After Rocio told me she’d bought the tickets for Juárez, I began to sweat. I’d read stories about Juárez, that it was like a Mexican Dodge City, a lawless frontier town where shootouts happen at a quarter past every hour. Plus, scarier yet, I was going to Juárez to meet my father-in-law.

See, Rocio’s from Juárez, having spent her first two years in a neighborhood named after the revolutionary war hero Lucio Blanco. When her parents brought the family to Chicago in 1990, she was the middle of two Juarense daughters. Ro has no memory of Juárez, except for the time when she accidentally got hit in the mouth by her cousin at the swings. Other than that, all of her memories are American. In fact, she was more nervous about going to her hometown than I was.

Once we got married and Ro got her green card, we knew Juárez would have to be the first trip we made. We fixed Ro’s papers in February, and in March, the flight to Juárez was booked.

Now, more than anything, Rocio was afraid she’d find her father a changed man. She feared the memory of the person she’d kept alive these past eight years would end up being completely fictional, that her dad wasn’t nearly as good and loving as she’d made him out to be. She even made me promise I’d tell her if the man I met wasn’t the same man from her stories. I assured her that, no matter who we found, he would be better than the dad in her stories, because this would be her father as he is, not as she remembered him or wanted him to be.

The first thing that strikes you about Ciudad Juárez is the dry heat. It’s a heavy heat that sits on top of you whenever you venture out of the shade. Ro’s aunt had brought us across the border where I got to see the infamous Rio Grande for the first time — long, winding, and bone dry — a grand ditch in the desert. As an American, the 18-foot-high fence embarrassed me, because American kids are taught that their great country is the “golden door” for the entire world. But here at the border, I got to see America the way Mexicans see it: a big, dark fence.

Rocio’s paternal grandparents live at the end of a dusty dead-end street, and as the car pulled up to the house, there he was, standing under the crown of a short oak tree. He walked to the gate and unlocked it in a hurry. Ro and her father didn’t say anything. They just wrapped their arms around each other and buried their faces in the other’s neck, crying. I stood with Ro’s family in a semicircle around the scene. We bowed our heads as if in the presence of something sacred.

When they finally unlocked, Ro wiped tears from her eyes as her father placed his hands on her shoulders and smiled at her with a lot of pride and love. He turned to me  with red, wet eyes, a beaming smile and his outstretched palm. “It’s an honor to finally meet you,” I said in English. “Igualmente,” he said.

Of course, we did plenty of talking and crying during that week in Juárez. It’s tough what happened to Ro’s family. After moving his family to Chicago with practically nothing, Rocio’s dad worked long days, long weeks and long years to move his kids (which later became five in total) out of a cramped apartment and into a two-floor house in a quiet suburb. But, in the move, immigration services lost track of him, and his order to start the process for legal residency never reached him at his new home.

I discovered all of this while trying to help Rocio fix her papers before we got married.

When the government finally did track him down, they ordered him to appear before an immigration judge, who gave him the option of leaving the United States voluntarily or face detention, a fine and a 10-year banishment.

Ro’s dad struggled to build a new life in Juárez. Once you’re a certain age on the other side of the fence, you’re considered useless on the labor market. Fortunately, he’d developed specialized carpentry skills while doing some remodeling in the States, something which distinguished him from the mass of other Juarenses simply looking for work. Even still, he makes a mere one-tenth of what he made back home — he considers Chicago, where his daughters are, home.

He’s a beaten man these days, weighed down by the cruel callousness of life. But he still has hope. He has five reasons to keep going, to smile. In three years, his oldest of two American-born daughters will turn 21, allowing her to petition for her father. Ro will also be eligible for citizenship, which will allow her to petition for her father, too. Ro’s dad has three more years to go before he can come back home. By then, it’ll have been 11 years since he’s seen his other daughters.

As Ro and I fell asleep that first night in Juárez, she asked me, “So, is he just like how I described?”

“Better,” I said, “because now he’s real.”

My father-in-law is a real-life good man, the kind of father a guy like me has only seen on ABC Family.

Before leaving, he thanked me , maybe for bringing his daughter to see him, maybe for loving her as much as I do. I thanked him for raising such an amazing person, and told him we’d be back soon.

 

[Photo: Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.]

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