abuelita, RIP.


I have this friend in Minnesota who is like a brother to me.  For a few years there we were sort of inseparable.  We split a paycheck, we shared my car, we pooled our dreams and fueled a movement together.  We were so tight that when I lived there, his family became my family too.

My friend’s mom was maybe 4’10” and made the best mòle this side of the US-Mexico border.  She was like, the church lady you actually didn’t mind hugging – a sassy, classy, warm little woman.  I met her in Minnesota but a couple years in her visa ran out, and when she went back to Puebla to renew it she was denied.  From time to time I would get these hilariously broken phone calls from her, me communicating in barely comprehensible spanglish, she imploring me to take care of my friend and myself.  Mati was a million toothless bucks.

I got to visit her in Mexico for a couple weeks once, and we road-tripped around the country in a ridiculously oversized van visiting friends and families.  She showed me the very spot where she was born and where she fell in love with her husband.  One time the van broke down on a windy mountain road close to sundown.  Her husband stared stoically under the hood, I sang “Don’t Stop Believing” to myself, and Mati kneeled down right there in the road and prayed to Jesucristo.  I’m not sure which one of us effectively swayed the fates, but eventually the engine cooled down and the van kicked back into action.

I am remembering this now because this woman, my faux abuelita, joined my grannies in the spirit world this morning, after a brutally brief battle against biology.

Losing her is painful enough, but this story gets worse.  All this woman ever wanted was to see all of her children and grandchildren in the same place together.  And it turns out, not even her funeral can unite them.

Because here is the kicker: my friend and his family in Minnesota are undocumented.  They’ve been in the US for like 50 years between them, they own houses and pay taxes and are totally engaged in their communities, but they still haven’t swung legal status yet.  This means a lot of daily inconveniences and subtle annoyances, and it means they haven’t been home for a really long time.

This also means when they got the call the other day that their mom had suddenly grown frightfully ill, they could not go home to pay their last respects. My friend had to say goodbye to his mother on the phone this morning.  Their family cannot grieve together.  Their dad is stuck in Mexico and they can’t take care of him.  To do so would mean leaving behind the lives they have built here, potentially forever, or else risking another expensive, precarious, demoralizing trip across the border to return.

I have a lot of negative feelings about the American immigration system, and have encountered too many agonizing stories to be shocked anymore by its callowness.  But this one hits terribly close to my heart – and kind of breaks it.

Mobility is a privilege, isn’t it?  My own grandma, my beloved abuela, died when I was away in college.  I heard her broken voice on the phone and ached to jump on the next plane to Brooklyn.  My dad convinced me not to, and I’ve always regretted it.  But here’s the thing, right?  I could have gone if I wanted to. That option was open to me.

My friend’s experience this week is something I don’t think I can ever fully grasp.  To be separated because of obligation or money is one thing.  But to have a flawed immigration system stand between you and your dying parent is beyond frustrating.  It’s devastating.

Those three years I spent working with immigrants, I was adopted by families dealing with all sorts of shitty circumstances.  They had their struggles but we shared a lot of love and caring, I listened to their stories and tried to honor them, they urged me to rest and fed me (OMG did they FEED me! unbelievable).  I was mothered by a lot of women and I tried to do right by them in my work as an artist and a community organizer, as a Jew and a human being.

But there was always this unspoken wedge in our interactions.  As much love and respect as we had for each other, I would never have to bear the kind of bullshit that tore them apart at night.  I wouldn’t have to listen to my kids grow up on the phone.  I didn’t have to place my trust in my teenage daughter to raise the younger ones.  My kids would not struggle to get a decent education.  I didn’t have to make peace with hard stories of spending a night in the trunk of a car or the harsh desert in order to get to a place where I could provide for my family. I didn’t scrub toilets or sell Avon or wipe spit off old ladies’ chins to earn a living.

To stay in their home countries would entail a different kind of desperation: a compromise of economic or physical security.  They were devilish bargains.  Each of these women had weighed their options and made the best decisions they could, then did their best to try to live with them.

It didn’t make me better but it made me different.  I too struggled with trust and my own minor tragedies, but those troubles were personal and not systemic.  And guilt is sort of useless, right?

So I tried to be really intentional about using whatever resources and education and gumption I had to make things better for them, with them, however you want to put it.  I worked for them.  We worked together.  I worked so hard I burned myself out, and had to find a different way of living my politics.  Clearly I’m still coming to terms with it, to some degree.

And I’m not sure how to conclude these thoughts, but I want to bring it back to that tough little woman who passed this morning.  Abuelita Mati, you worked hard.  You bore your struggles with a twinkle in your eye.  You raised great kids and grandkids who do amazing things in your name.  You were well loved, my dear woman, and you will be sorely missed.

mati in her kitchen in mexico

mati in her kitchen in minnesota

3 Responses to “abuelita, RIP.”

  1. 1 dane

    thanks for applying your gumption, Quito, amiganita. good thing i didnt sing any journey…out loud, at least.

    • i think you went for a jog down the mountainside, dude. though you were definitely the only one with enough sense to recognize an overheated engine when you saw it.

  2. 3 Aileen

    Beautiful post.

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