I know I usually begin this letter by talking up a book I’ve been loving, but I haven’t read anything this week. It’s like my brain is too foggy to process the words, so I gave myself a break. So, instead of a self-portrait that involves a book instead of a face (thanks Noe for the idea), how about just an adorable picture of Ethan at the top of Mt. Holyoke, which we climbed yesterday?
I do have a lot of books on my desk that I’m excited to read–Girl in Translation, My Brilliant Friend (trying again for the fourth time), Braiding Sweetgrass, We Run the Tides, Death Comes to the Archbishop, Klara and the Sun, Garlic and Sapphires, Night Rooms, Shadow of the Wind…don’t even know where to start!
For those of you new to the tiny letter project, I’m writing Ethan a letter every day this year, and I send them out every once in a while to hold myself accountable. The following letter I wrote for my VONA workshop back in February. To be honest, it’s only just starting to scratch the surface of a topic that’s difficult to write about. Regardless, the offering is below…enjoy!
Feb 27, 2021
The day you were born, my water broke, and your father was fast asleep. When we finally arrived at the hospital, my labor pains intensified—and I suspect it had to do with the playlist I selected for your birth, which contained songs from each phase of my life. As my vision blurred, the music inhabited the electrifying lights and faded R&B of a highway in Houston, the sound of a solitary violin ringing a note before the tempest. Time became nebulous, neutrino, everything, nothing; I felt a feverish instinct to faint, scream, laugh, cry. Nine hours and three minutes later, you arrived.
When I saw your face for the first time it wasn’t love that I felt. It was an impulse infinitely stronger than something so commonplace, and through that feeling, I became a different person. Maybe one day I’ll tell you the whole story. But for now, during your third year of life, the chaos of the first few years has quieted, and the lack of access to our friends and family is teaching me something else. It’s teaching me to exist, and mother you, in between the soft folds of silence we experience living in Western Massachusetts, in a place so alien to the land I call home.
Last June, we discovered our own private beach, where we chunked rocks into the water for hours, not a soul in sight. In July, we ate apricots, juice dripping down our chins, after an afternoon of making rainbows with the water hose. We melted into a puddle on the couch—hot skin, singed hair, cold juice—your golden highlights shining, my blue-black hair coal-hot. We’d fall asleep and not know what time it was, but then remember that it didn’t matter. In August, we spent a lazy Saturday hunting for toads in the cold rain. We took muddy walks to the lagoon and found a glass bottle made in 1805.
I have felt some measure of guilt in our secret paradise. I have shielded you from the ways in which the world will break you, from children who will hurt you, from a virus which could destroy you. The truth of the matter is, you are the son of a white father and a brown mother, and one day you will walk this earth without us. We are the only people you have known your whole life, and you and me—we’ve even known each other even longer.
Your father and I have much in common. We both have a soft spot for Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which we consider his finest work. We sometimes wake up in the morning wearing the same clothes. We have a similar sense of humor, and when we laugh, it’s deep belly, old soul laughter. We have a fondness for the month of October. We both think JNCO jeans look stupid. We remember middle school smelling of blue raspberry and warm vanilla sugar.
Yet, your father is white and I am not. I was born in Dallas and lived in a suburb nearby till I went off to college. My parents are Mexican immigrants who met at the Catholic Church in downtown Dallas, your parents met through a swipe right on our smartphones.
Growing up, my mother often reminded me of the loneliness of inhabiting a foreign language made up of sharp edges, not the smooth roundness of our native tongue. She reminded me of her pain, in working as a housekeeper while raising five children while my dad worked nights. Mostly though, she reminded me of her suffering: how she left her family behind, her boyfriend behind, her sense of self-worth behind. She made it clear to me that I owed it to her to make something of myself.
I carry this tremendous burden. The thing is, my mother told me what she wanted yet she never told me how to do This is how far I’ve gotten: I graduated from college with two degrees, then went on to graduate school. I’ve held jobs in Washington D.C., worked with astronauts, and at one point, managed multimillion-dollar grain shipments by train from the Midwest clear to California. In these spaces, I have yet to understand what made my suffering worth it.
My mother straddled two countries in the course of her life; I straddled two daunting sets of expectations to make the American Dream of my parents worth it, even if they may not live to see it. What you’ll straddle feels much more poignant: the push and pull of a culture that may consume you, for another one that may refuse to see you. I barely speak Spanish and you don’t at all. Sometimes I wonder what you’ll see when you see me: will you be embarrassed that your mother looks so different than you? Will you feel shame that your Texas grandparents lived a humble and hardworking life? I know I felt this shame and this embarrassment throughout the course of my young life, and it’s something I’ve always regretted. I have yet to find the words to tell my parents I’m sorry for not appreciating everything they did for me through their blind belief in my destiny as a woman of importance.
Right now, you know your father’s grandparents much more, and they are kind and generous. Despite this, I don’t think they fully understand why your culture matters and why it will be a struggle for you. Assimilation isn’t an option when you wear your history on your skin. Even if it is an option, it’s not one that I believe in. I am proud of the land and history that took us on a journey from a rancho in Mexico to the suburbs of Dallas to the snowy mountains of the East Coast. It’s not a migration I expected—sometimes I wake up and forget that outside the window, I won’t see the relentless sun and hear the cheery jingle of the paletero who used to walk down the streets of my childhood neighborhood. I won’t see the climbing roses that my mother tends as carefully as she did all of her children. I won’t feel the pull of my heart that told me from a young age that the view outside was temporary, that nothing was mine to claim, because in order to escape a known future I had to forge a new one.
I came here for you, but it comes at a price. You may escape some of the discrimination and profiling that you would encounter in Dallas, only to exchange it for people who have a sweeping ignorance—they say the right things and mean for you to have opportunities, but never at the expense of their own comfort and imagination for what is possible for someone like you. Remember—you come from a history where much was improbable, but we made it possible. Make the most of it.
My mother was born in a land where sun met serpent. I carry this magic in my blood, in the set of my jaw, in the blue-black of my hair. I carry my grandmother’s 103 years on this earth inside of me. I carry the weight of the steel presses my father carried on his back to put food on the table. And now, Ethan, so do you.
Through the course of your life, I want you to not be blind to the suffering of others. True generosity does not mean giving when it’s convenient, it means most when it’s not. I want you to be as honest as my father, who earned every penny that passed through his ink-stained hands. Your honesty will shape your future as a brown man in America, as you will be defined by this more than your other half.
I wish my mother had told me that sometimes, to live a different life you have to go away. It will be hard and sad. You will have to make your words and actions matter to those who only see your skin tone. Say less, mean more, that way people listen.
Hold your anger. Hold your anger. Hold your anger.
In doing so, you would have done hard work in learning self-control and respect and break a legacy of men who are incapable of fusing their rage.
What will keep you alive and hopeful in this world is the existence of art. Keep your heart and head full of words and images that fill you. The most powerful tool you have available is your imagination. Remember that things don’t matter. Your dignity is precious.
Yesterday, you and I went sledding during the powder hush of dawn. We climbed the big hill, dragging up toy trucks, hot chocolate, and ourselves. As I sat on the back of the sled, you looked at me with uncertainty before holding out your tiny gloved hand. I settled you in my lap. We smiled into the blue sky made interesting with one white swoop in the air, and then we were off. The rush, the wind, the joy, the drop—this is what life is made of, I told myself, as I blinked into the sun and then into your warm brown eyes.