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How Being Born in Jail Saved My Life

by Kate Rose

My mom is coming. I haven’t seen her in, like, my whole life. Literally. Crazy, huh? She gave birth to me, then she was gone.

I’m pretty much a normal kid. I had my quinceañera last weekend. I wish my mom could have come in time. At the same time, I don’t really know her. 15 years is a long time, right?

I wore a shimmering blue dress and my nails matched – my aunt Lupita took me to get gel extensions. We did my hair in ringlets. Quinceañeras are a big deal for our community. Some of my white friends came, too. They wished they could have parties like this! I did some dances. One of them I choreographed myself. We had a professional photographer and it was all on video, so at least my mom can see.

My grandma always used to tell me about my mom, ever since I can remember. She told me so much it was almost like she was with me, her smile, her voice, the way she moved, even the clothes she wore. She sold perfume, so she must have been elegant. My friends tell me I am elegant, too. I look older than 15. For one thing, I get my eyebrows done. Most girls in my class just leave theirs up to nature. Awful choice.

I have a dimple in my left cheek. Grandma says Mom has one too, but in her right. My boobs are the biggest in our class. It’s embarrassing. I wonder if Mom had that problem. I used to be a good runner, best in my school, but after puberty hit, I was average, so I dropped the team. Overnight, I couldn’t fit into my jeans. Sometimes I wish it never happened. There’s just this feeling of you can’t go back.

We couldn’t believe my mom was finally coming. When she heard the news, Grandma cried.

Now my mom is here, and I don’t really know what to say to her. Grandma spent the whole day, up at dawn, stressing out about preparing the perfect feast. When Grandma saw her daughter, she cried a lot more. And when she went to the kitchen, she dropped the casserole right on the floor! It splattered everywhere, all over the nice linoleum I helped Grandpa lay last summer. It’s a nice golden color, and was on sale. He let me pick from the sale section myself. Grandpa came back then, still in his uniform. He looked at my mom deeply for a long time, then collapsed into a hug. He cried, too. I had never seen Grandpa cry. Grandma just watched. Finally I got the broom and started sweeping up the mess of glass and sauce and meat. I washed the broom and hung it up. I got the mop. It was stained red, so I ran a basin of water to clean it off. I could feel her eyes watching me, my mother. Her teary eyes.

There were, like, a million other dishes to eat, so that’s what we did. We ate. Grandpa started choking on something, and Grandma got up and walloped him across the back. I broke the bread into little pieces. Though I was hungry, I couldn’t quite get it down and felt a little queasy, so I asked to be excused. I’m in my room now, trying to study for the algebra quiz. It’s tomorrow. Algebra is hard. It’s bringing down my whole GPA. If I don’t keep my grades up, I might not qualify for College Bound. I already have a waitress job, so there’s always that. Good tips! I make a lot more per hour than Grandpa when I work Friday and Saturday nights. Sunday nights are kind of slow, though. Grandma and Grandpa were saving to get my mom over. I tried to give some of my money for this but Grandma wouldn’t take it. She told me to put it in the bank. I’ve had my own account since I was 12 and started babysitting.

There are things we don’t talk about. Many things. I learned quickly. I was always a quick learner. I always wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor. Grandma and Grandpa always told me I could be anything. I am a citizen of the United States of America. They are always reminding me of that, especially when times are tough. I feel like they are reminding themselves, not me. I already know I’m an American, but since we speak Spanish at home, they might forget. Their English is awful, so sometimes I have to translate but mostly I don’t. They don’t really go places except work. They don’t really need to talk much on the job, I guess. One time Grandpa got his finger cut off – that was really scary. He and Grandma had a fight, right there in the kitchen, his stump bleeding and him holding the finger in his other hand. He had driven from work like that and he was asking Grandma to sew it on, as if it was just a button that had dropped from his overalls, but Grandma slapped him and told him he needed to get to the hospital, fast. She was pounding on him, trying to get him back into his car, and his eyes held a wide, pointy gaze that may have been terror. They were bleeding on the street, or he was, and she was yelling. Suddenly, he was tottering. About to fall. I knew I had to. I called. 911. They were both very angry. Grandpa called me an idiot, hissing through his pain. Grandma slapped me for the first time.

That was a few years ago. I think I was 12 at the time and my breasts had just sprouted, crushing my Olympic dreams.

The doctors managed to sew Grandpa’s finger back on, and he can bend it half way, though he doesn’t have much feeling in it; still, it’s a finger. It looks pretty normal. That’s a miracle, right? Grandma believes in miracles. She still says I’m her little miracle, even though I’m taller than she is.

A man from Grandpa’s work came to the hospital. He settled the bill, which was high. He even told Grandpa he could take the whole week off. I don’t think Grandpa had ever had so much free time. He spent it laughing his days away with Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and Popey. He said it was worth almost losing a finger, even though it had hurt like hell. He said there’d been something wrong with the machine.

