When I crossed the desert at the U.S. border, I never thought that fourteen years later I’d be celebrating
|Art by: Nikki McClure|
Growing up, we never got to see my father much. To take care of us he had to work in a different state. Each month he would come home to leave money for us and make his presence known as someone who still ran the house, even if from far away. He would squeeze his parenting into those short visits, letting us know right and wrong and especially what we needed to be doing better.
So at age fifteen I set out with my sister and a sister-in-law to the North, thinking about getting ahead myself and giving back to my family to help make ends meet. My sisters settled in Los Angeles and I came to Chicago where I did whatever I could to get by. Now that I’m a father and an older man, the mentality hasn’t changed. For day laborers, we do whatever we have to do to put food on the table each day. Only now, I do it both to help my family back home and for my family here.
When days like Father’s Day or Mother’s Day come, I think about how long it’s been since I’ve seen my own parents and when, if ever, my children will get to visit their grandmother. What would she think about these two who speak Spanish at home and English at school, who mix the languages together and switch meanings of words based on which language they’re thinking in, and who like hot dogs and hamburgers as much as they do tacos?
My father loved my daughters even though they never got to meet before he passed away. They talked on the phone regularly and we tried our best to explain to our daughters that we couldn’t go visit because immigration laws would mean we couldn’t come back. They ask us questions about where we’re from and why we can’t travel, and as much as we can explain to a six- and ten-year-old, we also know they’ll understand more in the future.
And while they’re growing up in the U.S., my oldest daughter still loves traditional dance from our hometown and admires art from Mexico. Being from Chicago, they celebrate two independence days—July 4th in the summer and September 16th in the fall.
Looking at my daughters play or even when they fight, I know that like any father, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them. Day laborers might be one of the best examples of a father’s love. In my time in Chicago, I’ve been a dishwasher, a cook, a factory worker packing clothes, and a printer. When stable jobs weren’t available, I’d go to the street corner and stand among men who wake early and stand for hours, ready to lend the sweat of our brow to anyone who needs an extra hand. It doesn’t matter the heat of the summer or the cold of the winter, the snow or the rain, day laborers are there every day to bring home the daily bread. And though it never happened to me, I saw many go to work only to be told that they wouldn’t be paid. I can’t imagine what I would do in that situation. It’s hard to think that after a full day’s work tolerating each back-breaking hour because you knew your children would go to bed with full bellies that you might be told to leave with nothing in your pockets, and then to have to return to the same risk again the next day.
As day laborer fathers, we do it all for our children’s futures. I want to see them grow up, go to school and even college, and find a profession. Like most other day laborers, I dream about being able to have my own little business so that I can help them along the way. If there were immigration reform, we could celebrate not just by going to the park, but by actually visiting home, places and family they’ve never seen. And when I look around at the day laborer corner, I know that desire is even stronger for the fathers whose children aren’t with them, but who they had to leave in their own countries in order to provide for them.
This year, as a group, we’ll have a party not just for my family, but for all the day laborer dads. We want everyone to celebrate and have some feel of family, especially for those who have a border dividing them from their loved ones. And with our own children there, we’ll have both carne asada and hot dogs. There will be both tortillas and bread. It’s a life I may never have imagined, but it’s here. And in this life we’ll carry smiles as well as the sadness of separation. We’ll be with family here and there, kept together by a love so powerful it spans continents.
Jose is a day laborer and member of the Latino Union of Chicago.
This blog post is part of the Strong Families' first Papa's Day celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blog. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.