Juan Ramirez (left) with his father in Mexico.
To get us to the U.S., my mom put my two sisters and me on a bus, then a plane and then — during the night — we drove a car across the border. I remember looking around and thinking, “Is this it? This is the U.S.?” It didn’t seem like a big deal to me. All I remember seeing was a big McDonald’s sign at the border crossing.
Seventeen years later, my wife, my daughter and I were crossing the border in the early morning in a five-seat, 1997 Honda Civic. It would be my first time back. My palms were sweaty. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was laughing at the dumbest things. I kept worrying something would go wrong. Like I would have to stay in Mexico. Or I would lose my job because of a delay getting back into the U.S.
At the international border, the freeway ended. Lights flashed. A sign read, “Leaving the USA.”
As we drove over the border, a Mexican soldier with a machine gun waved us through. I remember looking around and thinking, “This is it?’ This is Mexico? Some dude waving at us to come in?”
You know how in the suburbs in Portland there are gas stations and grocery stores everywhere? In Mexico, there are small businesses, mechanics, and tire shops. The next time you hear someone say the streets in Mexico are rough, remember that they’re being literal.
We drove to an apartment building that my uncle Erasmo owns. As we pulled up to the apartments, I saw a thin, short man wearing faded blue shorts, a gray T-shirt, and sandals. It was my dad. His dark skin looked like leather. His eyes looked tired. I got out of the car and we hugged. I could feel my dad’s bones.
In every old picture of my dad, there is a drink in his hand. I tried to talk to him about it, but the conversation never went far. I told him he’s addicted and that he needs to talk to a doctor. He got very mad. My dad said he’s going to keep going to rehab. The rehab my dad goes to is like a cross between a dry-house and a jail. It’s a big building where you stay so you don’t drink. Once a day, you go into a yard to exercise. There aren’t any doctors or counselors or drug treatment experts.
My dad used to live in Tigard. He got deported about eight years ago. He was in Beaverton, outside a taco truck. He was drunk, and he got in a fight. When he got to Tijuana he called me on the phone. I don’t remember what he said. I don’t remember what he promised. I just remember thinking, “Damn, this fool is in TJ? What the hell is he doing in TJ?”
My dad lives with my grandpa in a two-bedroom house. The home has been under construction since I left Mexico in 1998. My dad sleeps in a hammock in an open-windowed bedroom. It’s been 17 years since I’ve been in Mexico. Everything seemed smaller than I remembered. The kitchen counter at my grandpa’s house has gotten shorter. I could see over it now. My dad has shrunken. He only comes up to my shoulders.
Juan Ramirez (bottom row, fourth from right), with his extended family in Mexico.
Juan Ramirez/ OPB
In the two weeks, I was in Mexico, it felt like we were trying to make up for the 17 years I was gone. We fished for marlins. We went on a boat tour to see dolphins and turtles. We ate tlayudas, mole negro, ceviche and fried fish. I met new family members. We went to the cemetery to pay respects to those who had passed. I felt warm and exhausted.
One night, I sat down with my grandpa Julio. He’s a retired ship captain and is known around town as a ladies’ man of sorts. He says that at around the turn of the 20th century, four brothers traveled by foot from the isthmus of Oaxaca, crossing hills and desert and jungles. Near what has become Puerto Escondido, the Ramirez brothers settled in the jungle near the beach. That settlement eventually became the town where I was born. I’m proud of our history. But as my grandpa sat and played the guitar, I thought about all those people in the U.S. who will never hear about their family stories because they can’t come back to Mexico. I could see their ancestors vanishing into the hills of Oaxaca, fading out of time, without anyone to talk to about their journey.
The two weeks passed. My dad drove us to the airport. I hugged him as hard as I could. I could feel his bones. We both tried to not cry. As we said goodbye, I had these thoughts: I believe my dad believes he will quit drinking. But I also know it’s unlikely. I know that he will stay sober for a while, then will eventually start drinking and then will disappear. He’ll quit his job. Then he’ll sell his clothes for beer, his cell phone for booze. No one will hear from him until he gets into trouble or his health gets bad. I want to believe my dad will stop. It would make it easier to leave.
As we approached the border checkpoint, my palms got wet and my heart raced. I got quiet, sinking into the passenger seat. I had the proper paperwork to get back in, but it didn’t guarantee I could. Lots of things could go wrong. I thought of all them, real and not, while waiting to get to the checkpoint.
When we pulled up, they looked at my papers and sent me to the secondary inspection. While I waited, I tried to picture what life would be like in Mexico. I saw my father and my grandfather and myself. If I stayed, would my daughter one day have to send me cash for rehab? For food? For clothes?
The notice finally came back and I walked out of the building. I handed the officer the paperwork saying it was OK for me to continue traveling. We got in the car and drove up Interstate 5 to Los Angeles. At the border, I didn’t see the big McDonald’s sign at the crossing. My eyes looked ahead.