Jonathan Acuna-Lopez

The New Year

……….On the last day of 2018, I was laid off from my job as a part-time dishwasher. The bosses ordered a meeting at closing. I figured it was to go over something they wanted done better. A lot of the meetings had nothing to do with me as a dishwasher, they involved the cooks and the wait staff. They also slowed me down because I had to clean all the supplies in the back. I was surprised that they waited for me to finish. I remember that I took a while because I was scrubbing down the rice cookers with steel wool. The grains looked like maggots.
……….We were asked if we wanted the good news or the bad news. We all chose the bad news and were told that the restaurant was going to close. The owners had to make repairs and the lease was going to expire, they did not think it was “economically feasible to sustain the restaurant.” It was New Year’s Eve, so the “good news” was that we would be able to find new opportunities in the New Year. I wasn’t angry or sad. I was numb. I had money saved up, but what about my coworkers? Some of them had been working there for years. Happy New Year.
……….My mom was angrier than I was. How could they do that? How could they just throw us away like that? I had been working there for three years. I didn’t love the job and it wasn’t fun. No one looks forward to being eternally soggy or sticking their hands in food water. But I did love my coworkers. We suffered together and reminded ourselves that we would leave that place. I had joked with my coworker, Migel, that we did not have to put in our resignations if the restaurant closed first. We hated that place, but we were glad to have each other. We were all part of the same world and to leave that comfort was scary. Happy New Year.
……….In my family, it is the custom to eat twelve grapes on New Year’s Day and to make a wish, one wish for each month of the upcoming year. One of my wishes, of course, was to find a new job. It was unreal to be without a job. I have been working part-time jobs since my senior year of high school. Even though I didn’t earn a lot, I did not have to ask my mom for money.
……….I was ashamed. I felt disgraced to be without a job. Suddenly, I was a bad son who sat around and waited for his parents to do everything for him. I credit those sentiments to how my mother and father raised me. Though they divorced when I was a kid, both of them have worked to give my sisters and me a better future. As the son of immigrants, I can’t imagine wanting anything other than “a better life.” It is why I get up every day. Why I work so hard at school. My dream is one that many have, a house for myself and for my family. I do not want my mom to worry about rent money. I don’t want our lives to be threatened if our car broke down. I want my sisters to ask for the things they want. This is my American Dream. All the things I want require hard work and a lot of sacrifice.
……….I would describe my father as a workaholic. He would probably be working right now if he hadn’t lost his eye. He lost it because he prolonged treatment in favor of working. When I asked to interview him for this essay, he was more than happy to oblige. I drove from my apartment in Silver Spring to his in Glenmont. He was doing laundry. We had lunch; chicken with rice and coffee.
……….I knew that my father was involved in the military in Nicaragua. He always warned me to never join the military because the poor were sent off to die for the rich. He came to this country in 1988 to escape the Nicaraguan Revolution. The revolutionary Sandinistas were fighting the National Guard. One of the leaders of the Sandinistas, Daniel Ortega, ultimately became a dictator in Nicaragua. To this day, Nicaragua is in a state of turmoil.
……….My father was working as a clerk in a government office, where civilians were drafted. He worked in the front lines in vigilance, shooting at any noise in the night. In the morning, he would find whatever he had killed; cows or horses. Farmers had allowed them to wander the wilderness.
……….While my father talked, he folded plastic bags into squares as if they were pieces of laundry. I wondered why he did that, but I didn’t ask. My father sighed with resignation and told me that sometimes no matter how much you fight for an ideal, someone will always be there to frustrate and interfere with that ideal.
……….My father sought political asylum in the United States, but it was declined. So, my father asked my grandmother, who was in the United States, for a loan. The loan would allow him to fund his journey por tierra, by land. From Nicaragua, my father had to go through Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, before finally reaching the United States. The journey was not easy, and border patrol had to be evaded in each country. He met people from all over. They slept out in the open, or sometimes kind people would offer a roof to sleep under. Sometimes they found a hotel. What all travelers to the United States by land shared was a sense of desperation.
