Minda and Mamita

(Abuela Vilma)

The Midnight Trip

Helicopter propellers thrummed above Minda. She looked up; millions of white dots stippled the black sky, just like Mamita's Sunday church dress. 

Dozen's, or maybe hundreds of dog's, barked and snapped nearby. She looked back, then to the right and to the left; nothing was visible in the endless darkness. She pulled Lilibeth closer; she was in charge of her, that's what Mamita said, but did they really have to make this trip on foot? Why couldn't they drive instead? Or, at least wait until the daytime, when you can follow the noises to an actual object, person or animal?

"We can't wait!" Papa had insisted before they left their home. "We’re not safe here. Not anymore!"

Marina, because she is the oldest and therefore the boldest, was the only one with the courage to ask why. 

"If we stay, we die," Papa had said. 

Minda wished she was more like Marina, especially now, braver and fearless as the dog growls grumbled closer.

They must be on the run because of that man - the scary man with all of the scars that showed up the day that Papa said they had to leave home. Mamita had rushed the children into the bedroom where they couldn't hear much, but the slashes on the man's face and the curl of his lip was scored into Minda's head. 

Marina had pressed her head to the door. "He is asking for money." Her voice a whisper. "For protection."

Protection? If he was offering protection, then why was he shouting? The roar of his shouts were not muffled by the bedroom door; neither was the slam of the front door, and as soon as the man had left, Papa said the family had to run. 

Now, they crawled on rock hard dirt that scraped Minda's knees. Somewhere ahead of her baby Meme cried. More cries came from other directions, but it's too dark to see who the other babies were. There must be more families on the run too! If it wasn’t for the recognizable cadence of Mamita’s shushes to baby Meme, Minda wouldn’t know where Mamita was either. 

A light breeze picked up, barely notable, but Minda's arms and legs shook and her teeth rattled. She clamped her mouth to stifle the clatter, or whoever they’re hiding from might find them. Mamita had warned them that if they got caught, they would be sent back to die. Minda was scared, but she also shivered because of the wet clothes that clung to her skin, and the breeze that chilled and stiffened them against her body. Baby Meme is the only one that didn't get wet as they crossed through the river because Mamita carried him above her head. Lucky Baby. 

Lilibeth began to squirm. "Shhh, Lilibeth, please." Minda held her little hand tighter and rubbed Lilibeth's other arm with her free hand. It was like rubbing the back of one of the frogs they used to catch by the creek near their home, wet and bumpy. She rubbed Lilibeth's arm faster to try and loosen the goosebumps and mimicked Mamita’s cadence. “Just think about the plan that Papa spoke of; first Texas then California. That's where our lives can start over.” 

America, what a beautiful country. A country that let's you dream. A country that offers protection, and not through a scar-faced man, but through a beautiful, tall and green woman, that holds a torch to the heavens. 

The Green Woman

Papa's plan brought Minda and the family to Texas and then California. It also took them to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and finally to New York. 

The Green Woman, Lady Liberty, made promises and kept them, but Mamita said that Jimmy Carter is their real hero. While in Washington, D.C., baby Leticia was born and President Jimmy Carter said that they could stay, because baby Leticia is a citizen.

However, Mamita never relaxed. She was firm that the whole family needed to become citizens. America is so wonderful, how lucky would the Lozano family be to call themselves citizens of this great nation? Mamita said she would open a restaurant, and Papa would continue working as a house painter; Minda just wanted to never have to run away in the middle of the night, ever again.

Papa always says that America protected us and that the Lozano's need to give back. Papa has a lot of sayings, like, "we don't accept welfare," and, "the Lozano's earn their money with hard work." He and Mamita work long hours but never complain. Marina's job is to make sure all studies and homework are complete; Minda's job is to make sure the younger ones are bathed by the time Mamita got home. Not a bad exchange for protection. 

The apartment is small, a box really. A curtain separates the living and sleeping areas. There is one bathroom, a tiny kitchen and a big family. But no matter, because it's a start, where their dreams can grow roots to one day blossom into a new reality. It's all part of the unfolding plan that started in Texas. 

Thank You America

Almost fifty years later, the Lozano family are active contributing citizens of America. From the Lozano family tree, branches reached out into the fields of Law, Education and Literature, among others. Mamita never opened her restaurant, but the point was that she could dream.

Many do not understand the difficult choices that need to be made by a family faced with poverty and death threats. Some even think that those who risk everything to cross the border into America, do so to leech onto the goodwill of Americans, or to bring in criminals and drugs. 

But this short story, told from the eyes of a ten year old girl inspired by my mother, is far more typical of the plight and prayers of those who venture across the dangerous terrain into America. She made the trip with her parents and siblings back in the seventies. At the time, in their home country, gangs were kidnapping children and using them for various abhorrent reasons, and my grandparents felt they had no other option but to flee. It was a huge risk for the Lozano family to flee with all of their children at once, but my grandparents refused to go unless they all went together. In many cases, the cost of such a trip with so many little ones is too much; so, in an effort to save their little ones, some families send their children to America on their own. There is a misunderstanding about why some parents choose to send their children alone, and it is often labeled as a cruel act. But think for a moment, how terrible the situation at home must be, that you are willing to send your kid forward, so that at least they may have a chance to live. 

