As I was brushing my ten-year-old daughter’s hair, she turned to me and said, “Mami, when are we going to Hawaii?”
“Why do you want to go to Hawaii?” I asked.
“Because all my friends have been there, and I haven’t,” she replied.
I remembered when I was her age asking my father a similar question: “When are we going to Disneyland, My father had laughed and walked away. He was a maintenance worker at a convalescent hospital in Los Angeles, supporting three kids on minimum wage.
Thankfully, at this point in my life, neither Disneyland nor Hawaii is out of my reach.
What is beyond my reach, though—at times—is coming to terms with my children’s childhoods being vastly different from mine and accepting that the distance between me and my children was of my own making.
I wanted to know what it was like to have two successful parents, to go on trips, to have beautiful clothes to wear. To never want for anything.
When I was in junior high school, the librarian at my public library handed me books from the young adult section to take home. I walked out of the library with a stack of titles such as Sweet Valley High, The girls on the cover, with their blond hair and blue-green eyes, stared at me and smiled, as if they wanted me to be their friend.
Transfixed, reading under the covers with a flashlight, I entered the lives of identical twins named Jessica and Elizabeth. Two beautiful, slender girls with a California tan and dimples on their left cheeks. Their father was a lawyer; their mother, an interior designer. The girls were high school cheerleaders with lots of friends and cute boyfriends. I was an undocumented Mexican immigrant. Four years earlier, my siblings and I had run across the border to begin a new life in Los Angeles. We lived with my father and my stepmother in a one-bedroom apartment. We slept in the living room, my sister and me on the sofa-bed, my brother on the floor.
When I discovered Sweet Valley High, I had just completed the ESL program at my junior high and was now in regular English classes. Though my reading and writing skills were good enough to be in a classroom with native English speakers, my pronunciation lagged far behind. At school, my peers laughed when I spoke in class, and so I preferred reading. When I read, no one but me could hear my “wetback” accent. And at least the Wakefield twins never laughed at me. I knew in real life I could never be their friend—there was no one like me in their circles—but my library card gave me the privilege of at least peeking into the lives of these allAmerican girls.
But I wanted them to see me, too. I wanted to feel that I could belong in their world, instead of being on the outside looking in. I wanted to know what it was like to have two successful parents, to go on trips, to have beautiful clothes to wear. To never want for anything. These books gave me access to something I didn’t have access to in real life: white, middle-class America. But as much as there was pleasure in reading about an American life that could never be mine, there was also pain. Lots of it. This is what I do not have. This is who I am not. This is who I can never be. This is what I will never do.
I worked hard to be able to have that life one day—but most important, to give those experiences to my future children. Even before I had my son and daughter, I was striving to make sure I could give them the childhood. My first act of love as a mother was to remove from my children’s lives the labels I grew up with—low-income, immigrant, English language learner, first-generation college student. My son and daughter will never face the daily struggles I encountered as I fought for my place in this society, for my right to remain and become a part of the fabric of this country. But neither my college degree, nor my writing career, nor my perfect English prepared me for the experience of raising two American-born, upper middle-class children.
I was born in the second poorest state in México on a dirt floor, in a shack of sticks and cardboard. My children were born in a private hospital in Los Angeles, California. I spent the early part of my childhood separated from my parents when they immigrated to the US without me. My children live in a stable home with two loving parents who have uni versity degrees and professional careers. The first time I ever traveled out of my hometown, it was to Tijuana—to risk my life running across the US-México border. My children have traveled to places all over the US and abroad. Unlike me, they are growing up with “when you go to college,” not “if you go to college.” They have college trust funds that my husband and I contribute to each month. When my daughter used to play with her Barbies, her dolls were in college or in a book club.
I don’t know how to reconcile my poverty-stricken childhood and my children’s childhood of abundance. My success in this country has allowed me to give them the life I’d once dreamed of, but in my quest to spare them the trauma of growing up poor and on the margins of American society, I overcompensate and overindulge.
The feelings I had when reading Sweet Valley High are the same ones I have now when I look at my kids—the feeling of being on the outside looking in.
One day, I came home to find my husband and kids sitting on the living room floor surrounded by piles of clothes. “What’s going on?” I asked as I walked in.
“We’re decluttering,” my husband answered. He’d recently read Mary Kondo’s book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, He pointed to two piles and said those were the clothes the kids were keeping. “And that one is for donations,” he said, pointing to the biggest pile. I gasped when I saw the shirts that I’d bought my teenage son on my recent trips, dresses that I’d carefully picked out for my preteen daughter. They were almost new and still fit perfectly. When I decluttered, I removed from their closets only clothes that they had outgrown or were too stained.
“There’s nothing wrong with these,” I said to my daughter, picking up the dresses and rescuing them from the pile. “And they still fit you. Why would you get rid of them?”