……….My father told me that there were three things that could happen during the journey to the United States.
……….The first is death. Coming to the United States means risking it all, even your life. The second is deportation. Not only do you go home empty handed, but you also probably owe a substantial amount of money to whoever funded the trip.
……….The third is actually making it to the United States.
……….The hardest part of the journey is the trek through the Mexican desert. In the jungle and the woods, you can hide, but once you get to the desert you are out in the open and exposed to everything. In the desert, it is hard to find something to eat. The desert is where people are really tested. If a coyote (guide) tells you to hide, you hide, even if you stand in the same spot all day. Even if it rains, you wait for the guide to come back. They tell you they will come back for you, but that may be a lie. Hopefully, the guide returns with food and water. Sometimes there is not enough for everyone.
……….It is normal to leave people to die. There is no time to even bury bodies, and corpses are left for the vultures circling overhead. Mexican immigration officials are constantly patrolling the border. Sometimes the patrol accepts bribes and then deports whoever they have found. Travelers know to duck into the surrounding shrubland if immigration officials are passing by.
……….At the table we were sharing for lunch, my father suddenly jumped up and mimed a man holding a knife. He told me his group was held up by seven Mexican teenagers asking for money with a chorus of orale pinches weyes (alright you fucking idiots). My father and the guide, the only two men, stood back to back and told the women to run up ahead while they held off the youths. A high value bill was secured at the top of a roll of money and thrown into the air. While the teenagers scrambled for the money, my father and the guide escaped.
……….When travelers make it to the Rio Grande, they are met with a deceptively calm river. Not only is the Rio Grande deep, it also has a very strong current beneath the surface of the water. If you were to enter in one spot on an inner tube, the current could take you further down stream than you expected. There are paths worn down by travelers along the river. Guides tell you where to meet and you know where it is by the bird calls they imitate. My father told me that the guides who helped him cross the river were local boys of twelve and fifteen. The inner tubes they used got stolen and the travelers had to wait for new ones. The boys did not return with enough inner tubes, so my father had to share his with someone who could not swim.
……….My father was in the “clear” once he crossed the Rio Grande.
……….“Valio la pena?” I asked him,” Was it worth it?”
……….He answered with a resounding yes. He got to have his family in the United States and could not imagine it any other way.
……….My mother came to the United States with a work visa. The only woman from her family to leave Guatemala, she got a job as a baby sitter. Her family did not want her to come to the United States because she did not know the language, and no one knew her. In the patriarchal Latin American culture, it is common for women to marry in their early twenties. My mother, in her thirties, was an anomaly, working and living independently. She cleaned houses, worked at a car wash, and was a hotel housekeeper. It was surprising that she did not yet have children and unlike many immigrant mothers, she did not leave a child behind in the old country.
……….My mom’s priority is keeping a roof over our heads. She also sends money to my grandmother, out of what she considers her familial duty.
……….When I ask her if it was all worth it, her answer echoes my father’s, whom she met in Maryland when he was working as a delivery driver and she cleaned houses. Her family is here, and she is grateful that the United States has opened up the doors to allow her to survive. She tells me that we are in a country of opportunities.
……….There is a saying in Spanish “el que busca encuentra” which roughly translates to “where there is a will there is a way.” My mom tells me that the people who come to this country may be escaping political unrest, gang violence, or poverty. But all of them come for something more. There is immense pressure not to fail.
……….A month after I lost my job, I got another one, as an apartment building janitor. I work there on weekends, retreating to the janitorial closet when the work is completed to try to finish my homework until my shift ends. The cold room has no windows and it feels like I’m hiding. But I am biding my time. I am working toward the day I will buy my house. The new year when I will finally be able to walk in the sunlight with my family.

© Jonathan Acuna-Lopez

Jonathan Acuna-Lopez is a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; studying English. He is a first generation American of Central American heritage. This is his first published nonfiction piece.

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