Mom is pretty, but she looks older than other moms. She does have that dimple, as if we were other sides of ourselves. Her clothes are awful, though, really tacky. I mean, like, sequins and leopard prints. I don’t know what to say to her. She hugged me so hard and I tried to hug her back. Maybe I should have cried, but I didn’t feel it. Not really. She was much prettier in my mind and less short and fat – you know, more elegant, like a lady you’d picture selling perfume in an airport.

Grandma told me the story a long time ago. One day Mom didn’t come home from work. She was heavily pregnant with me, which made them worry even more. Of course they couldn’t do anything like call the police. Officially, Grandma and Grandpa don’t exist. They never have, here. I do, though. I have a birth certificate. Grandma keeps it on her alter behind the Virgin Mary. She lights candles to it every night. The place of birth lists Detention Center, then the city and state.

They worried and worried. It was even harder then… They stop talking. They will not cross the line into what cannot be said. They worried about their pregnant daughter who didn’t come home from work. Where they came from, women disappeared a lot, Grandma said, and got that far-away look where I could not call her back, but just had to wait. Mom was afraid to call, because, you know, Immigration might trace it to the basement where Grandma and Grandpa lived, and where we still live though my uncle Juan moved out and married my aunt Lupita; and even though she’s an American, he’s now gone.

The landlord and lady live above us. They’re OK. A few times they helped us out, but mostly they mind their own business and we mind ours, slipping the rent under their door every month. Easy money. Grandpa fixes everything himself and makes the place nice with stuff he picks up when it’s on clearance at the hardware depot, or sometimes he makes a great find at the dump. Grandma and I help him. The owners have never come over, but if they did I think they’d be impressed. I’ve been in their home once or twice, and it wasn’t nearly as nice.

Mom didn’t call and for a month they had no news of her. Turns out she was in a detention center, in other words, a jail. Jail or not, it was on U.S. soil. She knew if I was born here, I could not be expelled, ever, for my whole life. I would never have to hide. She prayed I would come early, before they threw her back over the border. Maybe the Virgin did or didn’t hear her prayers, but some prison guards did. They took pity on her. They delayed the whole process on purpose until after the birth. Thanks to them, I could stay. But she had to go. They couldn’t delay any longer. There were rules. Mom was marked for deportation. Illegal perfume-shop worker! If they let her stay, they’d have to let everyone stay – then where would they be? No jobs left for Americans. So although they hated to see her go, and to tear the baby (me), screaming, from her breasts, they did it. Just a few days after bringing me into this world, my mother was dumped somewhere over the border.

My aunt Lupita says the airport perfume shop hired another illegal woman to take her place. She went there to try to get help from the boss but it was no use. No one in my family has ever been on an airplane.

My Uncle Juan who used to be a plumber and taught me to play baseball was in a detention center and I used to go and see him with my aunt Lupita. We went past a lot of barbed wire, and inside it were men in orange jumpsuits walking in lines. My aunt Lupita cried and cried. “Why do they treat him like a criminal?” she asked. He was on the other side of the glass and they spoke through a telephone. Her lawyer said they have quotas to fill, the government needs to lock up a certain number of people to uphold their contract with the private detention businesses. It brings in local jobs. They lost the case. I cannot picture my mother there, giving birth through her orange jumpsuit, but actually the women there guarding her were kind. They had children too. Even though it cost the U.S. government $120 per night to keep her there, those women arranged it so she could stay. A prison is still U.S. soil, so after the birth my aunt Lupita came and brought me to my grandma. Then they put my mother into a windowless white van and drove away. My aunt Lupita, who stood there holding me, tells me the last thing my mother said was that her breasts ached.

Don’t ask – do your homework, you have things to learn. American.

Now, Mom is sharing my room and my bed. Friends used to sleep over and we’d share a bed, but this is different. Mom snores. Her nightgown is ugly and worn. I want to give her one of my pretty ones that I bought with my own money. I wonder if it would fit. Mom seems tired. I wonder if it was very scary. They won’t tell me exactly, but I am pretty sure she didn’t just fly into the airport. Nope, she came the way she did that other time. That time, when my father got lost along the way.

When I picture my father – and even sometimes I dream about him – he is wandering in a desert. He is lost, and thirsty. He has lost his way. He looks at a map, cartoon-style. Some friendly cowboys ride over and put him on their horse, so he is taken to safety. He cannot find us, though he is always trying. He’ll knock on the door someday, even though our address isn’t listed and we don’t officially exist anywhere, except my birth cert, which says “Detention Center.” Grandma and Grandpa come and go like ghosts from their jobs. They usually work night shifts. Grandma makes me carry a photocopy of my birth cert at all times. I have gotten in the habit of transferring that crumpled paper into the pockets of my jeans.

Sometimes I spend the night at my friends’ houses, big homes above ground that have moms and dads. They don’t come here much, now that we’re older and realize it’s a little bit creepy that there is no natural light, and we enter through a small side door that leads down. They think my grandparents are strange, since they never know how to act. Grandma tries to feed them, but she is so uncomfortable I feel sorry for her. It’s been a long time since I’ve had guests over, and that’s OK.

