Loco Parentis: Crossing Borders

I brought my daughter up to believe that everybody’s equal. What was I thinking?

Instead she brings me Mario. The last time he carried my groceries in for me, he lingered in the kitchen. He wanted to practice his English, have a conversation with me. He lives with his cousin Julio and Julio’s wife and four young children, all of whom speak English perfectly. No one in that house has time to practice the “th” sound with him.

I’ve paid more attention than I ever did before to the discussions about immigration in this election cycle. Julio and Mario work more than anyone I know. Six days a week, they wake at four in the morning for the early shift at a factory. There are always arcs of blue beneath Mario’s fingernails, from the paint he applies on the assembly line. In the afternoons, he falls asleep in a lawn chair in the backyard. He’s tired all the time. And yet he goes to English class at night.

The worksheets he gets there are like grade-school handouts, filled with sketches of different kinds of food, animals, items of clothing, and the English words for each: shirt, pants, socks, boxers, briefs. I blush as we go over these last two, but Mario doesn’t seem self-conscious at all.

Why should he be? Every day, he wakes up in a country where everything is hard. Living with his cousin is hard. Shopping is hard. Work is hard. English class is hard. What singular will it takes to persevere — and what youthful bravura it took, last summer, only weeks into his American adventure, to smile across the backyard fence at his pretty blond neighbor and say “¡Hola!” Maybe she’d know Spanish. Maybe she wouldn’t. What did he have to lose?

At Christmas, he gave her a necklace, an anchor on a slim gold chain. I thought it was the perfect symbol of what she means to him here in his new home. And yet I couldn’t quite give him credit for that. He probably just stumbled on the choice by chance. After all, he’s never read Yeats or Shakespeare. What can he know about poetic imagery?

told me she’s gay,” a friend says, matter-of-factly. “Who knows if she really is? She’s only 15. But she has a girlfriend. You know what I say? Better a girlfriend who’s good and kind to her than some boy who’s not.”

He’s younger than I am, this friend. He has earrings in both ears. I don’t know about tattoos. I do know his life has been far less settled than mine. But that’s taught him to roll with the punches — that there are a lot worse things than your daughter falling in love with a girl.

In contrast, the steadiness my parents worked so hard to maintain in the turbulent 1960s only wound up making me fearful of change, timid in unfamiliar circumstances, anxious to perpetuate the same myths for my kids: that they will forever be protected, that sadness and disappointment won’t touch us, that our family exists in a magical crystal sphere where there is always enough money and clothing and food. When you whitewash, though, darkness only stands out more starkly. I remember, when I was a teenager, my father gently breaking the news to his mother that one of his sisters had died. Gran broke out in wild, hysterical keening. The sound was unlike anything I had ever heard before from that straitlaced Republican committeewoman — terrifying, yet compelling in its authenticity.