Feature photo by apdk
Like too many Mexican men, my father passed away from heart disease. He died young, on his 52nd birthday. I was in college, a two-hour flight away, and learned of his death through a phone call. After my brother nervously rambled through too many details, at the end of the conversation I still had to ask, “Wait. He’s dead?” It was the soft, simple “yeah” that I still carry with me. It’s been 14 years, and my memory of my father has inevitably started crumbling. Details fade. The curve of his face is now something I have to remember through photos. Yet, what these years have taught me the most is that someone’s essence never fades. What they taught you stays alive, either through your own everyday actions or through constant reminders to stay true to those lessons. And so, in honor of my papi on Father’s Day, I’m honoring his spirit–the things his life taught me.
Enjoy life, even when it’s falling apart. My father was a prankster, always determined to scare the crap out of his family. Plastic rats in refrigerators. Firecrackers thrown at our feet. Patiently waiting in a darkly lit room while covered in a white bed sheet and wearing the scariest Halloween mask ever. Yep, my dad had jokes. That last one almost sent my mom to the hospital, so he stuck to the lighter whoopie-cushion pranks after that. My dad was always determined to make people laugh. Even on the gurney on his way to the hospital the day he died, he was cracking jokes. Maybe to comfort others. Maybe to deal with the stress. Whatever the reason, in his final moments, he stayed committed to enjoying life.
Imagine the unimaginable. My dad was an illegal immigrant for years. Got kicked out several times and came right back—once, stunt-man style, in a hidden compartment under a truck. Why? How could someone who grew up in poverty, who lived on a mountainside in an adobe house without electricity and bathrooms (a house his father built), who, since the age of 5, worked the land his family lived off of, how could this young man even know what awaited him on this side of the border? He imagined. He had a vision and never let it go. When he immigrated here, he learned to read and write—in English no less; became a math whiz; went from stockboy to manager; paid off a house in the suburbs to get his kids into better schools; witnessed his children be the first in his family to go on to college; and perhaps most importantly, helped his family in Mexico reach their own dreams.
Get the best education. Bringing home B’s wasn’t good enough for my dad. “Why aren’t they A’s?” he would ask. As a kid, the pressure sucked. As an adult, I can appreciate the drive he instilled in me to learn and to do my best in whatever I set out to do. Here’s a guy who only went to elementary school a handful of years, and I use the term “school” very loosely. He was illiterate when he immigrated to the states, yet he innately knew the importance of education and the opportunities it led to. He abandoned traditional notions of keeping his only daughter stuck at home and gloated when I left for college, undoubtedly proud of himself, too, for giving his children so much more than he ever had.
Always work your butt off. If you’re a poor kid in Mexico, you start working when you’re old enough to be in kindergarten. My dad was a lifelong workaholic. His immigration journey took him from working in the fields to a factory to one of those bubbly gray food trucks to a liquor store and bar in the heart of Little Village. Three heart attacks, diabetes, and getting on a heart-transplant list didn’t slow him down much–he decided to work six days a week instead of seven. He had an insatiable need to work. It gave him a sense of purpose and pride. He knew working hard helped people accomplish their dreams. He was living proof of that.
Never forget your roots. From a young age, we visited Mexico regularly. What my brothers and I first experienced as culture shock (“Wait–no Nintendo?” “Are you talking about real scorpions and lizards?” “What do you mean they’re ‘fattening up’ a pig for us?”) became second nature. I appreciate what I have because I saw how my parents grew up with so little. Their life taught me what real problems are, something I am eternally grateful for. My dad and mom showed us our roots, and it kept us grounded and it connected us to a world entirely different from the one we lived in everyday. Beyond never forgetting his cultural roots, my dad also never forgot his family roots. He spoke to his mom and siblings several times a month, checking in to see how they were doing and what they needed—both financially and emotionally. Only death broke his strong connection to his family and patria.
My dad taught me much more than I can ever fit in an article. And as I get older, I know the memory of his life will continue to teach me new lessons. It’s how he’ll stay with me, how his spirit will never die. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads! And, Happy Father’s Day, Papi. Rest in peace.