When I was about four years old my parents got a house on West Walnut Street in Santa Ana, California. It was a two-bedroom craftsman bungalow in a neighborhood with other sensibly-sized houses and large gorgeous ones with wrap-around porches. In the front yard we had tall Italian cypress trees that drove my dad crazy with the plumbing. In the courtyard, we had an orange tree with too many oranges. In the backyard we had a cellar, with stray cats and one time a homeless person. One block away was the high school, built in a style I would much later learn was Art Deco. My dad parked his blue 1970 Dodge Charger in the front.
In this house we lived with interesting family members at one time or another, as we got our footing in the United States. First there was my uncle, who is a nomad and shows up without warning. Then there were my aunt and uncle, and then my cousin, who still live nearby. For a little bit it was my aunt and her boyfriend, who had the Game Boy. And then there was my cousin, who was sixteen and was here by himself. I enjoyed a secure and happy upbringing in this house because my dad had a good job with Mr. Park and my mom was at home, and took me to ballet lessons.
Sergio was the closest I’ve ever had to a big brother because he teased me nonstop and really knew how. The most effective way was to tickle me and take off my shoes. Then he would stuff them behind the sofa, until I did whatever harmless but embarrassing thing he asked.
One time though, he pissed me off. He took my new white flats, with the big 90s-era bow on the toe. And he didn’t give them back. I humiliated myself begging and pleading, but he didn’t budge, and he laughed at me, as I tried to push the sofa in vain. So I lost it. I wanted to hurt him. I didn’t have the physical strength, but I had words. And so I said the following terrible things:
“I hate you and I wish you didn’t live with us and I hope La Migra takes you away.”
Eventually my mom came back from running her errand, and my cousin left me alone. I went to bed. The next morning, I was free, as he had gone to find work for the day. But 5PM came, and he hadn’t come back. I heard my mom’s ask my dad and uncle questions in a low voice in the kitchen. He was one of her older sister’s boys, and she considered herself responsible for him, even though adulthood is different when you grow up poor and hungry.
Night fell, and he hadn’t come back. The adults were sitting in the living room uncomfortably. Eventually, the phone rang. My mom went to pick it up in her room. Then she came back into the living room, feigning surprise. “They caught him and they took him to the other side.”
I cried, which made the adults upset. I told them it was my fault. Because I had cursed him the day before. I never saw him again. And there have been few other times when I’ve wanted to tell someone that I was so sorry.
Then about 25 years later, unexpectedly, when I went to Mexico for my grandmother’s funeral, he picked me up from the airport. There was a long pause, after he asked me if I remembered him. Most people who got sent back tried again, but he didn’t. He moved on, got a wife and kids, and some work. There wasn’t a lot to talk about. We grew up differently, and our grandma just died. Because of the words that I carelessly, but intentionally said, even as a four-year old child, I would always be the asshole with privilege.
I might be developing a form of survivor guilt about the recent events along the border. When I first heard that families were being separated earlier this year, I had a visceral, physical reaction to the news: I threw up. Later, out of nowhere, I broke down in fear and anger by my kitchen table, started panicking, yelling that they were coming to take my daughter, and I curled up in a ball until I came back to reality. I had trouble sleeping for a while, and had to resist the urge to check if she was still in her crib. I’m afraid of driving to south Texas. When I’ve run into more news, unprepared, the ringing starts in my ears, and my chest sinks. I feel suspended in the room, and I want to throw up.
I’ve never had anything like this happen before. I’m used to being known for my poise and composure, particularly at work. I have a yoga practice for this sort of thing. I was born here, and I’ve enjoyed more social and economic privilege than a lot of “real Americans.” I was never this scared as a child, when I had things to lose.
In each of those instances, I heard about the news on social media, and as a result, I’ve curbed my usage down drastically, because I can’t handle the effects. I use Twitter exclusively for work-related content, to catch up on the industry, and to be intellectually stimulated.
Today I found out about the gas used along the Tijuana border, and I saw the photograph of the girls. What a devastating news story to read when I was looking for something about the Mars landing. They were wearing space t-shirts. I felt light-headed and the ringing started in my ears. My family crossed at the Tijuana border. One time, so did I, but that’s another story.