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Jia Sung for Guernica

The Lucky Ones

Nearly 30 years after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as an undocumented child, a reporting trip brought me back to that very stretch. The memories followed.

This story was co-published with Guernica, which has a series on “Rewriting the West.” This story is not available via Creative Commons.

The first stories we can correct are the ones we tell ourselves. My story, the one I have hung onto since I was a little girl, is that I got lucky. Luck made sense because luck can happen to anyone. Even me. Luck fit into the parts of my story I wasn’t ready to explain, the parts that I surrendered to half-memories. I made it to this country because of luck. I grew up a janitor but then my parents got lucky and bought the business and I ended up a journalist. My citizenship came after I was undocumented for almost a decade, when I got lucky.

What I ignored in my memories, what luck papered over, found its way back. The gaps in my story came looking for me, making themselves known. And when they did, I began to tell the story on my body. My tattoos, inked over the past sixteen years, were supposed to be disparate, pieces of memory that would not speak to each other. But that’s not how tattoos work.

My younger brother, Beto, a tattoo artist, who inked most of them, calls tattoos “art wounds.”

“Tattoos are the art of pain in exchange for meaning,” Beto told me. “Tattoos start as open wounds that heal to reveal permanence. Growth requires healing, the only other person we let us cut open to bleed, to fix something, to live, is a doctor.” My tattoos now tell my story in a way that I couldn’t capture in words.

The Garbage Can

On my left arm is a garbage can with a few peonies and a calla lily tossed inside. When I shut my eyes and think about my childhood, I see my mother pushing a loud, circular, plastic, gray trash can on wheels. Our family business took on anything. From factories to the YMCA, churches to strip-mall office spaces — you name it, my parents were up for cleaning it. I grew up chasing behind my mother and that garbage can.

Owning a business was never in the plan. My parents were young immigrants raising a family in the early 1990s just outside of Chicago. When my dad’s boss was ready to move on, he offered them a chance to take over the business on a generous payment plan. They took a gamble and the janitors became business owners. I was 6 and my brother was 2.

From then on, janitorial work was always a part of our family life. Of all the places my parents cleaned, our local public library was my favorite. An empty public library is nothing short of magical. For twelve years, my brother and I ran and played in that huge sprawling space. We learned every room and the meticulous organization of each department. Our favorite game, in between cleaning, was jumping out of the stacks to scare the other. The scares almost always turned into small brawls on the carpet floors. Mom or Dad would eventually come untangle our fights. As I got older, this access made me feel lucky because I had a superpower — to read as much as I wanted while my parents cleaned. A sort of trade for the time they spent there, scrubbing.

On many nights at that library, I would find my mother bent over in a toilet stall. “No te metas, esperame me tantito,” (“Don’t come in, wait just a sec,”) my mother told me as as she worked through a clogged toilet. She arched her back even higher, as if to use her body to shield me from the shit.

My parents did their best to make sure their children didn’t deal with shit, or even see it. But the job came with a kind of crap they could not protect us from.

By 10 or 11 years old, I had become fluent in English and office people began to talk to me first when they wanted to give anyone in my family instructions. Their question followed a sort of dance. First, the slight bend in the knees. Then, the head tilt as if they were going to get closer but, of course, they never did. Their mouth opened and the syllables suddenly seemed so marked to pronounce whatever pile of mess they left behind. A mess demanding urgency and our undivided attention.

With English, I learned the steps to that dance, learned to recognize the sinking feeling of getting talked down to and the unspoken trade of our humanity. We were there to perform a very specific labor and nothing else. I replied in the crispest English the rhythm of my tongue could kick back, a deliberate correct annunciation of “That sounds very good, I understand, I will make sure my parents know. Thank you.”

My words were meant to correct the story they told themselves about me and my family. I wanted them to know that I got good grades, that I never missed a day of school. They didn’t know, but should have, that my dad read a lot. And that I was probably friends with their kids at school.

The flowers inside the garbage can on my arm are reminder of the good that came with that shit. We, as family, got so much from their trash. I never wanted to forget that I was the janitor’s kid before I was anything else.

The Corn

An ear of corn sits opposite of the garbage can on the front part of my left arm, wrapped on an angle towards my ribs. It begins above the elbow with its silk and husk tickling right under my inner arm. The ink is heavy and its contrast is marked. The rows of kernels appear to be wrapped in alternating light and dark, where the light strikes. The leaves of the husk have a circular pattern that resembles the texture of wood. The piece turned out so detailed, so 3D, friends joke the only things missing are the mayo and cheese that come with the elotes you buy off the street.

A piece of corn with the texture of wood, in honor of my grandfathers. One was a corn farmer, the other, a master carpenter.

