When I was five and still believed in the tooth fairy, my dad would tell me Fourth of July fireworks were just for me. He had made sure they got in just in time to celebrate my birthday (July 3).
I reveled in the booms and shimmering light. Those hot summer nights are hazy memories: finding a good spot to watch, bringing out the picnic basket, watching the night sky light up and silence settle around me as everyone took in a magical moment.
Though it makes a good story, I don’t often think about the story behind my dad’s fib.
My dad came to America to study electrical engineering almost 30 years ago. Like most immigrants, he scraped his way through in the beginning, working odd-end jobs, from dish-washing to retail as he worked toward his degree.
So when my mother arrived in the States with 7-month-old me and my soon-to-be sister in tow, she had the idea we’d only stay for five years tops.
Nineteen years later, we’re still here. My parents, by any standard, are successful. My dad has his own business and my mom changes lives as a high school Spanish teacher. (I’ve seen the thank you cards. There’s hard proof, not just my opinion.) Together, they have worked tirelessly to afford me opportunities I would not have in Colombia.
“Are you glad you came here?” I asked my mom today, as we pulled weeds under a cloudy sky.
She paused for a moment.
“Yes. You wouldn’t have played sports or an instrument if you weren’t here.”
No running? I thought to myself. What would I do?
“We might’ve still been living in your grandparents’s house, the two of us working so-so jobs. Would you have liked that?”
Weeds sitting limply in my hands, I shook my head.
“It took a lot of sacrifice, a lot of suffering, especially in the beginning to make sure you kids had the opportunities your father and I never had.”
I’ve only heard bits and pieces of my parents’ first years in this country and even less of their lives in Colombia. For the past 18 years I have reaped the fruits of their efforts, not just in opportunities and success, but in my work ethic and keeping the bigger picture in mind when failure comes.
I don’t give much thought to the fact my parents are immigrants. It’s a normal part of life. We speak Spanish at home, cook Colombian meals, watch Colombia play (no matter how painful that might be).
What I have in my life isn’t really mine. It’s ours.
But there are few days when I recognize a fundamental fact about myself: I am an immigrant, too.
In failing to recognize and appreciate this about myself, I fail to appreciate my parents’ past, which is also our past. They are my portkey to a country I really only know in memory.
When my friends ask me about Colombian culture, I embarrassingly answer that I don’t know all that much about it. I can’t seem to find the right words to describe the towering Andes, the crisp, fresh air that permeates throughout Popayan in the early morning, or the smell of fresh bread at, what seems, every street corner. I can’t capture the peace I feel in my heart when I am among my cousins, laughing.
My parents hold a history and culture different from my 95 percent American, 5 percent Colombian view of the world. As I grow older and think about the future (kids and all), I hope I can share with them and my friends about another place and way of thinking.
This is one of those one of a kind opportunity I wouldn’t have if I didn’t live here.
As I lie back and watch the average Peorian fireworks a month from today, I think I’ll be taking a stroll down my memory lanes.
The more I keep moving forward in my life, the more I need to keep looking back.