Last week, when my mother was over at my house, my four-year-old daughter came to sit on my lap. As I held my little girl, I couldn’t stop myself from saying to my mother, “This is how old I was when you left me.”
It has been thirty-two years, but the pain has never gone away. And although I have tried for many years to forget and forgive, the wound has not healed. I still see myself tugging at my mother’s dress and asking, “How long will you be gone?”
My relationship with my mother was forever altered when I was four years old, when she left my siblings and me behind in Mexico to follow my father north. Two years earlier, my father had left for the U.S. to find work and later had sent for my mother. Back then, I was too young to know about the men who leave for the U.S. and never return. Some of them find new wives, start new families. It was a worry that kept my mother up at night, although I didn’t know that back then. I didn’t understand that my mother was two people in one—a mother that wanted to do right by her children and a woman who had her own fears and dreams. All I felt then was that my mother hadn’t loved me enough to stay with me.
While my mother was gone, my siblings and I stayed at my father’s mother’s house where we suffered all kinds of ill-treatment. During that time, my whole existence was dominated by the ache of her absence.
The woman who returned two years later was not the same woman who had left. She returned with no money and no husband. While in the U.S. my father had ended their relationship for another woman. When she returned, my mother was not in the frame of mind to be a mother to the children who had longed for her. She was a woman absorbed in her own sorrow and her desire to find love elsewhere.
I finally made my journey to the U.S. at the age of nine. My siblings and I came to live with our father and his new wife in Highland Park, a community in northeast Los Angeles. My mother arrived soon after and lived in Downtown L.A. with her new husband. Although a twenty-minute car ride now separated us, I rarely saw her. She did not seek us out. It was my siblings and me who every month made the decision to go visit her—and try to hold on to her.
The physical and the emotional distance continued to separate us. Over the years our experiences took us in different directions. As I grew up and assimilated into the American way of life, went to college, became a teacher, I tried to find common ground with my mother, but I only saw our worlds drifting apart even more.
There have been many things in my life that I haven’t been able to share with my mother, such as my writing. In 2006, I became a published author. My first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains, was released to critical acclaim and went on to receive an American Book Award. It was a bittersweet experience for me to have my book published. Although thousands of people were reading it, my own mother could not read my book because it was in English, a language that even to this day she still can’t speak. The copy I gave her lay unread and was eventually stored away. A year later, when the Spanish translation was released, I proudly handed a copy of A través de cien montañas to my mother. But she still did not read it.
My mother was only allowed a 6th grade education before she was put to work to help her family. I told myself that books were not part of who she was and it had nothing to do with me. But I cannot deny that my mother not reading my book hurt me.
Another attempt to bring my mother into my writing world did not go so well. In 2010 I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the annual conference for California Association of Bilingual Education. I spoke in a banquet hall full of CABE members, most of whom were teachers, administrators, and parents. While I was signing copies of my book in the exhibit hall, my mother sat on the chair next to me. The teachers, whose books I signed, would ask with excitement, “Oh, is this your mother?”
At that moment, I began to feel good sharing that special experience with my mother. I felt proud for her to meet all those teachers eager to have me sign books for them. I believed that my accomplishments were also hers, and I wanted my mother to know that.
Later in the afternoon, when my daughter was getting antsy, I suggested that my mother take her for a walk around the exhibit hall. Half an hour later I saw her and my daughter making their way back to my booth. My mother was carrying a bulging bag, and I thought that one of the exhibitors had perhaps given her some samples of their products.
“What do you have there?” I asked. She opened her bag for me to look inside. The bag was filled with empty plastic bottles and soda cans. During those thirty minutes, my mother had gone around the exhibit hall rummaging through the trash bins for cans to sell at the recycling center.
Even though my mother was a legal resident thanks to IRCA, the amnesty program of 1986, she still made her living the same way she had done in Mexico—selling Avon and recycling soda cans.
That day at CABE, I felt those conflicted emotions I have for my mother come at me full force.
But strangely enough, it has also been my writing career that has helped me to see my mother in a different way and to examine the choices she has made. Now that I am an adult, I know first hand what it is to be torn between the desires of my mother-self and my woman-self. My career as a professional writer forces me to leave my family often. I receive invitations to speak at events around the country, and in order for me to promote my books and advance my writing career, I have to travel wherever it is necessary.
Every time I stand at the door with a suitcase in my hand, and my four-year-old daughter clutches me and says, “How long will you be gone?”—I cannot help but remember that fateful day when my mother left me to pursue her own dreams.
And it is at that very moment—when I am walking away from my daughter— that I can most clearly understand my mother. And forgive her.