisted in this country for as long as he has. Now that I am self-sufficient; now that I’ve gone farther down the well than he; now he can leave, and be satisfied that he did something right--whatever that is: raise me or keep me from dying. He can leave comfortable in the thought that all of it was not in vain.

But he will not listen to me. Not this time. We talked about this moment many times before: I’ve encouraged it! His spirit is crushed, and the only way to repair it is to go return to origins—where there is life and, necessarily, death.

I call him anyway. “What about mom?” I ask. But my father is not worried about my mother. Not that he doesn’t care. He cares. It is just that they have grown apart over the past 35 years—miles apart, even if they still live in the same house. Seldom do they argue; never do they kiss. I have never heard him say “I love you,” nor has she. He knows that my sisters will take care of her—she knows that she will take care of herself.

But the mortgage! My father is assuming that my brother, R, who lives at home, will pick up the slack. Or the oldest of my sisters, A, who moved in this year after her husband deployed to Afghanistan. Or my youngest sister, P, who, in her early twenties, should get her life together any day now. No one depends on Jenny.

There’s nothing I can say. My arguments are formulaic and I don’t feel the need to change his mind. There is no reason for him to stay here. After 40 years of working the fields of California’s Salinas Valley, he has lost his job, his benefits, and at 59 years of age, his opportunity to start over. He tells me that he gave it his all. The blood is on the dirt, he says. En el fil. In the field, scattered in drops here and there over thousands of acres, hundreds of seasons, millions of tons of produce, and billions of dollars, pennies of which he has never seen. I can’t replace the blood or the sweat, he says. But I can spill the rest en mi tierra—in my land. I can’t argue with a poet of his stature, with a philosopher of his depth. So I don’t.

Of course, I’ll miss him. But the Valley wont. He is replaceable. He knows this and feels betrayed, scorned, by the land which took his blood, by his own dreams, by himself! I can see it in his eyes. They’re done pretending.

Friday, September 10, 2010

My Father, the Chef

My father worked at a restaurant for the first few years after I was born. There’s a grainy color picture of a young man standing next to an old man by a large restaurant window; the young man is holding a guitar and the old man has white chef’s hat. “He taught me how to cook,” says my father of the old man. I ask about the guitar that the younger version of me is holding—“sabe!” he says, which means hell if I know what that thing was doing in my hands. The younger me is filled with optimism and completely oblivious to the fact that his replicant would one day be writing about him; naive to my voice calling him “pa,” which is what I call my father. (Not “pah” or “paw”—I say “pa” in Spanish, so it sounds like a dying man’s attempt to say “please,” in English.) Then he starts on the “Chef” story once again…for the millionth time.

From the time I can remember my father has bragged to my mother and I about his days as a Chef at the restaurant in the picture. My mother has always challenged his claim—citing as grounds for reasonable doubt his unwillingness to cook for us. Whenever a meal would not meet his tastes, he would say stuff like: “When I was a chef I could cook that with my eyes closed” and so on. Once (once!) he made burritos for my mother and I: he cooked beans and meat, put them in a flour tortilla with cheese, and other things (chorizo I think), then baked them in the over. I remember my reaction: there was nothing extraordinary about them. My mother laughed. My father blamed the oven and the lack of tools and condiments. I was happy about them simply because they were filling. And those days—we still lived in the famous Gashouse—eating burritos was a luxury!

So in his story, my father is washing dishes a day after he arrives at my uncle’s house from Mexico. The restaurant is in Anaheim, near Disneyland. My uncle, his brother (not the perverted one from my mom's "affair" story), is the cook. One day my uncle gets sick and my father has to take over the cooking duties. He can whip up scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, hamburgers, and burritos like no other; people come from miles to eat his food. People ask for him by name. He loves the job and hopes to one day be a chef with his own restaurant and kitchen. At some point his friends and relatives remind him that without documentos it will be impossible to do those things. They also remind him that dreams don’t feed families, and soon he is forced to leave his beloved restaurant—he’s told that there’s good field work in the Salinas Valley. So he sends my mom and I back to Michoacan for a few years while he goes north, to Southern Monterey County, in the California Central Coast, where we will join him in the Spring of 1985, and where 25 years later he’ll tell me his Chef story for the millionth-and-one time.

Monday, September 6, 2010

And they forced the hand of God…

This is just an amusing story. My mother was telling me a few days ago about how I was lucky to be alive! Not because I survived some horror or escaped a scrape, but because I was not supposed to have been born at all.

After my mother’s abduction and marriage, the next thing was to procreate. My father was to migrate North in the January, so they made a last ditch attempt to conceive in December. The month passed, and my father had to go--after a few weeks it was apparent: God would not ignite me! Frustrated, my mother turned to her mother-in-law, my grandmother, Elodia. Elodia was a thick little woman with white hair and skin made of leather; she spoke with conviction even if she didn’t believe what she said herself. People in town were afraid of her; she was supposed to have made a deal with some Dark forces or to have blackmailed a saint, or what have you. There was a persistent rumor, which I remember to this day, that she could turn herself into all sorts of creatures, like chickens, or birds. There were witnesses. My mother didn't like Elodia; but she had to endure her, since, as my father's bride, there was no other place to go. When, frustrated, she turned to her for help with her difficulties conceiving, she knew what she was getting into.

There was a simple solution to the problem. For nine days Elodia made stew out of possum tails; for nine days my mother had to drink the stew—which she recalls tasted like throw-up. Who knows where Elodia got her tails. But she had fresh tails everyday. The stew was du jour. On the 10th day, my mother says she felt her body reacting. Apparently, the stew worked and before long news spread that she was pregnant. My father wrote my grandmother and said: “I hope it’s a boy,” to which she replied, “It is.”

So even if God didn’t want me here…here I am. But now I feel bad for all those possums I’ve bad-mouthed!

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