A Dream Called Home
EVERY MINUTE THAT went by, another mile separated me from my family. We drove north on I-5, and I felt divided in half, like this highway I was on—one side going north, the other going south. Half of me wanted to turn back, to stay in Los Angeles and fight for my family—my father, my mother, my sisters and brothers—stay by their side even though our relationship was in ruins. The city fell farther and farther behind me, the smog blanketing the buildings as if Los Angeles were already wrapped in the haze of memory.
The other half of me faced north with excitement, optimistic despite my fears. I was transferring to the University of California, Santa Cruz, leaving to pursue the wild dream of becoming the first in my family to earn a university degree. The key to the American Dream will soon be mine, I told myself. This was no small feat for a former undocumented immigrant from Mexico. I felt proud to have made it this far.
Then I remembered my father’s betrayal, and my optimism disappeared. Though I left of my own accord, I suddenly felt as if I had been exiled from Los Angeles. No longer wanted or needed.
My boyfriend looked at me and said the words I was desperate to hear, “Your father is very proud of you. He told me so.” I was grateful that he was doing the driving. If I had been at the wheel, I would have turned back.
Edwin had been accepted at California State University, Monterey Bay, which was about an hour south of Santa Cruz. I had met him at Pasadena City College earlier in the year, right before my father and stepmother decided to end their marriage. Throughout the past months, I had been by my father’s side supporting him through the chaotic separation in any way I could. I even considered staying in L.A. to help him get his life back in order once the divorce was final.
My father, a maintenance worker with a third-grade education, spoke little English. Eleven years earlier, when I was nine years old, he had returned to Mexico to bring my older siblings and me back with him to the United States to give us a better life. My older sister, brother, and I took our father’s divorce as an opportunity to show him that his sacrifice had paid off. We spoke the language of this country. We had an American education. We could handle ourselves with the police and in court. We knew how to look out for him so he wouldn’t end up with nothing.
Then, my father asked my stepmother to reconsider their divorce, and she did, but with one condition—she didn’t want us around. So, after months of standing by him and giving him our support, my father banned Mago, Carlos, and me from his life. I had packed up my bags and left his house, and the next day, my stepmother moved back in and gave my bedroom to her son and daughter-in-law. I went to stay with my PCC professor Diana Savas, for the second time since I had met her.
“Try to understand him,” Edwin said. “He knew you were leaving at the end of the summer. He didn’t want to be alone once you left.”
“I could have stayed with him.”
“For how long? One day you’ll move out and get married. Have your own family. You wouldn’t stay with him forever. He knew that. Besides, he didn’t want to hold you back.”
“He could have stood up for us the way we stood up for him,” I said a few minutes later. “It didn’t have to be a choice between his
wife or his children. Why can’t there be room for us in his life, too? Now he’s just like my mother.”
When I was seven years old, my father left my mother for my stepmother, and she was never the same. She didn’t want to be a mother to us anymore. It was as if when my father divorced her, she in turn divorced her children. She left us again and again in her search for another man to love her. When my father took us to live with him, we only saw her if we made the effort to visit her where she lived with her common-law husband. It hadn’t mattered to her if we weren’t in her life. My departure to Santa Cruz hadn’t made a bit of difference to her. “Ahí nos vemos,” she had said when I called her the day before. “See you later” instead of “I love you, take care, call me if you need anything”—the words I had hoped to hear from her.
“Parents disappoint us because we set expectations they can never live up to,” Edwin said. He had the uncanny ability to know what I was thinking. He squeezed my hand and added, “Reyna, some parents are incapable of love and affection. Don’t you think it might be time to lower your expectations?”
I looked out the window and didn’t reply. My biggest virtue and my biggest flaw was the tenacity with which I clung to my dreams, no matter how futile they might seem to others. The dream of having a true relationship with my parents was the one I had clung to the most because it was the first dream I’d had, and the farthest from my reach.
As we finally left the city behind us, my body stretched tight like a rubber band, and I felt a hot, searing pain in my heart until finally something inside me snapped. I was released from the bond to the place where I had come of age, the city that had witnessed my desolation and defeats, my joys and victories. Just like my hometown in Mexico, Los Angeles was now a part of my past.
Welcome to campus!
That day in September of 1996, we drove into the main entrance of the campus and were greeted by five words carved into a block of wood that was over twenty feet long: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SANTA CRUZ. I jumped out of the car to walk around the entrance sign, trace the huge yellow letters with my fingers, smell the wood into which they were carved, and after each letter had imprinted itself within me, I said to myself the words that needed to be said: “I have arrived.”
Higher education is the only way to succeed in this country. My father had drilled that into us the minute we had arrived in Los Angeles after our third attempt at crossing the border. He had been a tyrant about school, and had even threatened to send us back to Mexico if we didn’t come home with perfect attendance and straight A’s. He believed so strongly in the dream of higher education that he had been completely devastated when Mago and Carlos dropped out of college. Though I had vowed not to do the same, he no longer believed in the dream and had given up on me before I even got my chance. I was determined to prove to him that he had been wrong about me.
We drove deeper into the campus, past fields and meadows, the ocean in the distance, and when we came upon the redwoods, I said a silent thank-you to my professor Diana for insisting that I choose UCSC over UCLA, where I had also been accepted. She said that at UCLA I would be one of tens of thousands, whereas UCSC, with fewer than nine thousand students, was much smaller and better for students who were into the arts. She also believed getting out of my comfort zone would help me grow and mature.
