Thursday, May 10, 2012

From Pupusas to Cheeseburgers...

Today is a good day. Today I feel like telling a story...

It starts with a woman who left a war torn country to find a better life in America. She was a 22 year old single mother, she had financially supported her family since she was 16 and lived in a small country where bombings, shootings, earthquakes, hurricanes and starvation were an every day thing. She was very ambitious. More so than the rest of her family. As she tells it, she always knew she would not live in a village for the rest of her life. Her parents had tried giving her the best life they could, but a kindergarten education only goes so far. Farming and housekeeping is all they knew and there was no way she would stay trapped in a world with so little opportunity for progress. The war in her country had gotten to the point where companies were going bankrupt or taken over by the "guerrilla", young boys were made soldiers at the tender age of 12 or 13, women were being kidnapped, money and food were scarce. She was strong, independent, had a vision but knew things would not get much better if she stayed in her country. Not many other things were an option, particularly now that she had lost her job in the textile factory. But one simply does not leave El Salvador. Especially when all you have are a few dresses, enough money for bus fare, a few days' worth of food, two parents who can't read or write, a 10 month old baby and no connections whatsoever. Those were desperate times, and as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. The week she lost her job, a good friend of hers told her about a group that had decided to come to America with a "coyote". I'm sure they would have all wanted to immigrate legally, but seeing as none of them had a fortune and 10 years to spare, illegal immigration was the way to go. One week. That's all the time she had to arrange the trip, make plans with her parents, and realize that she had to tell her baby goodbye for who knows how long. That woman was my mother. And I was that baby.

Mom tells me that it was the hardest thing she has ever done. Six days after the idea of coming to the U.S. was proposed, she was standing by the door of our little shack hugging my grandparents goodbye, carrying a plastic bag with some ripe bananas my grandfather, Papa-Lito, had picked for her that morning and five colones...not even a dollar. She tells me that she held me one last time and cried and cried. When she finally worked up the courage to hand me to my grandmother, Mama-Marta, she knew that she had to just turn around, walk away and keep walking until she couldn't see the village anymore. She says that if she had looked back, she knew she would have never left. Her goal was a better life and future. But not for herself. Not even for my grandparents. She did that for me and in order to achieve it she had to leave me behind. I have never met anyone that brave. I've sat with my mom on her bed late at night before as she told me stories of her coming to America. She always says that she tried to make it fun, though she knew that there were many dangers along the way. I've heard stories of the times she had to jump on the train and barely made it, once when the police and dogs were chasing them and they had to climb barbed wire fences (she still has the scars), the time they had to swim across El Rio Grande and the current was so strong they were sure their party would drown. Luckily, the coyote had a rope that he threw in the water and one by one they swum across it, tightly holding on to the rope. Somehow they all made it across. Reading my mother's journals will be a treat for sure! I wish I could tell the stories the way she does. I can't do them justice. But all you need to know is that crossing the borders between El Salvador and the U.S.A. really is a matter of life or death.

When they finally made it to California, (Los Angeles, to be specific), they faced another challenge; finding a job. The guide who had brought them knew people who knew people who knew where to find jobs. English was always preferred, but not necessary. My mom knew this would be a challenge. She knew she had to start from literally nothing, and she was willing to do whatever it took to be able to see me again. Someone told her of a job in Maryland. It was the first job she heard of so she took it without hesitation. She would be a maid for a wealthy family. She worked and worked and worked, found good friends, took English classes, learned how to drive, got a license, bought herself a little car, and eventually started working on papers to get her legal U.S. residency. This whole time she would send letters, pictures, and money back to El Salvador for me and my grandparents. Sometimes she sent us "American clothes", toys and cassette tapes where she recorded herself talking to me. My favorite one was one she sent after she had met my dad, David Riggin. They had been dating for a while, he knew all about me and I had seen a few pictures that my mom had sent. He seemed nice enough. Ok, that's an understatement. I loved this man immediately. I can't quite pin-point when it is I decided that he was my dad. I called him Papa-"Dahveed". It was my fifth birthday and my mom had sent us a cassette with both her and my dad singing "Happy Birthday" in Spanish and English, and they both told me they loved me and that I would see them very soon. It's funny-- now that I think about those days, I realize how oblivious I was. I had a life in El Salvador, I loved my grandparents dearly and never wanted to be without them but I always knew that I wouldn't be in El Salvador forever. I just didn't realize that that also meant I wouldn't be with my grandparents forever. Anyway, going back to David Riggin...he is an amazing man. A great father. The best one, in fact.