“I know, Mami, but they don’t give me joy,” she answered.
I flashed back to my Mexican childhood and pictured myself as a little girl walking on the dirt roads of my neighborhood, barefoot and semi-naked or dressed in rags. The few dresses I owned were stained, worn, and peppered with holes. In a moment of desperation, while having to take care of us, my grandmother had even made my sister and me dresses out of a tablecloth, saying that her table had no use for such things.
I was angry, yet, wasn’t I the one who’d bought all those dresses? Too many trips to the store to count. I thought of the pleasure I’d felt as I looked through the clothing racks, imagining myself as a little girl wearing those dresses. How could I be angry at my children for discarding things they didn’t ask for in the first place? My anger was replaced with guilt—and then, shame. My children are living the middle-class, privileged American life I’d dreamed of giving them, aren’t they?
We didn’t go to Hawaii as my daughter wanted to. Instead, we went to Europe. I was invited to give a reading of my books in Germany at the University of Münster, and I took my family along. My husband, my children, and I stopped in Paris for a few days before making our way to Germany. After Münster we went to London, Edinburgh, and Reykjavik. My children had traveled to many states in the US, to Mexico to visit my relatives, but this was their first trip to Europe.
In Paris we took a river cruise on the Seine and visited the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, we watched the musical Wicked in London’s West End, we had breakfast at the Elephant House in Edinburgh where JK Rowling worked on some of her Harry Potter books. These moments were more surreal to me than they were to my children. I’ve brought my kids to Europe, I kept thinking. Then, I’d think back to my childhood, how when I was a young girl my father couldn’t even afford to take us to the movie theater down the street.
On the second day after we’d arrived in Europe, my teenage son began to say, “I want to go home.” This became his mantra for the two weeks we were traveling. My daughter didn’t complain during the trip, but afterwards, when I was reminiscing about the trip with her and asked whether she would want to go back to Europe someday, she said, “Yes, but not to Paris. I prefer the French countryside.”
Sometimes, the things that come out of my children’s mouths make me think that I should reread Sweet Valley High so that I can understand them better.
There are moments when I feel that my children have gone to a place to which I cannot follow. It is only now that I understand how my father felt watching his children do the same.
When he snuck us across the border to live in Los Angeles with him, he risked our lives because he wanted to give us a shot at a better life by taking us to a country where that was possible. Little by little, my siblings and I became seduced by American life. Once we learned English, that was the language we spoke with one another. Instead of telenovelas, we watched Small Wonder, Beverly Hills Teensand later, Beverly Hills, 90210, I joined my school’s marching band and played the alto sax, while my sister did modern dance and went by “Maggie” instead of “Magloria.”
“My children don’t speak to me. They’ve learned another language and forgotten Spanish!” While my father sang along to songs by Los Tigres del Norte and wallowed in his nostalgia for México, my sister and I bleached our black arm hair so our brown skin could look a shade lighter. “They think like Americans. Deny they are Mexicans even though they have my skin color.”
I began to realize that I should stop begrudging my children the life I’ve given them.
The song “La Jaula de Oro” (The Golden Cage) captured my father’s reality as an immigrant parent—the price that he paid for his dream to give his children a better life. Did he ever regret bringing us to this country? There were times when he did. But if he could choose between having us live in the stark poverty of our hometown or live in the US, though it meant watching us go to a place where he could not follow—succumbing to assimilation—I know he would always choose the latter.
Whenever I go into panic mode at seeing my children becoming Sweet Valley High characters, I whisk them away to Mexico. I take them to Iguala, my poverty-stricken city. We stay at my aunt’s house where there is no running water, and my kids must dump a bucket of water into the toilet to flush it or heat up a pot of water on the stove if they want a warm bath. On one of our trips to Guerrero, I carried my camera on a morning walk around my old neighborhood. As I walked past a shack made of sticks and cardboard like the one where I had come into the world, a barefoot little girl jumped up on the gate and said, “Hola!” I returned her greeting and took her picture.
When I returned from my walk, I showed my daughter the pictures I’d taken, including the one of the little girl. She looked at it intently and then said, “She looks like me.” I looked at the photograph and realized that my daughter was right—with her hair burning brown in the sunlight, the little girl looked very much like her.
“I could’ve been her,” my daughter said.
In that moment, my daughter’s words were a soothing salve on the shame of what my American Dream has cost me. I began to realize that I should stop begrudging my children the life I’ve given them. If the worst that has happened to them is to live a Sweet Valley High kind of life, I am willing to pay the price, like my father once did. Even if the story I’ve written for them feels foreign to me.
Adapted from Somewhere We Are Human edited by Reyna Grande and Sonia Guiñansaca and reprinted with permission from HarperVia, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.