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I was about 7 years old when Immigration and Customs Enforcement took my dad.
It was the day before his birthday at our home in Concord, not far from Charlotte. My mom had planned a surprise party for him and my sister since they share the same birthday. Mom bought brand new leather Mexican boots and blue denim pants for my dad to wear on his special day. I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to taste the pozole and tacos dorados my mom would surely make for this special occasion.
My dad normally got ready for work around 6 a.m. He owned a business that’s still open today and now owned by a family friend. My dad paid taxes and contributed to society. Some would say he was “one of the good ones.” (As if the notion of good vs. bad immigrants is valid.) As if immigrants aren’t humans, too. But even being “one of the good ones” wasn’t enough.
That morning as my mom put my cousins, who she babysat, to sleep, someone knocked on the door.
“We’re the police,” they said.
Frightened, my mom opened the door. By the time my mom realized what had happened, it was too late. She could see my father in handcuffs through our open front door.
“We need to look around,” the man said.
With tears in her eyes, my mom agreed.
He walked into our home, and every step he took felt like another nail in the coffin of my parents’ American dream.
Then he stopped. “Don’t worry, ma’am,” he assured my mom, “we’re not going to take you.”
The officer could’ve taken my mom as part of something they like to consider “collaterals,” or undocumented immigrants who weren’t ICE’s original targets but are arrested anyway.
But how can I thank the same officer who took away my dad for letting me keep my mom?
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time they would leave a child without their parents. The actress Diane Guerrero, for instance, was separated from her parents at the age of 14 and left on her own. No one came to look for her. No government official made sure she had someone to look after her. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many people in our country.
As the officer sniffed every corner in the home, he arrived at our room. First, he pointed a flashlight in my sisters’ eyes and then in mine. The light blinded me as if it was warning me to keep my eyes shut. And then they left.
My mom hurried my sister and me to get ready for school like my life hadn’t just shattered like a broken mirror. They held my dad at an Atlanta prison, and then they deported him. We had the opportunity to see him once more before they sent him back.
For the next three years, we would remain in the U.S. without my father. My mom took over the business while working at a flea market on the weekends. My sister and I also took jobs to help support my mom. We woke up every weekend at 4 a.m. to arrive at the flea market before the customers. I would sell chicharrones. My sister sold clothes. We were children forced to become adults at a young age.
By the time I saw my dad again — in Mexico — I’d turned 9. My sister wasn’t able to go because she, too, was an immigrant. My parents brought her to the U.S. when she was 3 years old. I spent the entire summer in a small ranch called “Valle de Vazquez — Los Hornos,” and I fell in love.
So, I decided I wanted to live in Mexico with my dad and reunite my family. Against my sisters’ wishes, I convinced my mom to leave and we did. However, family separation is something that you can’t just brush off as soon as you’re reunited.
In the news, you may have seen reports of stories in which families are reunited, but a child doesn’t recognize Mom or Dad. I was separated from my family twice. First, when they took my dad, and then when I made the difficult decision to leave Mexico and pursue my dream of becoming a journalist in the U.S.
In Diane Guerrero’s words, “I loved and missed them (my parents) as much as they did me, but talking to them was a reminder of everything I was desperate to forget.”
Sometimes, I resent my parents and as silly as that sounds — it’s true. Sometimes I wish they were Americans so they could be in the United States with me. But other times I am glad I have these experiences with me. They keep me grounded and conscious of the many injustices that exist today.
Separating families brings a lot of trauma. There are moments my parents and I never got to share — prom, graduations, college move-in, and even something as simple as a cup of tea when you’re feeling sick. I know that the second time around it was my decision to leave, but like some of my ancestors, I decided to leave for a better life and security. This is for all the young girls and boys who feel lost and incomplete after being separated from their families. In the words of Dolores Huerta, “Sí, Se Puede,” or “Yes, We Can.”
Patsy Montesinos is a part of the News + Record’s “La Voz” team, which is reporting on Chatham’s Latinx community and funded by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project.