I was six or seven, and I stood a little ways from my father, who was grasping the handle of a small navy suitcase in one hand and, with the other, knocking on our bathroom door. His face was stoic, unmoved by the reality of being cast out, exiled from us.
My sharpest memory of that last encounter is of mere silhouettes lit up by the yellow incandescent light, a short figure and a taller one set against the pallor of the walls. It is, too, the lone-standing souvenir of the only home we came to know.
I was six or seven, and I stood a little ways from my father, who was grasping the handle of a small navy suitcase in one hand and, with the other, knocking on our bathroom door. He must’ve been wearing a tattered, paint-splattered T-shirt from his construction work, his belly protruding out of his faded blue jeans. I could never remember him in anything but construction-work attire, and it unnerves me to think of him donning something else. His face, also disfigured by the insolent workings of time, was stoic (that I know), unmoved by the reality of being cast out, exiled from us. He never voiced his reservations or fear about being forced to return to El Salvador. Our family unit was collateral damage; this would be the last nail in the coffin. But I’m not sure if I sensed it back then. Or if he did.
“Adiel?” I think he said. He continued to knock on the bathroom door, unperturbed, as he was met with the heavy pelting of the water against the bathroom tub. There was a sense of urgency in his voice, soon our mother would be coming home, and she did not want to find him there.
My father spoke again to my elder brother, whispering incoherently. I whipped my head to the wall adjacent to me. His shadow, once grand and looming, moved farther and faster, shrinking after it traversed over mine.
I never imagined that this memory or rather, this fabrication of memory, too, would become estranged from me.
I was actually five years old, not six, when my father was deported. He tells me this when we touch base in the parking lot of San Salvador International Airport. He tells me it was December 2006, a month before my sixth birthday when we last saw him.
Pictures of that last birthday of mine spent with him show us in our home in Maryland; an almond-crusted vanilla cake topped with whole and halved strawberries, slices of kiwi, crescent-shaped peaches, and Happy Birthday Allison! in happy-red cursive frosting. In another, I am blowing out five candles that stick out in different directions. A blurry one where my thick fringe is pushed aside, my baby teeth fully displayed mid-laugh, the frosting running in rivulets down my cheeks. In the periphery of these photos, on the wall behind me, you can find the bottom half of the Last Supper in a plastic but ornate gold frame. Also in the photo, my mother’s gold-crusted name-plate necklace hangs as she leans, her hand resting on my chair. Meanwhile, my sister peers at the cake, waiting for me to cut it. After I’ve cut into the cake, the macho demeanor of my eldest brother, Nelson, breaks in, showing the camera a mouth full of white frosting with his tongue unfurled. My father’s silent silhouette is right behind me, the white of his shirt looms in the dark, his face occulted.
These are the great relics of Before, before his deportation. When I was simultaneously daddy’s girl and mommy’s girl, more than happy to share my parents with my three older siblings who had lived in a faraway land saturated with sun, residential houses capped with terracotta roofs, where they roamed in el canton with pies descalzos, hair unbrushed, amidst the moos of cows and the odd waddle of chickens searching for a niblet of corn.
My parents were hardly ever in the same picture. When I was sent, at midnight, to the hospital after reaching the point of throwing up colorless liquid, my mother would leave her night shift early to be beside me. At midnight near a Taco Bell, picking up Adiel and Karla for the first time when they arrived in the country, desvelada in the backseat with my yellow blankie, I can only recall my father in the driver’s seat. I remember watching Sabado Gigante, a larger-than-life program for Spanish-speakers in the United States, with my mother when I decided not to go out to eat with my father and his church-going friends. It was always one or the other.
