On Being an (Ex) Undocumented Immigrant Father
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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 an 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 in abuelita’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 Hayward’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 aqui, ” 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.