When I was nine, my younger sisters and I went to El Salvador to visit my father’s abuelita. She was 108 years old and was predicted to die at any moment, and my father wanted us to meet her before she passed. He was our guide through a foreign land whose culture dripped from his pores.
As we drove from the airport in San Salvador to his hometown of Santa Ana, I marveled at a world so different from my own—at lush mountains that climbed high into the sky, people on the side of the road selling mangos and pupusas from little shacks with roofs held down by rocks.
My abuelita greeted us at my father’s childhood home—where he and his eight siblings had been born and raised—her tan skin barely wrinkled despite her age, her hair pulled back in a bun and her slip showing under her loose-fitting dress. The smell of smoke from the outside stove permeated the air. Roosters crowed in the distance.
It was at that time that I recognized the dichotomy of my identity, the daughter of an American mother and a Salvadoran father—Saturday morning cartoons followed by pupusas and horchata at my tio and tia’s house in the evening; my father blaring Latin music on Sundays, while my mother played Rod Stewart.
In my youth, I had no shame that my father was an immigrant. I told everyone that he was a cook in a kitchen and had at one point hid from INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) in the freezer of his diner when his visa expired. Blinded by admiration for him, I didn’t know others might view this negatively. My pride for him was only reinforced as I grew older and fully understood his fortitude.
When he opened his own business, he had me write out the words for the numbers one to 500 in a book. When I asked why, he didn’t answer. It was the most humbling experience of my life to realize, having not gone past the third grade, that he was illiterate and used my list to write out checks to suppliers for his restaurant. Yet, he read the newspaper every day, and encouraged me and my siblings to study hard.
The successes of my siblings and my cousins, and the future successes of our children, will help change the narrative of how our country views Hispanic people and their contributions to our country.
When I brought home my straight A report card year after year, he would say, “Hija, you do that for you, not for me. So one day you won’t have to work like me.” Working side by side with him in his pizzeria my whole childhood, I understood the price those sixty-hour weeks cost him— physically and mentally—and that he wanted better for us. I also watched as he encountered people who had already determined his worth by his skin color and accent.
But he, and my tias and tios, went through all that in the hopes to make a better life for their children. And they did.
I graduated from Duke with my B.A. and J.D. and went on to practice corporate law before having children. I have published several essays and completed three novels. The majority of my siblings and cousins graduated college, and most have advanced degrees in law or education. My cousin was just named the #1 National Sales Director for all of Mary Kay and my sister is a partner in a company with multiple offices.
My father and his siblings achieved the American dream through their children, but through all of this, they kept their own ties to their culture close, returning a few times a year to be immersed in the familiarity of their childhood memories.
On one such trip, my father was tragically killed while riding his bike, robbing him of the chance to guide my children through his homeland the way he once guided me. Without him here to tie us to his culture, I worry if my children will have an understanding of what it means to look like my father or to have a sense of his history.
I was only half Hispanic to begin with, and two out of three of my children are blonde with light eyes. Both my husband and I have advanced degrees, and my children’s lives seem so removed from my own, where I spent every Friday and Saturday with my father working in his pizzeria. I’m so appreciative of the life I have, but I don’t want assimilation to mute their Hispanic roots.
Intent on keeping his culture a part of their lives, I found a local pupuseria so my kids could eat Salvadoran food and got them passports to take them to El Salvador when the time is right. We also visit with my father’s extended family once a year gathering with my cousins—our children playing together late into the night. It was there that I realized that my children don’t need to relive my childhood to appreciate their heritage, just like I didn’t have to relive my father’s. They will appreciate being Hispanic in a different way than me.
Whereas my tias and tios came to this country and took on the stereotypical jobs as landscapers and cleaners, my cousins, my siblings and I hold white-collar roles. I honestly didn’t know there was more to being Hispanic than my father’s little house in Santa Ana until I met my freshman roommate from Venezuela whose father was a doctor. Because of my generation’s achievements, my kids already know Hispanics are lawyers and businesspeople. The successes of my siblings and my cousins, and the future successes of our children, will help change the narrative of how our country views Hispanic people and their contributions to our country.
But while I’m happy we are helping move the ball forward, I still want to make sure my children reflect on where it all began and are mindful of those fighting the same fight my father fought. My son recently did a project on being Salvadoran. When he came home, he said his classmate didn’t believe he was Hispanic, but my son told him “My pop pop came from El Salvador, and that means I came from there too.” And I couldn’t have been prouder.