I can’t remember the first time I noticed it, but I know I was young when I did. We were at a restaurant for Saturday breakfast, and the waitress did a double-take upon first seeing our family. I didn’t get it, at first, but knew her eyes were lingering over us longer than they should have.
And then I realized that people often did that, the strange and deliberate appraisal. I’d come to realize it was always the same kind of lingering, the same sort of look, that eyes would flit from my father to my mother and back again, with maybe a glance at the children in between. It never happened when we were with only one parent, not when my mom took me to the grocery store or my dad took me for ice cream. But when strangers saw my parents together, they seemed that they might have something to say about it.
I didn’t understand why my parents might be out of the ordinary. But, then again, my parents were the only parents I had, the only way I knew things to be. It was ordinary to me that my mother was light skinned, that my father had an accent, and that they moved fluidly between Spanish and English.
And then, one day when I was 4, I overheard a woman ask her friend if she thought my father had paid my mother to marry him so he could get a green card.
My parents met when my mother was on vacation in Puerto Vallarta. In Resort Town, in Mexico. My father worked at the hotel she was staying in. At first glance, he thought she was Mexican. She, a native of Los Angeles, thought he was American. Neither of them spoke the other’s language then, but he still managed to ask her to go dancing that night. They danced, and they kissed, and they kept in touch.
He moved to the U.S. a year later, on a visa strengthened by the fact that he had a fiancée who lived in California. She learned Spanish, tried to remember back to her foreign language classes in high school, and really made an effort to master the inflection and the tone and the verb tenses. My father filled notebooks with grammar exercises, took night classes in between his shifts as a janitor, and ripped out pages when he became annoyed with how irregular English is as a whole. (I later found those notebooks when I was a teenager. All of the writing was in the same squat handwriting I’d tried to forge so many times on school notes, with frustrated eraser marks and asides in Spanish, tips and tricks and mnemonics.) He tried. He learned. They both did.
I was born less than a year after they were married. My mom once admitted that the wedding was far from ideal, that they were late because the photographer was subpar, and the hall where they held the reception was dark and cramped. But still, my parents were happy. I always thought they were. They fought the way newlyweds and new parents do, but they had each other and they had me, and later, my brother.
My dad would speak to us in Spanish. He called me Chiquis, and recited the nursery rhymes he grew up with as a boy in Mexico City. I understood what he said, though I was obstinate and would respond to everything in English. My brother was better at parroting Spanish back to him; he always has been. And while my brother had my mother’s features but my father’s skin tone, I looked like equal parts of both parents. I was his eyes, her hair, his nose, her language. My skin settled somewhere in between. We made for a motley crew, but the four of us were generally happy.
It shook me to think that there could have possibly been any other motivator behind my parents’ marriage beyond love. I didn’t know what those women meant when they suggested my father had paid my mother at first, but I began to pick up on the idea that there was an entire world between the borders of the United States and Mexico. That people would smuggle their children north; that people would risk their own lives so they could work long hours at backbreaking jobs; that people would, in a small way, envy my father for marrying a woman who just so happened to be American.
Coming to terms with the fact that people think less of your family because it is not any one thing is hard to comprehend, because with that judgment comes the creeping suspicion that they might think less of you as a person and as a product of that love. That you might be somehow less of any one way because you tick off two ethnicities in a box, that you must identify less with each side to your heritage. That you cannot exist in a dual world, cannot have one foot in each realm, cannot identify with each culture, cannot be biracial. That you have to choose one or the other, and commit wholeheartedly to the stereotypes people have come to expect from culture. And when you begin to comprehend that some people think that your parents should not have strayed from their respective races, sometimes the idea begins to form in your mind that these people might actually think you should not exist.
But we do exist, and we have every right to exist. My father deserved to be in America just as much as I did for being born within the country borders. He did not trick a woman into falling in love with him, or marrying him, or having his children. He worked hard, and he continues to work hard. He bought a house, sent three children to college, and taught those children where they came from. What life was like when he was a child, and what it meant to have a heritage that was as equally rooted in Mexico as it was in the United States of America.
When one of your parents is an immigrant, people will ask you if your home life is any different, and you will not know how to respond. Different from what? Because what is different to them is normal to you. You do not know life any other way, though you’ve been to other people’s houses, where the parents both had similar backgrounds. Maybe that is what people mean when they say you’re different, you’ll think to yourself. Maybe you’ll wonder if your version of reality is somehow wrong, though it isn’t. There is no right or wrong, no normal, no strange. There is just love. Love is what matters.
And though my parents divorced when I was 8, never once did either of them let us question that their love for us was any less legitimate. Because it never was.
To talk about someone’s identity is to ask them not only where they came from, where they were born and grew up, but where their parents were born and where their grandparents were born. A hundred years ago, it might have been different. We were a different world then, less mobile, less able to go on vacation and fall in love with the people we met by the pool. A hundred years ago, it was less likely that people would fall in love with somebody from another race or culture, because they didn’t interact as often.
But the world is changing now. The faces of America and of the world are changing, slowly but surely. The internet has made our community a global one. You can try to keep borders impenetrable, and you can try to keep cultures separated and pure, but what value does that have if we can learn from each other and grow together? Loving someone from a different culture does not mean you are abandoning your own history. And two people’s citizenship holds little bearing on whether or not they are allowed to fall in love.
And I remember being 5 years old, and dressing up in my best dress and my mom brushing my hair. I didn’t know why we were dressing up, or where we were going, but I knew the minute I saw my father standing under the stars and stripes of a huge American flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time as an American citizen. He didn’t have to revoke his status as a Mexican citizen, but he still put his hand over his heart and stood there in his best suit, and I felt a surge of pride as my dad earned the rights that his wife and young children had been born into. Not because he didn’t deserve basic human rights before that moment, but because he was my first example of living proof that you could identify with two distinct nationalities, and that does not make you any less of one whole person.