One of my favorite parts of Sabado Gigante was El Chacal de la Trompeta, The Jackal with the Trumpet, that would appear when the show had contestants sing a song. His role was to blow a trumpet to eliminate contestants and end their singing. Sometimes it was an overly confident performer or a truly lackluster singer, El Chacal often cut them off humorously at the beginning of their performance. He was joined by the illustrious host of the show, Don Francisco, who dramatically emoted and even danced with contestants while donning whimsical hats (he got a little handsy sometimes). When El Chacal starts blowing his trumpet, Don Francisco bellows “y . . .” the live studio audience shortly follows with “. . . ¡fuera!”,which is repeated a few times while the eliminated contestant sheepishly leaves the stage. I would often join, “y . . . ¡fuera!”
Running from 1962 to 2015, Sabado Gigante remains a hallmark of Hispanic-American culture and a fixture of my childhood. The program was frenetic, colorful, at times suggestive, but it never failed to tug at the heartstrings. It revealed perhaps the most pervasive issue experienced by the growing Hispanic community in the country: family separation. Reencuentros familiares, or family reunions, made for damn good television and even cracked my mother. Noticing her glassy eyelids, a quiver in her lips, but that sternness of hers that never wavers, I would wait for Don Francisco to transition the show to a comedy sketch.
Sometimes, however, I would imagine my mother and me on the show. We are dressed in our Sunday best. Me in my powder-pink dress with puffy princess tulle sleeves and my mother in a modest black ensemble with a long pencil skirt and a long-sleeved blouse with pearls lining the neckline. I hide behind her, hugging her tan pantyhose-covered legs when Don Francisco asks for my name and beckons me to come on out.
Don Francisco is dressed smartly in a gray suit. He chuckles heartily once I comply, before beginning his introduction of my mother and I. He explains that my mother left El Salvador in 1999 at twenty-six years old, leaving behind three children and nearly her entire family. While her three children were eventually brought to the United States, she has not been able to see her family in nearly ten years and has lost contact with various siblings. Her husband, also from El Salvador, was deported in 2006. He was picked up during a random ICE raid. Don Francisco never addresses the car accident, anger management classes, the restraining order, and a month in jail.
Don Francisco crouches down to talk to me, seven years old, her only U.S.-born child at the time, and he asks me, “¿Extrañas a tu papá?”1 I give him a meek sí and nod, my mother really smiles before the familiar sentimental piano commences.
From the entrance of the studio and down the steps that flash multiple colors, a procession of family members reach us. They are faceless, only of varying shades of brown, save for my grandparents whose features I can place in this fantasy because I have seen a handful of pictures of them. My mother embraces her parents with tears that fall freely. My father, in a tailored black suit, a white collared shirt, and a cobalt tie, like in the church photos, immediately scoops me up. He places me on his hip; I hide the stream of tears on my pudgy cheeks in the crook of my father’s neck, while he pats my back languidly. We all embrace for a few moments too long for television.
In real life, my mother is an unsmiling, rather shy woman. She hasn’t worn a skirt or a dress in public since we stopped going to church because she had to work more without my father around. She prefers jeans, a sensible ponytail style, and minimal makeup, her boldest choices include: lining her already prominent, brown eyes with a charcoal black and emphasizing her pronounced cheekbones with a coral blush. I am an echo of her, sharing similar faces and a serious temperament, one that I am always trying to break out of. Despite the coldness she gives most people, I am able to decode her. Her blinking away tears when she dropped me off at my freshman college dorm with a curt hug, the cut up fruit she would leave wordlessly at my desk, and her rambling about a memory of her life in El Salvador are all grand gestures of love.
I feel the most love when she spontaneously recalls a memory, in the kitchen while fixing me some eggs or some coffee, a walk back home from the pharmacy, grocery shopping on Saturdays. Nearly twenty-five years have passed since she’s been in El Salvador yet those moments strike her and she’s nearly back home. She confides in me in those rare moments, to piece things together— why her father did that, why her neighbor had poisoned the dog Laika, how her mother maintained a watchful eye on them. I like to think she is content with my presumptions, only for her to mention it again, months or even years later. Sometimes I don’t have any answers.
When I ask, “Ma, should I go to El Salvador for Thanksgiving?” I didn’t know why I wanted to go. It might’ve been that twenty felt like the right age to go, but maybe she would’ve said no.