Mom stops snoring. When I look over, her eyes are open. Spooky, huh? She whispers my name. I answer. She sobs and cries and says she loves me, her little girl, and she just cannot believe I am already grown up because she still sees me as a baby. Her baby. She still sees me like that as if we could pick up where we left off. She says I am beautiful the way I am but she couldn’t imagine I am not even a child anymore. She said the only thing she lived for was to be with me again and now I don’t need her it is too late. I don’t know what to tell her. Tomorrow is Friday and I can sleep at my best friend’s house, so that’s good. There’s not much space here, because the basement also contains a rec room and wash room and a pantry for our landlord and lady (we wash in the sink). Grandpa put up these partitions, I remember him doing it, one tiny room for them, one tiny room for me, then the kitchen and toilet. There is no space and I am falling off the bed but I don’t want to touch her. It never bothered me with my friends, but this grown woman smells bad.

Maybe my mother senses my attention or patience is waning. I do have that quiz tomorrow and I need a good sleep. I absolutely don’t need someone sobbing on the pillow next to me – there’s a lot going on – my GPA is just one of the things, there’s also the school dance, and if I should do softball or what sport… – lots of things. She senses it, so she lands a big one. “Want to hear about your father?”

“Um, maybe not now?” But maybe I speak too quietly, because she continues anyway. I wonder if she speaks a word of English. Even her Spanish sounds kind of bad, like not as good as Grandma’s or even Grandpa’s or mine.

“Your father was very brave,” she says, “very brave!” I roll over, as far as I can from her, hoping to drift off. But she keeps going, as if she has all the time in the world. She describes the desert, its heat and the creatures slithering across it, then the sand lashing her face. “We heard the men coming, the ranchers. We didn’t really hear, but there was an old man Jesús with us who could sense it. He knew, somehow, knew everything by just putting his ear to the ground. There were many of us, all from the same village, and we brought Jesús even though he couldn’t walk so well, because he had this gift. We thought he could help find water along the way. We had all heard about the bones. We’d heard about the ranchers, too, how they shot us down, hunted us like animals because they could.

They said we were trespassing on their land. They destroyed the food and water some kind souls left for us. They destroyed food to destroy us. Some even said they poisoned it. Your father spotted a cave and told everyone to get in. You were already in my belly. Your father touched you through the skin of my belly. He murmured a prayer, then he was gone.

He ran. I know now he was not trying to run away from them, he was leading them away from us. Their dogs by miracle followed him instead of rooting us out. When the shot rang, I knew, though I wanted desperately to be wrong. I was going to run there but I didn’t because just then you were kicking me. You wanted to live.

Day gave way to night and we made it to a town, then a city, where we lay down our dirt and tears, always hiding in the shadows. We got work, in the shadows. I made a mistake taking that perfume job. I should have stayed in the slaughterhouse with my parents and brother Juan, where the meat is checked but not us since it has more value. But the stench of it! One time a cow was about to give birth and she was killed along with the others, so that when she was hanging, tongue out, vomit dripping, and I had to cut into her, the fetus came out. It was still alive! The foreman literally threw it into the pet food room. I took off my apron and boots and walked out of there and never came back.

The next day I responded to the ad for the perfume shop at the airport and was hired immediately. The boss understood – she had been there – and took pity. She paid me less but it was still more than the slaughterhouse, so I was grateful, so grateful. The clean, pretty smells!

It was a round-up. Other airport workers, mostly cleaners, were also brought to the Detention Center, but they were all deported the next day. I lay there, chained. I thought of your father. And when you came out, you had his eyes. That was the picture I carried of you, still moist from my belly, in my mind.

Back where I was – and I will never tell you, daughter, what I did – I would wake up imagining my baby was beside me but when I realized you weren’t I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare. My life, precious one, was a nightmare but you were my dream. Finally we are together and I dream awake! Can you ever love me? You are a young woman. I was your age when I married your father. Your age. I hope you will not marry so soon, though I was happy with him, with us, until the war and disappearances and famine were too much, so the whole village opted to leave.

“Mama?” I ask, surprising myself as I call her this for the first time. “Do you have pictures of my father?”

She shakes her head: “You are my picture of him.”

I yawn. “Hey Mama? How about after school tomorrow I take you to the library. You can sign up for free English classes.”

She snores. I curl up and fall asleep, dreaming of the life to come, my life. It stretches beyond the prom, to graduation, to college, college graduation, wearing a business suit to an interview, getting the job, buying a home, getting married, having a baby, having a grandchild… and then where we all meet, I die. I die happy that I lived as best I could, and that I could live. Stamping my little blue passport, border guards smile and let me through.

Kate Rose is the editor of a book called Displaced: Migration, Indigeneity, and Trauma (Routledge, 2020). She teaches in the Sociology Department and in the Department of Criminality and Criminal Justice at Northern Arizona University. She is the proud mother of an 8-year-old son.

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