For the past few weeks I have been thinking about your journey through life, Mom. I know that there are lots of things I don’t know about you, lots of things that happened in your life before I existed (time existed then?). But what I do know about you plays in my head like one of your favorite movies, Forrest Gump. I imagine you as a child, living in incredible poverty and not knowing when your next meal would be. I imagine you as a preteen in all of your defiance, living with someone who was more of a drill sergeant than a nurturing grandmother. And then I imagine you making a journey that took you far from home, far from any semblance of the life you knew. That’s where our story as a family begins in this country, and where you start to become not only my mother, but my American Hero.
I have always asked you a lot of questions about your arrival in this country. It’s probably because I have a hard time picturing you ever being out of control and out of your element. You moved from the ranch to a sleepy seaside town. From what you’ve told me, you were shocked by all of the white women running around in sports bras and teenagers driving—and subsequently wrecking—brand new cars. Ronald Reagan just became President, Hall & Oates and Blondie were dominating the charts, and you were getting ready to start high school in the U.S. without speaking a lick of English.
You accomplished more in half a lifetime than most people could in centuries.
People underestimated and dismissed you, but you worked and you worked and when you got tired you worked some more. You mastered the language, passed the California High School Exit Exam (which is no easy feat), and you became the first person in our family to graduate from high school in this country. I can’t imagine the level of pride Grandpa had when you wore that cap and gown and got that piece of paper.
As a young woman, you helped agricultural workers navigate the maze that is the naturalization process, all the while your own status as a resident was hanging in the balance. You sat in a room and translated for men with hands that were rough from working in the fields, across the table from the same force of people who could have detained you. (How brave are you, lady? Seriously.) You went to trade school, got some business savvy, and started establishing your independence. You got a car, you got your own studio, you got a perm, and you started living your best early ’90s life. I imagine you spending these years dressed in some sort of spandex awesomeness in the club, dancing to Bell Biv Devoe and Janet Jackson.
And then yours truly came along. You became a single mom, and your biggest point of pride in my early days was being able to take care of both of us without financial backing from anyone else. We had each other, we had our one-bedroom apartment, and we had our health. You raised me in a community of other strong women, and I never knew what it felt like to be hungry or unloved.
I remember being afraid of you because you seemed so serious. Now I understand that you were just tired—tired from working so much, tired from worrying about money, tired from being two parents in one to a rambunctious kid who talked a lot and watched the news too much.
That unfaltering hustle you have, that you’ve always had, pushed us into a new tax bracket. You found time when you weren’t working to study for the citizenship test, and in 2000 you became an American citizen. We moved out of the apartment and you bought your first home, right down the street from the brand new high school that was being constructed in San Marcos. For the first few months the house was full of dust from contractors sculpting the fixer-upper into your vision. I can still see you standing in the middle of our new living room, surrounded by furniture covered in sheets, describing paint colors and granite countertops. You looked so proud.
For the first time in my life, I had my own room. I still slept with you for the first three months because I didn’t know any other way. But eventually, I got used to having a space of my own to clutter (I’m really sorry about that).
You held my hand when I came out at age 16. You tried to protect me from the homophobia and rejection that came with that, whether it was from California residents under Proposition 8 or our own family members. You made sure I graduated from high school, even after my grades started slipping. You helped me finance my college education, and you were there when I was the last student to cross that stage. My cap had your high school portrait pasted on it, and the message “this is for you, Mom.” And it was. That degree is yours just as much as it is mine.
I left the nest and moved across the country. You have endured the phone calls when I droned on and on about politics, and always responded matter-of-factly: “I am not political.” That was before.
It was before the national conversation turned on our family. Before the vitriol was about people like Grandpa, Grandma, and your siblings. Before the twin monsters of ignorance and xenophobia gnashed their teeth at you, my idol.
The surge of hatred towards immigrants has angered me. And it has angered you too.
For a year now, you have been calling to tell me about polling you heard about, and about PBS specials on the candidates you watched. You’ve been sharing stories I’ve never heard before about being undocumented, about being a woman of color in this country, about “becoming” an American. We FaceTimed when you made your first-ever campaign contribution, 16 years after you became a citizen (I’m sorry you keep getting spammed).
In 50 years you made it out of abject poverty, to the U.S., to independence, then to comfort. You accomplished more in half a lifetime than most people could in centuries. Now people are trying to argue that you aren’t a real American, but what they don’t realize is that you are the building block of this country. You embody what this country has sought since its establishment: exceptionalism.
I have so much to thank you for, Mom. Thank you for showing me what real strength is. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for being a hesitant audience to hours of Lady Gaga and RuPaul’s Drag Race, for your grace and dignity, and for being a light in the lives of all of the people who have known you. And thank you for being political. You are my hero.
Audrey Juárez is the Legal Project Coordinator at the Center for American Progress. Originally published in the Human Development Project.