As my mom and I stepped out of Shakey’s with our pizza and mojos in hand, we couldn’t help but notice an older, Mexican gentleman asking customers to spare some change. While people typically ignore these pleas, my mom and uncles tended to give help. Characteristically, my mom told me to pack a plate with food and handed the plate to the gentleman. When I asked her why she didn’t hesitate to help strangers she replied with a simple, “Because your grandparents taught us to help people in need–especially our people.” She continued to explain that when my grandpa first immigrated to America he depended on people’s willingness to help. Through people’s support, he was able to survive and construct his life. In that moment a good life lesson was delivered with the realization that I knew little about my grandparents’ immigration experience.
In my head, their experience was Disneyfied: they migrated to America together, worked, and successfully raised their family. I hadn’t considered how they lived in Mexico or felt when they arrived in America. I laid out the few puzzle pieces I had about their lives. My grandparents grew up in the same small ranch in Mexico, where they met and married. My grandpa learned to work the fields–and the value of a strong work ethic– from his grandpa, while my grandma grew up in a conservative, Catholic family. Eventually both my grandparents migrated to California, where they worked in a factory. Together, my grandparents provided the necessities for my uncles and mom, never failing to “put food on the table.” We had a rough outline of their story.
Oral histories, beyond providing a historical record, help preserve stories we wish to remember. This project is worth far more than a letter grade; rather, it provides an opportunity to capture my grandparents’ stories, both triumphs and pitfalls, and share these memories with my family. As I embark on this journey through time with them, I can’t help but feel scared. In my family we learned to not ask questions that might revive a painful memory; yet, that was what I was doing. I was asking my grandparents to be vulnerable and share their feelings – a task that is sometimes most difficult with those you love.