But when Alan passed through the front door, he immediately knew something was wrong. Aunts and uncles and cousins filled the living room, and everyone was crying. Along one wall was a framed photo of Catalino next to bunches of flowers and burning candles. “Alan, something very sad has happened,” Margarita said, tears beginning to run down her face. “You’re not going to be able to see your grandfather anymore. He’s gone away to a better place.”
Alan went into the bedroom and closed the door, then turned on the television. “When I heard my abuelo died, I didn’t even cry,” Alan says. “Ummm . . . I guess I did cry, actually. One tear went down my face here.” He motions to his left cheek. His mother has told him about the lone tear, and it’s unclear whether he is remembering the tear or remembering the story.
“It was like he was in shock,” Margarita says, “like he wasn’t really ready to understand what had happened. He never wanted to talk about his abuelo after that. He acted like everything was completely normal.”
Six months later, Alan’s teacher called to say that he was falling behind and in danger of having to repeat the second grade. They arranged to have him speak to a school psychologist. In one of the first sessions, Alan told the counselor that he wanted to join Catalino, something that still causes his mother to shudder. But after a couple of months of therapy, he started to show signs of improvement. One day that spring, Alan told his mother that it was okay that his grandfather had died, “because even maybe though I can’t see him, he’s still here with me.” A few more sessions and the psychologist said that Alan was going to be fine.
For Alan, the mystery of death is mixed with his idea of Mexico, which remains a magical place in his memories. When he thinks of the home where he spent his first years, he remembers the heat, the bustling plaza, the bread that was always being baked. “The last time I went home, I was old enough to help my abuelo make the bread,” he says proudly. “I would add big buckets of water and lots of flour into the machine.” He grins. “The bread . . . the bread there is so tasty!”
And though he knows that his grandfather is dead, when Alan’s thoughts turn to Mexico—when he wonders what his cousins are up to, for example—he can’t help inserting Catalino into the scene. He can still see his grandfather rising early to bake bread, walking around the plaza with his straw hat shading his face, sitting in his favorite chair at the end of a long day.
On Wednesdays, the day their father has off from his job at the restaurant, Alan and America like to go to Burger King for an early dinner. When the workers don’t listen carefully to his order, Alan spends five minutes meticulously separating the lettuce, pickles, and tomatoes and placing them to the side, where they will eventually be tossed in the trash.
As they walk to the restaurant this afternoon, America is trying to decide which of two songs is her absolute favorite. “Me gusta mucho la ‘Gasolina,’ ” she says, and then sings a few lines from the tune that seems to be blasting from every stereo in New York. “But me gusta más el ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’!”
After Alan’s two adventures crossing the border, Rafael and Margarita’s decision to name their only U.S.-born child America seems ripe with meaning, and it is. “América is my favorite,” Rafael explains, referring to the Mexican professional soccer team. “Lots of people like Cruz Azul, but I’ve always been a fan of América.”
It is a strange reality that Rafael and Margarita’s feisty 4-year-old daughter, who is barred from crossing the street without holding a guiding hand and cries loudly when faced with a doctor’s needle, will eventually have the power to legalize the status of her entire family, moving them out from the undocumented shadows, where deportation remains a constant possibility. If the emotionally charged debates in Congress fail to lead to an immigration-reform bill that allows a path to citizenship, Alan and his parents will have to wait until America turns 21 before she can petition for their permanent residency. That critical day will come in 2022, and by then, Alan will be in his late twenties.
“The cops caught us after the river and gave me a snickers. It was king size. They were nice.”
Rafael, however, doesn’t plan on staying in the U.S. indefinitely. Once he’s saved enough money, he hopes to return to Acatlán to farm the land of his father, fulfilling a promise he made to Catalino before he died. Margarita and the kids will stay in Brooklyn until Alan and America graduate from high school. After that, Rafael says, he isn’t sure whether his children will live in Mexico or the U.S. “It will be their decision to make,” he says.