“They don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” she said in Spanish, which really meant, It’s up to you. Unnerved, I buy my tickets that same night, two days before.
In the dark of the night, it was a little harder to locate my father. Fifteen years of time elapsed, but I’ve managed to remember his face and his stocky figure. When I do see him, he is in a large group of people, holding big signs with names. I wheeled my light gray suitcase a little quicker, feeling a light layer of sweat on my skin, for I was dressed too warmly. Once we get to that moment, it’ll be gone quicker than you expect, I told myself.
I know what I’m supposed to do, I hold my arms outstretched once I’m closer and he envelops me gently. He murmurs in Spanish how much he has missed me, how glad he is that I’ve come to visit him, and all I notice is that scandalous smell, his vigorous use of deodorant, a blue gel masculine-type deodorant with an aggressively manly name for its scent. It all felt too much. I am in his grip, bowing my head into the familiar crook of his neck that now had a few rolls and two thin chain-link necklaces. We part after I answer, struggling to meet the emotion of his words.
“Y . . . ¡.fuera!” I hear the trompeta sound off and El Chacal prances around the stage of my mind.
I instantly wipe away the tears that prick my eyes and I see the same man from my childhood, only he is plumper, grizzled, and weathered. His russet skin is darker, his eyes more sunken in, and we are nearly the same height.
I then greet a young fellow who drove my dad and my father’s stepson, chelito2 like me, who mumbled his name to me, unimpressed and reserved in his teenaged manner. Enmanuel I made out, “Emerson,” my dad corrects—for people here often refer to each other by their second names. I would hate to be called Melissa.
He leads me to the red pickup truck where my dad offers and, without waiting for my response, lugs my carry-on into the back. He mentally debates with himself whether to sit in the front or the back, before decidedly plopping himself beside my suitcase. I relieve my back of the heavy backpack and place it on the floor of the car while Emerson slips into the passenger’s seat and the driver settles behind the wheel. In the dark, I feel my father’s gaze on me.
“Your hair is long, just like in the photo you sent,” he comments in Spanish. He had requested a photo of me to be able to recognize me, but I know he just wanted a picture. He loves pictures and we will spend every waking moment of that week taking pictures.
“Yes, but I would like to cut it soon,” I gather my hair into low bun, resting on the nape of my neck. The windows are down and the capital is too dark for me to observe. I can only make out green pastures, highways in development, and stacks of bricks. We converse back and forth, with me updating him on my siblings. He is mostly quiet for most of the ride to his home before he compliments my Spanish and I restrain myself from telling him that it’s all because of Ma. Once we run out niceties, my “I remembers,” and his photos, the years without seeing him fill the silence between us.
The first morning, I officially wake with the chirps of the two birds, the cries and whines from their two pit bulls, itchy ankles, and a newfound heat invading my body. Hours before, I woke up hearing my father scuttle about, tending to his mujer who has just given birth to his eighth child. My shock at his domesticity for this woman wasn’t enough to wake me completely.
I turn off the fan, fold the green blanket, and slide on my black sandals beside the bed before smacking my ankles to keep me from scratching. I would be sleeping in Emerson’s room for the entire week, the blue walls with skateboards hung, a small TV, and a desktop. It was indeed a seventeen year old’s room.
Right outside of his room is the kitchen. My pot-bellied shirtless father is fixing some eggs, beans, queso, crema, and tortillas.
“How did you sleep?” he places the plate on the table, two sunny side up eggs.
“Well, how about you?” I ask courteously and thank him for breakfast. For the first time in my life, I am truly looking at my father. The bullet shot wounds in his back, the long scar running down his left calf, black-blue ink tattoos: a heart with Sonia right beneath it (my mother’s name) on his right shoulder, a big anchor with his initials, N.A.A., below it , and a messy, scrawled Gloria on the inside of his left forearm. His scars were from his two years serving in the Salvadoran War and tattoos of his youth. My mother admitted to me that she wasn’t entirely sure if his tattoo of her name was for her, since he’d had another girlfriend named Sonia. I hope to not find the names of the women he’s been with after my mother.