Papá Julio grew corn in the valleys of Jalisco in western central Mexico, where he raised my mother. She was the second-youngest of 17 children, and his favorite. Papá Julio towered over the stalks he tended. He was nearly 6 feet tall and he loved to tell a good story. He had encyclopedic knowledge about everyone in their tiny town.

In the 1950s, Papá Julio was a migrant worker and part of the Bracero program in the U.S. — one of millions of legal workers who were recruited from Mexico to prevent a crippling labor shortage during and following World War II. He died in early 2006, while I was studying abroad in Spain. I came back three months later to find my mother still and mute with grief, stuck in an idleness that I didn’t recognize and have never seen in her again.

Abuelito Angel, my father’s father, still lives in Mexico. He’s 96 years strong and still working the finest wood. He is methodical, quiet and slow. He wears plaid dress shirts and khakis every single day. His face is my father’s, only 30 years older. Soon after I was born, we moved next door to his corner store where I spent the first four years of my life sitting on his counter learning to tell terrible jokes. He would spoil me with candy and let me pretend to run his store. I missed him when we left Mexico for the United States. When I learned to write, he was my first pen pal, who always wrote back in huge block letters on yellow legal pad paper.

My parents came from this place of corn and wood. It is a place my brother and I never learned to love quite like they did because we were very young when our family split north. But the corn and wood now belong to my body.

Nemi (to Move Forward; to Make Progress)

Four letters spell out a word in Nahuatl, one of Mexico’s native tongues, on my inner right ankle: nemi. It is my first and smallest tattoo. It means to live, to walk, to move forward — to make progress.

This tattoo was inked in a moment of fear disguised as optimism during my first semester of college. I had declared a minor in Latin American studies and started to learn about pre-Columbian languages, like Nahuatl. I was excited by the rush of new information and felt immediate pride in claiming words that came before Spanish. College felt like the luckiest thing that had happened to me yet, but it didn’t escape me that I didn’t get to be a freshman at Loyola University Chicago without my parents deciding to leave Mexico fourteen years earlier, and I was afraid to fail on my end of the deal. Tattooing a word in Nahuatl was a small way to bring them with me, to keep myself accountable.

When my mom first saw it, she cried. She read it as an unexpected rebellion in my first months away from home. I was not used to disappointing her and we never talked about this tattoo again.

But, this tattoo aged well. It started as a search for words to tell stories I didn’t yet know. Now, I see it much more my mother’s nemi than my own. She was just a few years older than I was when I got the tattoo, when she decided keeping her family together was worth any amount of steps forward and over a border. It took me years and a trip back to the border to understand how difficult my mother’s decision was. She modeled nemi long before I knew what to call it. She did the work, and never called it luck.

Tlilli Tlapalli (Wisdom and Writing)

Tlilli and Tlapalli, two more Nahuatl words, meaning “wisdom” and “writing.” These words combined in ancient texts signal collective knowledge and a way to truth. In Tlilli, in Tlapalli, represent the red and black inks that were the choice of the “knowers-of-things,” or knowledge-producing class, according to Nahuatl philosophy. I graduated with a degree in journalism. Though the Aztecs didn’t call it “journalism,” they agreed on the rules of the game. Wisdom, writing and truth.

I became a journalist to revisit difficult stories in complicated places. To labor on stories worth telling because they carried a truth we might be ignoring. To dig, find and hopefully do justice in the re-telling.

Gallardo reporting on a protest outside an immigration detention center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, in July 2018. (Jessica Kourkounis for ProPublica)

In early 2017 while working for ProPublica, I went on assignment to the border with senior investigative reporter Ginger Thompson to the site of a brutal massacre in the town of Allende, Coahuila, in 2011. Ginger had woven together a monumental oral history of the days that led up to devastation of a small town just 40 miles south of the stretch where Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas, meet.

Ginger and I took a break from reporting and sat at a park on the banks of the Rio Grande River on the Mexico side. The park was filled with families like mine, on both sides. Couples were out for a run and a group of kids sat on the edge, listening to music and attempting to fish. On the U.S. side, kids played soccer and men enjoyed an afternoon of golf.

It was the first time I had returned to the stretch of border where my family crossed almost 30 years earlier. I never called it smuggling. Smuggling felt dangerous. The sense of normalcy I felt there, no more than 200 feet from the river, fed my immediate need to sanitize what had happened to me. I told Ginger the story that I always repeated, with the same details that obscure what happened.

I told her we were brought over the Rio Grande on a raft, that it was scary only because my brother was 3 months old and my mother was afraid to get wet. We crossed the inland border via a vehicle checkpoint where luck had us fully in the United States. We then boarded a plane to Chicago in a single attempt. I told her about the blonde doll my parents gave me — a chubby, dark skinned, 4-year-old — to blend in. I talked about the bag of chips they gave me to make me appear busy.

