The last time I saw my father, I didn’t cry. I was only five years old but I was unusually composed. Something in my soul chose to stay strong even though I didn’t fully understand what might happen. I chose composure, confident that something, at some point, would make sense eventually. I know this seems a bit exaggerated for a five-year-old, but even then, I was more disappointed than I was hurt. It was until years later that I’d understand my inability to cry at my father’s departure.
I shouldn’t say it was his departure because it was really us that needed to leave. We had to leave, our immigration to the United States wasn’t a matter of luxury or opportunity, it was a matter of survival.
In 1980s Perú, an uprising led by the communist revolutionary organization Sendero Luminoso and the Marxist guerrilla group Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement led to an armed conflict with the government of Peru. They sought to overthrow the state and ultimately establish a dictatorship of a proletariat. In essence, both Sendero Luminoso and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement believed the power of the government belonged in the hands of the working class. But as the civil war developed in the capital of Lima, tensions grew between the military and civilians and it is estimated that almost 70,000 people died from 1983–2000.
My brothers and I are 80s babies and as the youngest, I clearly remember bombs exploding and buildings burned in the middle of the night. One of those buildings was the local gas and electricity building that provided us with light and warmth. Our house was candlelit, which I enjoyed. It was romantic and I was too little too understand that we were at war. But when the bombs went off, I wanted to scream, I wanted to run. Even if the chaos is far away, the traveling sound tells your biology to react. PTSD formed early for us. To distract me from the bombs, my brother would tell me the city was playing hide and seek. So that’s what we did for the majority of the nights, we hid.
When things got too dangerous, my mother did what mothers do. She protected us. She packed up our bags and made the decision. “Nos vamos para el norte.” We’re going north. I don’t remember much except panic, and a lot of rushing. I remember running through the Peruvian airport, I remember arriving at the Miami airport where I had an asthma attack and we missed our flight, and I remember running to my grandmother’s arms in the San Francisco airport. And I remember my father staying behind. By choice.
I didn’t cry much. But looking back, it is obvious I missed having a father around. I think it was a lot less about a specific person and a lot more about my inability to understand why we couldn’t have the “perfect family.” To cope, I called my uncle Papí. I lied to elementary school peers and told them I lived with both my mom and dad but that my dad was always at work. For years, I chose to believe that my mother’s choice to remarry was for love, and not that our immigration status depended on it. So much so I called a man I barely liked, “Dad.”
But it was in the cracks of not having a father that I was able to see the strength of a woman. We became who we are because of them. My grandmother cooked us all our meals. She hugged us and made it a point to spend quality time with us. She kicked the soccer ball our way, bounced the basketball with us and she reminded us that in the middle of us trying to hold on to our homeland while assimilating to our new lives, we could still laugh, play, and be kids. She told us she loved us every chance she had. She spent time with each of us reminding us how beautiful, how smart, and how capable we are. And in her thick accent, she would say “I lub you, mi valiente.”
My aunt would take us to and from school. She would spend hours teaching us English. Making us roll our tongue in foreign ways and reassuring us that we were learning a second language, we weren’t replacing our querido Español. She built volcanoes, and totem poles with us until 2 AM to win grade school competitions. And when we were too tired to continue, she let us sleep while she did the rest of the work. She taught us courage and confidence. She taught us to be unapologetically bold and to always, always, stand up for ourselves — in every language we knew.
My mother taught us resilience. She worked through the day and went to school at night. She read books on medicine, law, and the English language in her car. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she went into crisis control more and called my father, a doctor, asking him to fly to the United States to help. He said no. So she figured out how to fit radiation therapy between work and school. She taught us dedication, effort, strength. She taught us that being undefeated is possible. It’s in our DNA. Often times I thought of her as militant as she approached every challenge with what I thought was an irresponsible fearlessness. Then I grew up and realized how terrified she must’ve been all those times. But her fear didn’t paralyze her, it propelled her, just like it did when she decided to take us all out of Peru.