In this series, we’re highlighting the stories of people who remain connected to their home countries—either those with immigrant parents or those who are immigrants themselves. With “We Are All Immigrants: Stories About the Places We’re From,” you’ll hear from those most acutely affected by changing policies and a shifting reality, those who exist as part of multiple cultures at once. Here, Boston poet Jonathan Mendoza discusses finding family in spite of sociopolitical obstacles.
My father was born in Chihuahua but left at 10 years old to find his father in Arizona.
I remember the first time I saw my abuela. A tear suspended on each eye; I had lived 19 years without knowing her. I stepped forward to embrace her, and she took my hand, kissed me on the cheek—“hola, chico”—and returned her attention to the TV. She didn’t know who I was.
I don’t know that I should have anticipated this moment any differently. My father was born in Chihuahua but left at 10 years old to find his father in Arizona. He eventually made his way to Boston for school, making me a product of suburban Massachusetts and making this my first time meeting my family in Chihuahua and Juárez. This was an opportunity to forge a connection with my heritage that I had never been able to experience.
For 10 days, we visited four generations worth of familial nostalgia: the makeshift archaeology museum my cousins called “el mamut” (Spanish for “mammoth”); the public market my dad used to shop at as a kid, my abuela’s first home where my father was raised; and the historic Museo de la Revolución Mexicana, once the home of Pancho Villa, where my great grandmother allegedly cooked for the revolution.
On our last night in town, our family surprised my dad and me with a small reunion party. Aunts, uncles, and cousins I had never heard of loaded the table with all the tortillas, stewed chicken, salsa, beer, and tres leches they could carry. We exchanged stories about our hobbies and aspirations and briefed each other on all the Spanish and English slang we were never taught in school, all while others gleefully embarrassed themselves on a towering karaoke machine my aunt had rented for the evening.
Watching an entire segment of my family that I had never known singing, dancing, and laughing through the night, I thought about the following day, and about what it would mean to leave. I remember the morning, crying in the airport, not knowing when I would see my cousins, my tía, or my abuela next.I remember the bus ride back to El Paso and being fixated on a billboard made from crushed guns that read “No More Weapons,” begging people to stop bringing American arms into Mexico. I thought about how many people had to make this journey into the U.S. for their safety, about how many people would love the luxury of a bus ride, or just the luxury of leaving at all.
I remember the morning, crying in the airport, not knowing when I would see my cousins, my tía, or my abuela next.
I wonder about how many of us struggle to leave a place only to struggle to return.
I write this at a time when DACA recipients now face even tighter restrictions on travel; when for millions of undocumented immigrants, meeting family outside of the U.S. may mean never being able to re-enter again; and when millions of others still debate whether to remain exposed to violence in Central America and Mexico or to embark on a death-defying journey into the U.S., only to work and live in the shadows. I wonder about how many of us struggle to leave a place only to struggle to return. I know “home” is not a place we can all see. It is not always a place we can touch. It is not always an adobe wall, or green chile stains on the counter, or Ranchera music flooding the neighborhood until midnight. I know many of us will never get to meet our cousins, or our grandmothers, or share enough meals for them to remember our names. I know what it is to call a place home and mean it, and that home is sometimes a place we can only carry in our hearts.