On the banks of the Rio Grande River in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, looking north into the U.S. (Adriana Gallardo/ProPublica)

The story I told Ginger about that day was idyllic — lucky — because we eventually had a path to become legal immigrants and then citizens. As much as I thought about it over the years, I never imagined going back anywhere near the actual stretch. Confronted with the sight of the stillness of the water on that night, the sounds of families going about their evening, my version of the story started to fall apart. By every measure, the scene was one of happiness, but we were on break after visiting the site of a massacre less than an hour away. Blasting over the news were President Donald Trump’s statements about building a wall, a wall that would split that scene in half, a space long contested as the beginning and the end.

I wanted to call it luck, draw a straight line from that kid crossing in the late ’80s to the woman there on assignment. But, after that trip, my version of the story wasn’t good enough. A discomfort was cemented by the gut punch I felt, and will never forget, crossing back over that particular stretch of border for a second time — when the Border Patrol asked “Reason for travel?” Ginger replied, “We’re journalists.” The agent gave us the go-ahead, no questions asked, just like that. That luck felt particularly unfair.

The Tree

The latest addition to my story runs up and down the middle of my left arm. It looks like a DNA-strand-turned-tree, spilling over a full moon right under my shoulder, with roots at the bottom and flowers at the top, each piece doing its part to connect the garbage can and the corn.

Nowhere in it is a space reserved for luck. My mural is a reminder that memory failed me. At best, it covered up that which was too hard to process. They are notes telling me that luck may not always be the word. When I’m honest, luck feels like debilitating guilt that turns into apathy. I dodged, often by none of my doing, limitations that people in my own family and all around me continue to have no choice but to endure. I had a pathway to be legalized. I got to go to college. I got to travel the world. I get the luxury of surprise when I disclose that I used to be undocumented. I get that split second of math their faces give up before the questions start.

The fallout of the moment is when the story falls apart. You read me, you placed me. Suddenly “them” is “us.” It’s me your friend, colleague, or neighbor in places where I’m not supposed to be. This is where my over reliance of the word “luck” usually begins. The trap of exceptionalism is to place distance between us and them.

Family is the shortest distance back to “us” when the lie of luck falls apart.

After I returned to the border I began to ask questions. My parents’ answers were exactly what I was afraid to hear. I did not want to know that they got to the border without a plan. That it was on my mother’s insistence that we all come along. That it took them a full week of door-knocking to find anyone who could smuggle my mother with a baby and a toddler. That it was February, it was cold and we didn’t bring many clothes.

Once I started listening, once I traded the half-memory and self-constructed story, when I bothered to really look, the details seemed to arrive as if I had invited them.

Just after Christmas, I complained about a meal and mom’s memory jumped back to those days at the border. She tells me we ate the same street tacos for every meal that week because that was all they could afford. That I complained and it broke her heart, but that was all they had.

I asked about where we stayed. She said it was a dingy and dark hotel with no running hot water. There, my brother got very sick from the cold. When we talk about how cold she remembers it was, she casually mentions she was breastfeeding all along this trip. A detail I never considered given my brother was just a few months old. The image of my mother breastfeeding a sick baby in the cold, with nowhere to go, drained any last drop of romance from our story.

Just a few weeks ago, I complained about a sticky car door while my parents were in the back seat with me on a way to a Bulls game. When I said something about the door they told me, for the first time, that I almost jumped out of a moving car on a rainy night when we were at the border, still on the Mexican side. They were following a tip on someone who could cross us when it started to pour. A well-dressed cab driver spotted us and gave us a free ride back to the hotel. They brought up the story as if they still wonder why I decided to open the door that night.

That sounds terrible. I use the moment to ask if they had ever considered giving up and going back. They pause for a second, look at each other, and shake their heads. “No, nunca pensamos en regresarnos,” (“No, we never considered going back,”) my mom says.

Correcting my own story means seeing what that cab driver must have seen when he decided to pull over and help. It is seeing my parents out in the cold rain, broke as could be, holding onto their two kids until something gave.

Turning around, giving up, was not an option. Our eventual pathway to citizenship couldn’t have been farther, at that point, but they held onto each other and the belief that my brother and I were worth the risks and uncertainty ahead.

With time, I had constructed a story to fill the gaps. I covered the gaps that I knew others may see — the ugly and maybe even incomprehensible contained in the precarious choices families like my own continue to make. When my parents left home, it was not luck they counted on to get them through. They counted on each other. They counted on their tireless work ethic. And they counted on the aspirations that any other parent might have for their young children. If they don’t call it luck, how can I? I had cheated myself out of hard-earned truths, obstructing wisdom worth putting down in black and red, in Tlilli, in Tlapalli. I stand by my luck, but the weight of healing is heavy, even for the lucky ones.

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