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.