My father was working as a forklift operator at a Los Angeles factory five decades ago when a trucker from out of state began to insult him. My dad was a Mexican immigrant, though that’s not what the trucker called him, over and over again.
It was a thing that would inspire many law-abiding, red-blooded Americans to at least ponder the possibility of punching someone’s lights out.
And my old man would have decked “Big Bad John” on principle, but he had an Achilles’ heel: He had young children to feed and he was in the country illegally. He had to grit his teeth and take it. Then his boss showed up and ripped into the trucker, telling him to take his cargo and never come back.
This boss, my father said, was white. And no matter how many times, glassy-eyed with memories, he told it, this man was the hero of the tale.
My father was like so many immigrants of his generation from Mexico: Coming north, without proper papers, looking for work and a better life for their families. Over the years, my father and people like him were demonized by those who felt they were ruining California and praised by others who believed their work ethic and labor were a boon to the state.
During the tough times, it was easy to feel like an outsider, alienated for not being American. That wasn’t quite my dad.
He had a sixth-grade education, thanks to a Mexico whose stamina for relentlessly poor governance and knack for driving out its citizens was impressive. So he carved out his own learning, going to night school in L.A. to get his high school degree soon after his arrival.
My father read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Steinbeck and Melville from our childhood porch in Boyle Heights. In spiral notebooks he composed verses to Mexican songs about his hometown in Jalisco state, like the one he first penned as a teenager, just a few years after his father died when he was 12 — and just a few years before he crossed into the U.S. in the trunk of a car.
By 1980, he had become a legal resident, and no longer had to worry about being caught in a work raid.
Naturally intelligent and curious about language, he jotted down obscure English words. He would be reading a novel, stop mid-sentence, and ask what a certain word meant. Though my father had a distinct Mexican accent, his English was excellent. But more than anything besides his name, that accent flagged him as Mexican to people like the trucker.
And therefore not American. Not then, not ever, no matter what, for some people.
He never complained about it. He worked and he learned, relentlessly. In one notebook, with yellow strips of paper as markers, he wrote categories of words. People. Places. Fruits and animals. Gods and rivers. Abas, the uncle of Mohammed. Agenor, prince of Troy, son of Antenor. Francis Bacon. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
We bought him subscriptions to “National Geographic,” reading being about the only way he traversed the wide world, other than a trip he took to a frigid Detroit for his machinist job in Orange County. That job, with its 12-hour shifts and six days of work, brought our family into the middle class.
In the 1990s, I took a 2,100-mile trip to Nashville to intern for the Tennessean newspaper. My father eagerly volunteered to take a few days off from work to help me drive there. He portrayed it as just being a helpful dad. But I knew he wanted to see America.
He showed a child-like awe as we drove east on Interstate 40, through Arizona and New Mexico, through Texas and Oklahoma, where my 1989 Ford Escort threatened to hydroplane as we drove through a powerful storm; in the blinding rain, a raging refinery fire.
As Memphis loomed, we came across the mighty Mississippi. I was a bottle of angst, unable to appreciate the great vistas that passed through my car window. The Ozarks and Waffle House were all the same to me. But my father’s eyes widened as he veered into English and exclaimed: “Jiminy Cricket! Look at that, mijo.”
Around that time, my youngest sister turned in an essay for her high school Spanish class. Inspired by our father’s stories, it was called “Mi Familia.”
“My dad has said that I’m his favorite,” Michelle wrote in one passage. “I find that doubtful, though I’d like to believe that it’s true. He says I’m the one most like him. Always a book in hand and an idea in my head.”
My father chauffeured his youngest from middle school in Boyle Heights to UCLA, sometimes after completing a long graveyard shift. He said seeing her walk onto the Westwood campus, her blond hair in a bun and lugging a large backpack, was like watching a baby turtle crawling on the sand into the vastness of the ocean.
She was 22 years old and just about to graduate when she died in 2005, killed by a reckless teenage driver.
Days later, my father sat on the porch and recounted a dream he had about Michelle. He’s walking with her on a teeming street in a massive city. She walks faster and faster and soon he can’t keep up. She disappears and he spends the day looking for her — finally returning to the loneliness of a hotel room as night descends.
On the mantle he finds a note, not unlike those he scribbled on his entire life: Me adelanté.
I went ahead.
About two years ago, I visited my parents in Boyle Heights and sat down with my father on the porch. He asked me to administer a practice U.S. citizenship exam for him. We had been nagging him on and off for years to become a citizen, telling him we would pay the costs and that he would ace the exam.
I read about 100 questions. He got every single answer right.
He never got to take the test. Soon the cancer he had lived with for more than a decade crept into his bones. For the first time, he did chemotherapy. It seemed to be working until it no longer did.
I never heard him complain about dying. Confined to a bed during a large family gathering, he apologized to me for not having bought us a larger home. He died last October, leaving in his wake children and grandchildren who had opportunities he never had.
I think about what I told him the day he breezed through that practice U.S. citizenship exam. It was my only half-serious attempt to scare him.
“Dad, you never know how the mood of the country could change,” I said. “How people will feel about immigrants. It might not be enough to be legal. The best thing is to be an American.”