I had never seen trees so majestic, with bark the color of cinnamon and foliage a deep, lush green. The sky wasn’t the pale, washed-out blue of the L.A. sky, but the vibrant, pure blue of a Van Gogh oil painting. I poked my head out the window and took deep gulps of the fresh air that smelled of earth, trees, and ocean, and something else I couldn’t name. I became light-headed from the scents, sounds, and colors of my new home.
“You made the right choice.” Edwin said.
“You and Diana talked me into it,” I said, remembering the long conversations with the two of them about which university I should pick. “But I guess I knew I was meant to be here.” I didn’t tell them that the name of the university held a special meaning for me. Santa Cruz, “the holy cross.” My father’s full name was Natalio Grande Cruz. His last name literally meant “the big cross,” a heavy burden for me that at times was too much to bear.
UCSC was divided into small colleges, and since I was majoring in creative writing, I chose to live at Kresge College, where the creative writing program and the Literature Department were located. As a transfer student, I could live in the apartments at Kresge East, which were reserved for juniors, seniors, and graduate students, instead of the dorms in Kresge Proper, where the freshmen and sophomores were housed. I would be sharing a four-bedroom apartment with three other students.
After I checked in, we pulled up at the parking lot of Kresge East. As I got out of the car, I remembered sitting around the kitchen
table with Carlos and Mago, listening to our father talk about the future. “Just because we are ilegales doesn’t mean we cannot dream,” he said to us. Thanks to my stepmother’s help and my father’s determination to legalize our status, our green cards finally arrived in the mail when I was almost fifteen. That day, he had proudly handed each of us those precious cards that, even though they had the words “RESIDENT ALIEN” imprinted on them in accusing blue letters, gave us permission to finally step out of the shadows, to grow and thrive in the light. “I’ve done my part. The rest is up to you,” my father had said.
Here in the parking lot, in the middle of the frenzy of move-in day, at the sight of my peers who had arrived with their parents, grandparents, and siblings, I wished my father were at my side. Though in the end he had lost faith that I would get here, he had set the stage for my arrival. My peers had brought their families to celebrate the beginning of their journey as university students. I thought of the Mexican saying Sin padre ni madre, ni perro que me ladre. Without a father, without a mother, without a dog to bark at me.
I turned away from the families and grabbed my suitcase and backpack from the trunk. Focus on what you’re here to do. If I did things right, I would one day break the cycle my family had been stuck in for generations—a cycle of poverty, hunger, and lack of education. This was the reason why I was here, and that was all that mattered.
Edwin helped me carry my belongings to my apartment—my clothes, some books, and my first computer, purchased on credit from Sears and still in the box.
“Are you going to be okay?” he asked as I walked him back to his car.
“Yeah,” I said, doing my best to not let him see how frightened I was. Edwin was handling this new stage of his life much better than I was handling mine. He had left home after high school to join the army and had fought in the Gulf War, witnessing unimaginable horrors. As an army vet, he was independent and knew how to take care of himself. I envied him for that, and as I watched him drive away in his Oldsmobile, heading back to Monterey, I wished he would stay to protect me. Instead, I was now completely alone and about to fight my battles on my own.
I set out to explore the campus. It was late afternoon, and I didn’t have much time before the sun went down. I had heard there was real darkness here, and as a city girl, the thought of the dark frightened me. But as I began to walk, I realized that the darkness was the least of my worries. What I was most afraid of was not knowing how to be a university student, that my community college education hadn’t prepared me for the work ahead. I was afraid of not being able to let go of my longing for my family, afraid that the distance that separated us would damage our relationship even more than it already had. I was afraid of having come this far only to fail and have to return to Los Angeles with nothing to show for my college education—no diploma, no job, nothing but a mountain of debt and unfulfilled dreams.
I was afraid of not being able to make this new place feel like a real home, a place where I belonged.
The university was nestled in the redwoods at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I found myself immersed in a grove of the world’s tallest trees. As I walked across the footbridge that connected Kresge East and Kresge Proper, high aboveground, with a ravine below me and redwood trees all around me, I let out a long, deep sigh, and the tension inside my body eased.
The wind rustled the trees and caressed my hair. A family of deer foraged for food in the ravine. I couldn’t believe there were deer here. I felt as if I had entered a fairy tale. I came to a meadow by Porter College where I could see the ocean shining blue and streaked with orange as the sun set. I was nine years old when I had first seen the ocean, two months after I arrived in Los Angeles to live with my father. I had been scared to go in because I didn’t know how to swim,
so I had held tight to my father’s hand, wanting to feel safe and protected. He had promised he wouldn’t let go of me. We stood side by side in the water and, at least that day, he had kept his promise.
As I looked at the ocean in the distance, I told myself there was no need to be afraid. I had come this far, despite everything. My family fell apart when we immigrated. We sacrificed so much for a shot at the American Dream, and I would be damned if I didn’t make the dream mine. A broken family was the price for me to be here. Back in Mexico the distance between my parents and me had been two thousand miles. In Santa Cruz, the distance was three hundred, but emotionally, we were light-years apart, and this time, I was the one who had migrated north in search of a better life, leaving them all behind.
Reyna at the Porter Meadow, UCSC