As the cliché goes, I was a little girl who loved weddings. I dreamed of the poofy cupcake–like dress, the cake, and the flowers, among other things. One thing that continually frustrated me when I was little, though, was the fact that my parents never had any wedding photos. I would push and push, asking where they were, who took them, why we didn’t have them at our house. All my mom could muster up was, “they’re at my parent's house,” or, “next time your aunt comes to visit, she’ll bring them.” Multiple aunts and uncles visited, and each time I wondered and pressed as to where the photo album was, until my mom snapped and told me not to ask about it. Only several years later would I be told why the photo album didn’t exist.
While for some people it would be as easy as going over to their grandparents’ house and checking for the album, both sets of my grandparents were across an ocean; and for some reason, we never visited. I had gone to my parents’ home country once when I was very young, but only with my father. We hadn’t gone with my mom or my brother. My parents always chalked it up to the fact that they were saving up, which I accepted and understood.
In 2011, we finally visited. There was no photo album. No one answered me when I asked where it was, and my grandfather was so senile that I didn’t expect him to know. After that visit, we kept on going back to the motherland, and the period of time where we never visited faded into oblivion, only coming back when I expressed my sadness over not spending time with family overseas during my childhood.
As I became older and more aware, more things started to not make sense. Why was there not even a marriage certificate? I kept on pushing my mother to answer, and it became such a sore point that my mother finally snapped and told me to stop asking about it. She was so upset that I stopped.
But then it came up in conversation with my dad when I was seventeen.
We were on vacation and wading in the clear blue water when my brother and I started going on about all the dumb things that never made sense to us as a child. I mentioned the wedding, or lack thereof. My dad caved and said, “It’s because we weren’t married for a long time.” It came as a shock, but nothing serious, I laughed and speculated about me and my brother being born ‘bastards.’
My dad went on to say that at the time, he was married to a longtime family friend for most of my childhood, until he and my mother got legally married on a weekday morning at City Hall. Things started to make sense. Her name was on all of our electrical and water bills. They could never show me their wedding certificate because for a long time, it didn’t exist, and when it did, it would reveal that my parents weren’t married.
Along with the marriage revelation came a much deeper and more important truth than any dumb album or license: that my dad had to get married for a Green Card, and that my mom lived in the U.S. without documentation for 12 years. To say it came as a shock was an understatement.
At first, I felt guilty. Knowing that my mom had to endure endless questions from her inquisitive and nosy daughter about things that she had to keep quiet about must have been hard. I also realized that over the period of time when she was undocumented, the rest of her undocumented friends gave up and went back to their home country, accepting a ban from entering the U.S. for 10 years that accompanied overstaying their initial visa. One of her siblings and her mother died within those 12 years, and she couldn’t go back unless she wanted to jeopardize everything she and my dad worked for. She was lonely, grieving, becoming accustomed to a new country, all while raising two children and supporting my dad as he built his business.
Then I was resentful. They kept this secret from me for so long, and I was angry that I never got an explanation to all of the questions I had for this exact reason. I thought that maybe if there was some kind of transparency I might have been less confused.
However, it became apparent very quickly that they did this out of love and care. Letting me be a normal American kid, unburdened by the complexities of documentation status and immigration was the best thing they could have done for me. After all, I was an American citizen.
This whole situation just demonstrates how incredibly lucky we all were. Lucky that we all ended up with documentation and were able to stay together, lucky that we didn’t live in the age of President Donald Trump and no–tolerance immigration laws. We were lucky that we didn’t come from a country that would make people suspicious of my parents’ immigration status, lucky that all of these elements came together to put up a ruse and to keep us safe. I was just this clueless American kid, and I’m so glad I was clueless. Not every person has that luxury.
Even though I understand my general luck in this situation, it doesn’t change how it’s affected how I look at my life today and my childhood. Now it makes sense why my parents slowly lost all of our family friends, why everyone moved back, and why we were left as just the four of us. Even though my parents have made some friends, found their passions, and moved on from the difficult times of our past, the moments of isolation we all felt follow us to this day. Even if we’ve moved on, I still get such sharp pangs of sadness sometimes when I think about everything my parents had to endure on their own. Death, financial hardship, raising two children, working their asses off to make sure we had the best life possible.
Coming to terms with my family’s immigration story was difficult and for a bit of time, all–consuming. It was a big piece of information to be trusted with and digest. It made me rethink my identity as a daughter of immigrants, and brought me closer to my parents, whose sacrifices meant that I got to grow up in the United States and get a way better education than I would have in their home country.
However, the one thing that doesn’t change is the fact that we can’t talk about it to anyone. It’s not something we’re allowed to share or identify ourselves with. The isolation in that sense still remains. You would never look at a photo of our family or come to our home and realize the realities of what our lives used to look like. We weren’t always this safe, stable, or lucky. You just didn’t know, and you still don’t.