I hitchhiked across the border when I was 4 years old. That was what I told anyone who asked where I was from. It was close enough to the truth.
In 1975, my parents dropped off my five older siblings and me at my grandmother’s house in Mexico and then vanished. They were going to the other side and once they saved enough money and acquired the necessary “borrowed” birth certificates they would send for us. Two years later, they did just that, but the consequences of that early separation will forever stand like a wall between parent and child.
Amid recent raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and with the new administration’s vow that separating children from their parents is not off the table, I keep thinking back to this story — to my story.
“When the men in uniforms ask what your name is, you have to say Maricela Salazar, or you will never see your parents again. Do you understand?” My uncle would ask it again and again on the bus ride north, quizzing me — the youngest — to make sure I would not give the Border Patrol the wrong name and blow our cover. I have no memory of the actual crossing.
Sometimes my mother broke down in tears asking why I couldn’t just trust her, why was I so distant?
My father, whom I barely recognized, was waiting for us. He had driven from Illinois to the Arizona border in Yuma. The back of his truck was loaded with pillows and blankets along with a cooler filled with things I had never seen before: Wonder Bread, Oscar Mayer bologna, and bright yellow Kraft American cheese Singles.
A 28-hour drive later, I was reunited with my mother, though she might as well have been a stranger, for all her presence registered on me.
After that “homecoming,” my sharpest memory is of John Travolta strutting down the streets of Brooklyn in bell bottoms. I must have seen the movie trailer and I remember being mesmerized by the music, the glitz, the cleft chin and the moves. I stood in front of the mirror mimicking him — hip sways to the left, point up, hips sways to right, point down. I imagined that if I could somehow go through the glass, I could cross over and land on that lighted disco floor — I wanted to go there. While the disco inferno raged on in the city I would eventually call home, I got my vaccinations and started kindergarten.
Learning English happened so efficiently and swiftly it was as though I fell asleep dreaming in one language and awoke speaking another. But soon enough, it was obvious that I was struggling with something else.
In elementary school, my teacher stood in front of my desk. “What is two plus two?” she asked. “Maria!” She would lean in a bit closer raising her voice a few decibels. “What is two plus two?” I stared into her blue eyes, and although I knew the answer was four, I could not utter a single word.
She grew convinced I had a hearing problem. She sent me to the nurse, who sent me home with a note. My parents took me to the doctor. He inserted something cold in my ears before concluding that the muscles around my jaw and ears were weak and the best way to strengthen them was by chewing gum.
On Monday morning I returned to school with the doctor’s note and a full week’s supply of Juicy Fruit, Hubba Bubba and Bazooka Joe. When other kids were made to spit out their gum, they pointed at me: “She’s chewing gum too.”
“She has a medical condition,” my teacher always replied.
Years later, when I was in my 20s and had made it to Brooklyn — where the discotheques had been replaced by hip-hop clubs and, ironically, bell bottoms were having a resurgence — I shared the chewing gum story with a friend over dinner.
“They prescribe chewing gum to kids with ADD,” she said, taking a sip of her wine. “It helps them to focus.”
Afterward, I did a bit of research and found that attention deficit disorder is often caused by post-traumatic stress disorder. But I had endured no deep trauma, or so I thought. My family’s life was complicated, but my parents were loving enough and had always provided for us. My mother worked at a towel factory for more than 10 years, and my father in construction; he even joined the union. But there was this: Sometimes my mother broke down in tears asking why I couldn’t just trust her, why was I so distant?
“I should have never left you in Mexico,” she said. “Had I known it would be two years I would have never left you.”
“It’s no big deal, Mom,” I said, explaining that I understood how it was for immigrants and refugees — sometimes kids were separated from their parents. She cried harder, and although I wanted to comfort her, I stared at her tear-streaked face and felt numb.
During my last semester at the University of Illinois in Urbana, I returned to Mexico with a freshly printed green card. Ten years earlier, President Reagan had signed a bill that provided amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants, myself and my family among them.
To qualify, you had to have been living continuously in the United States since before 1982 and have no criminal record. First, you applied to become a temporary resident. After a trial period, you were eligible to become a permanent resident and acquire a green card. Several years later, assuming you had a clean record, you could apply to become a U.S. citizen.
During my trip to Mexico, I visited my grandmother. She was living in the same house where my parents had dropped us off years before. We were having tea one night and she glanced at me and said, “You don’t remember, but after your parents left not a day went by that you didn’t ask about them.
“They were gone for three months and still, first thing in the morning, you were asking me to take you back home. I finally took you back there so you could see for yourself. You stepped inside that empty house, looked everywhere, and once you realized your parents were no longer there, never again did you ask about them — never. After that day you stopped talking. Two weeks passed and you hadn’t uttered a single word.”
As she spoke, I was aware of something deep within me breaking open, of things adding up.
That was the start of a long journey for my parents and me. It took years for us to reconcile all that had been lost during that two-year separation. Now I fear for the millions of kids who could potentially become separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s aggressive approach to deportations. How long might it be before they are reunited? How much longer before they overcome that wall, if at all? Once that bond is broken, it will have repercussions for years.
What is two plus two? A two-year separation is not such a long time, but it is long enough.
Maria Venegas is the author of “Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter.”
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