Every family, like every country, has a narrative about itself, a story they come back to over and over again, that they tell at parties, on the front stoop, over café. They share these cuentos—adding and subtracting details as years pass—to create a sense of themselves, of their communities, of where they’ve been and what they’ve overcome. When these lives and stories are shaped by immigration policy, families create coded narratives, ways to talk about the events without naming the painful aspects of their experiences.
So it was with my family. My mother made it sound like an adventure that she came to visit a friend in the States and then found a job (code for “I overstayed a tourist visa”). She also announced the anniversary of the day she became a citizen with awe and relief (code for “I didn’t have to hide anymore”).
I grew up hearing these and other stories but not understanding the coded language, not realizing all that was being left unsaid—until I began editing Alberto Ledesma’s poignant essay on growing up as undocumented immigrant in East Oakland.