He must feel me ogling him, “I have never seen your scars,” I explain and he can’t believe it. He tells me that I can sit in the living room on the couch so I can watch television. He hurries with my plate and his own to the couch with me close behind, and opens the small wooden table before me before I can do it myself. I sit back into the couch that is covered by a lime and pink flowery blanket. He disappears back into the kitchen and reappears with two mugs filled with black coffee. I don’t ask for milk.
“I really enjoy action movies, there’s this one about war and this religious combat medic. Do you want to watch it?” I nod and it is then I notice the very large flat-screen smart TV. My father was a man of debts and an avid television watcher; it was bittersweet to see some things never change.
When we reach the more gruesome scenes of the movie, I observe that he cannot tear his eyes from the screen. The bombs, bloody bodies turning black and blue, and the violence―although very Hollywood―make me scrunch my nose in discomfort and at times, unwittingly flinch. I want to ask him if any of this reminds of his time in the army but instead dig into my breakfast, tearing the tortilla and folding it into the beans and eggs.
“I forgot to ask you, do you want hot sauce? I’m not sure—” he holds the hot sauce toward me.
“I love hot sauce, can’t eat without it really,” I screw open the cap and give it a few vigorous shakes over my food.
He gives me a boyish smile and laughs, “Maybe you got that from me.”
In the movie, the combat medic has created a sort of pulley system to transport injured soldiers to the other side where the rest of the soldiers reside. No man left behind. I swirl the coffee in my mug and cross my legs. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and reaches into one of the cubicles of the TV set for a photo album, a warm brown leather cover with half of it decorated with a material that reminds me of the couch we had when we all lived together, a flowery design.
“I don’t think you’ve seen these pictures. This was kept by your grandmother but she gave it to me when I returned here.” He flips through the first page and sets it on my lap. I see pictures of us, that last birthday with him, where he is clearly visible, sitting right beside me at the kitchen table with my siblings. My plush strawberry shortcake doll tossed on the table, several blue bottles of bubbles, and dixie plastic cups, things I had no recollection of. The frosting is light blue. It sets in that he was the family photographer. After his deportation, there are hardly any family photos.
“I love taking pictures, how come you guys don’t send me any?”
“We don’t take pictures, really. I prefer to remember things on my own,” I shrug.
He leans toward me, confirming his style of remembering “I can’t remember much in my old age, but you seem to remember pretty well, right?”
I nod and I feel myself shrink into my five year-old, almost six year-old self. The words scratch their way out of the deep recesses of my mind. The question tumbles out of my mouth before I can reel it back in.
“Do you remember the last time we saw each other? When you said goodbye to us. What do you remember about leaving?”
“I don’t remember much, unfortunately. All I remember is being on the plane handcuffed with other people like me that had been deported. I didn’t have any bags, just the clothes off my back,” he is apologetic that he can’t remember what I seem to have remembered before I say anything.
I feel guilty for the idea I had in my head, that he would correct my memory. I imagine my father in his everyday clothes, handcuffed, and wide-eyed while I ruminated on our goodbye.
I was revisiting a love I was no longer fluent in, but was receptive to. A man haunted by his mistakes, another child born, the will to return to the United States. I had come to El Salvador, not to find my father, for in many ways, I knew him. It was the pressure of this fragment of a story, of the last time I had seen him. I wanted to impose a narrative on this hazy pseudo-memory, but I didn’t have anyone to corroborate this story. Hand-me-down hurts and the feelings caught up in the memory were irretrievable, I was my mother’s child after all. I couldn’t remember the pain of him leaving or the last time that I had really felt it, not the way I did then.
We resume our eating, lips smacking, dipping our food into the crema. In my head, I began to compulsively note: his fast-paced eating, the sparse salt-and-pepper hairs on his jaw, the blue and white spiral yarn bracelet on his left wrist that has grayed with time. It is my own form of photography, perhaps more intrusive than his relentless taking of photos.