 I remember when we found out that my parents would be getting married. I was overjoyed, but partly bitter since I would not be able to be there for the wedding and, like any other silly 6 year old would feel, I was jealous that some random girl would be my parents' flower girl and not me. My parents had been married a year before they found out about the church and were baptized and they told me all about not drinking coffee, and this and know, stuff Mormons do. We hadn't had missionaries in El Salvador in years because of the war. Eventually they started coming and I saw them once in a while, but they never came to our house. My devout Catholic grandparents scared them away, I'm sure of it! But, as scary as they may have appeared to innocent 19 year old Mormon boys, I thought they were the sweetest people around. I have so many great memories of my childhood in El Salvador! Of my grandma getting me ready for school every morning, teaching me how to iron my uniform, my grandpa taking me to the bean and corn fields to help him plant seeds. I loved harvesting coffee in winter when I was off school, cutting wood and tying it in small bundles to sell it, making tortillas with my grandmother, helping with the "tiendita" selling frozen chocolate covered bananas, and going to the river to get water in the little clay jugs. I didn't really have to do any of it since my mom was taking care of us financially and I was going to school. But my grandparents loved doing what they did and I loved tagging along. I also loved having all my cousins and aunts and uncles within walking distance. I guess in a place where having a car is beyond a luxury everything had to be within walking distance. And that was all I knew. It was our life and, had my mother been present physically, it would have been the perfect life for me. But there was a different life waiting for me just around the corner...

It was late April, 1998. I had started third grade that February and I was a perfectly content 9 year old. I remember coming home from school once and finding out that Papa-David would be coming from America to get me in a few weeks. I was thrilled! Beyond excited that this was finally happening and my dreams were literally about to come true-- I was a few weeks away from hugging my dad and meeting my mother! My grandmother seemed just as happy as I was. She took me to get a hair cut, she bought me a few new outfits, we went to the capital to get nice new shoes and to visit the doctors to get all checked up. I have never loathed shots more in my life. I kept going back to San Salvador week after week for more shots and checkups, going to fancy buildings to talk to men in suits, getting my picture taken for my green card and passport and...meeting a lawyer who I was told was my biological father. Now that was interesting, to say the least. I don't remember much other than saying hello, having him sign some letter and leaving his house. I had always known of him and no one ever spoke ill of him. I had always thought of him as some nice man living somewhere, but meeting him and feeling nothing except for politeness toward the man was a bit weird, even for a 9 year old. My grandmother knew it would be hard for me, so she took me to the zoo after. All was well :)

Over then next couple of weeks I spent a lot of time with my cousins, we visited my great grandmother and I got to say goodbye to her. That's probably when the icky feelings started sinking in. I started to realize that I would have to say goodbye to my grandma. My Mama-Marta. The woman who had been "mami" since I could remember, the one who held me and sang me to sleep every night after my mom had left while I cried, who took care of me when I was sick, the one who would always "check my homework" even though she could not read or write. I love that little old woman so much. Her life was as hard and fascinating as my mother's. She is another example of courage, hard work and sacrifice and I wanted to be everything she was. And Papa-Lito, my cute grandpa with his mustache and American cowboy boots. He would let me sit on his lap outside every night and would tell me stories of his childhood, how he met my grandma, what a wonderful woman my mom was...I loved him too. I loved him a lot and everything he was. I tried to forget that they wouldn't be there every morning when I woke up in a fancy new bed in the U.S..

The day finally came when we went to pick up my dad at the airport. I don't remember who drove us there. I do, however, remember waiting for an American to come through the doors past security and knowing he was my dad. As soon as I saw him, I recognized him from the pictures and I ran toward him completely ignoring the security guards standing by the doors. I hugged him, he hugged me, he was crying, I just didn't want to let go so he carried me to where my grandparents were and he hugged them too. The next couple of weeks are a blur. It may have only been one week. I will have to double check with my dad. We did some fun things the first few days he was in El Salvador. He came to my school and met my teacher and talked to the kids in my class. They were all amazed that they had met an Americano. We also went up to the mountains to show him my grandpa's plantations, we took him to Izalco where my favorite volcano was, we fished at the lake of Coatepeque, we went to the market. He had never seen an outdoor market and most of the people there had never seen an American so it was a treat for all! I loved that he always introduced me as his daughter, though we had just met. It was so natural and genuine and just felt right. After that we had to get to business. He rented a car and we started going to the capital every single day. To the embassy, to lawyers, this place, that place...getting up at 3 a.m. is incredibly painful! I would stay in the car with my grandma and sleep while my dad waited in line for the Salvadorean embassy to open so we could get things sorted out. I will spare you all the tragic details of how my visa almost didn't get approved. My dad had to do some serious convincing and talked with the American ambassador. One thing was for certain: he had bought two tickets for home and he was NOT leaving without me. Thank goodness it all worked out in the end and my residency got approved.