My family worked hard to obtain their citizenship and they've continued to work hard to do their part for society. Being American meant everything to them then, and it means everything to us all now.

For years I credited my grandmother for being the rock of our family. She was kind, hardworking, the best cook in town, and a quiet warrior. She still holds all of those titles, long after her passing, but I never gave my grandfather enough credit for the role that he played. 

My grandfather had some issues and those issues are the main reason behind my being blind to his contribution until recently. When I was a kid he used to frighten me. He seemed seven feet tall back then. Sure, I was always on the miniature side, but it had more to do with his posture, anger, and meanness. 

My grandfather was an alcoholic. With him came all of the characteristics that are associated with the disease. His alcoholism buried all positive memories that I had of him deep and out of reach. 

Then I grew up and he grew old. His stature diminished; his frame turned frail. He had become unrecognizable to his younger, angrier self. During family gatherings he became quieter. No more screaming obscenities at us for being too loud—it's a hispanic family, we get loud sometimes—most times.

Here's what I learned about him—unfortunately, after he passed:

It was my grandfather that had decided to leave El Salvador during the civil war of the 70s. But he wouldn't leave without his family—all six of them. Everyone told him that he was crazy. That it would be too dangerous to make the trip to America with a wife, four daughters, and a six month old baby boy. But that was just it; he needed to save his wife, four daughters, and six month old baby boy. 

Girls were being raped left and right by the "soldiers" of the civil war and boys were being recruited at young ages to fight. Sure his son was too young for that now, but Abuelo wasn't willing to stick around and wait until his son came of age.

My mother and her sisters still remember seeing bodies littered on the streets of their town in El Salvador like empty soda cans, tossed without care—casualties of the war. My grandparents were affluent members of the community but money didn't afford them protection, it made them more of a target.

Had it not been for the war they probably would never have considered leaving home. My grandmother owned and operated one of the most popular restaurants in her town and my grandfather owned a taxi company and a billiards bar. But soon the war found its way into those businesses too. Nowhere was safe. Soldiers came and took what they wanted. They paid by threat. But, Abuelo was a proud man and he wasn't going to be bitched around. 

My family left and like many other immigrants that make the treacherous journey to America, they took the route of the Rio Grande. My mom remembers getting into a makeshift boat—a car that had had its roof and wheels removed—and crossing the scary waters. All the while, my abuelo never left their side. Each step of the journey he took it with them, never letting them out of his sight. He knew what the coyotes would love to get their hands on: his beautiful young wife and their young daughters. Over his dead body!

Here's what I knew about him while he was alive:

My grandfather didn't have an easy life growing up—though it should have been. He was being raised by a rich aunt (rich by the standards of El Salvador) that he loved dearly. She made a point to send him to the best schools. Then she died. Suddenly, he had to fend for himself. He had to quit school and find ways to make some sort of income. The streets became his office.

Here's what I wish I could thank him for:

His life experiences taught him to drown his sorrows out with beer. This in turn made him an abusive husband, bringing out his very worst parts. I realize now how much he hated those bits of himself and how much he preferred the version of himself that ran around their small apartment chasing his kids and playing hide and seek. Don't get me wrong, I am in no way downplaying the evil that is alcoholism. But here is what I believe now: life is a matter of choices and circumstance. Some things you can choose and some things life throws at you to see what you will make of it. Some of those things that life throws are not cute and cuddly. His circumstance was the death of his aunt; his choice was to survive. His circumstance was the civil war; his choice was to help his family survive.

It is in fact because of him that I write this to you now. He is the reason that I dare to call myself a writer—that I dare to dream. His circumstances shaped his path, his choices opened mine.

I am an American citizen, born and raised, in the sweet throes of living my #amwriting life. Being here is a blessing; My abuelo believed that. I wave our flag proudly too. I recall 9/11 and strapping the flag to my car. I recall my boyfriend at the time—also an immigrant—putting on his National Guard uniform and heading to ground zero. I recall my uncle—also a product of immigration—putting on his uniform and joining his brothers in blue in Manhattan. Immigrants make a really tough decision when they leave the only home they have ever known in order to migrate to America, and they do not take it for granted. 

I am forever grateful to Abuelo and Abuela; a true tag team duo. Ride or die for each other for sixty-five years. My grandfather made a choice and with my grandmother by his side they changed the trajectory of our lives. They saw safety for their family inside of the borders of America. No matter how difficult it would be to keep their family in America they would do it, even if it meant temporarily returning to El Salvador—which is what they ended up having to do in order to obtain their residency. Eventually, my family became proud citizens of this wonderful country.

Gracias por todo, Abuelo, because if it wasn't for you I wouldn't be writing this. I wouldn't be living out my dreams. I wouldn't be. 

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