A couple days later, I was packing my one suitcase that held a couple of outfits but mostly contained beans from my grandpa's fields, some homemade chocolate, atole mix, and little things to remind me of my country. My grandma knew I couldn't forget, but I think she feared I just might. We went to bed, got up early the next day, had breakfast as always and drove to the airport. We got there and found out we had missed our flight because they printed the wrong times on the ticket! Biggest disappointment for my mom and dad, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't slightly relieved. I'm sure the same goes for my grandparents and the rest of the family in El Salvador. I got one more day with them! My dad treated the entire family to dinner. It was a party. We went to bed early that night and I fell asleep as Mama-Marta brushed my hair. I woke up to her crying that night, my dad was trying to comfort her, my grandpa was sitting silently by them and I just sat on my bed. The excitement had been overshadowed with sadness for the moment. But I didn't want to cry now. For one, I had to sleep, and I didn't want to make things worse for my grandparents.

The next day was very much a deja vu. Except this time we were quite early to the airport, plenty of time to get checked in and say our goodbyes. My grandmother had tried to be strong in front of me, but it was overwhelming now that I was there about to leave and she didn't know if or when she would see me again. She just hugged me tightly and cried. My grandpa didn't cry. I didn't either. I had to be strong for just a bit longer. Once I made it passed the gate and onto the plane I would allow myself to shed a few tears. But not then. I knew it wouldn't help my grandma at all, plus I felt really guilty feeling so sad when I should have been celebrating that in just a few hours I would be meeting my mom. And so, after all that, my dad and I walked out of sight. We got in the plane and I sat there with my head leaning on his arm. I didn't say anything. He asked me if I was ok and I just nodded my head not sure of how I felt. It was surreal. I was overcome with so many feelings that the fact that I was about to fly on a plane for the first time didn't even phase me. Finally the plane took off, and as I looked out the window to the shrinking trees, buildings and mountains below, I finally let it all out. I sobbed and sobbed until my eyes were swollen while my dad just hugged me. Haha, it was pretty pathetic. I was finally able to pull it together when the flight attendant came over to check on me for the fourth or fifth time. They played a movie and I looked out the window, colored some pictures, slept a bit and finally started feeling beyond nervous when the captain announced that we would be descending in a few minutes. This was it. I was in freaking America! I WAS GOING TO SEE MY MOM!

The plane landed, we got our luggage, we went through customs, filled out some papers, and finally walked down this long hallway. There were two silver doors and I knew that right behind me was my mom with my little one-year-old sister, waiting for me. We walked through he doors and I heard squeals, I saw balloons and then a woman who looked remarkably like a younger version of my grandmother walked over and hugged me. I hugged her back and we both cried just hugging each other while another woman (my mom's friend) was "recording" this moment with a camera that was apparently both upside down and off. Still, it was the thought that mattered :) . I could hear my dad chuckling and my baby sister calling for mom. No no, kiddo, this was my turn! The last time my mom had seen me I was wearing diapers and could barely stand. I didn't even remember her, so that little baby would just have to wait a bit longer while I absorbed all that love and memorized my mother's face. It's funny how it all happened. I remember my mom holding my hands, touching my hair, my face and the entire time she was crying. I didn't hear her voice until after we got home that night. And we stayed up just talking about the day. I'm not gonna lie, I literally couldn't believe this was all happening...I felt like a stranger in some couple's house, they spoke in English to each other and I couldn't understand, but they would look at me and smile and cry and I would just look stupid sitting in the most beautiful living room I had ever seen. I didn't know what to do. I actually can't describe exactly what I felt. It was more than I could handle that night. But I didn't want my mom to leave. So she stayed with me that night and we both fell asleep on my bed. Over the years I have reflected on those first days I spent with my parents trying to adjust to a new family. It all became so natural very quickly. My parents are my best friends. My mom knows me better than I know myself, my dad and I are incredibly similar, we have traditions and I can't imagine life without them or my sisters, without the gospel, or heck, without English! It truly is a miracle! I still talked to my grandparents often, we visited El Salvador, and after my grandfather passed away we were able to get my grandma a tourist visa so she could come visit us in the U.S.. They are still my heroes. They mean the world to me.

So why did I feel like telling this incredibly long story? I've been thinking a lot about my mom and grandma today. I spoke to both of them. Today is Mother's Day in El Salvador and throughout all Latin America. Today also marks 14 years since I came to the States. May 10th, 1998 --- the most incredible Mother's Day my mother and I can remember :) Both she and my grandma sacrificed so much for me and I often feel I haven't done enough to thank them for getting me where I am today. These women are everything good and lovely rolled into tiny people. I love them. More than I can say. I treasure the time I get to spend with them and know that the next time we are all together, it will feel just like it always does; like home. Feliz Dia de las Madres, Teresa Riggin and Marta Contreras. You're everything I hope to be some day :)


  1. mayra, I love you. if you wrote a book about your life, i would read every word. :) food for thought. haha.