Who were you? A first-generation American with his Mexican mother.
Where were you? At customs in JFK.
Was it crowded? Is it ever empty?
Where were you coming from? Mexico City. A trip for my mother to visit family across the border. A trip so I, at thirty, could finally see the capital of my mother’s homeland, the one I only witnessed in her telenovelas, through her childhood stories. An ancient city. A baroque city. A city of skyscrapers on a parched lakebed in the shadow of two volcanoes’ paramour.
What did you see? Everything. Myself. In my cousins’ embrace. In the marble floors of colonial houses and the green waters of Xochimilco. In my mother’s eyes that saw things in black and white photo albums that I could not. That even in my halfness I am a whole person.
Were you ready to come back? Yes and no. I was glad to land in New York, to return to where I became myself. Mexico felt—feels—like a dream. And winding our way through the airport was like a gradual rise to wakefulness.
What happened? It was our turn to prove we deserved to come home.
Where is home? My ancestors would tell you anywhere on this continent.
What did the agent say? “Documents.” In a flat voice. Stripped of greeting or even “please.”
What did he do? He scowled at my mother’s green card.
Why? Because it was a rare one, permanent, issued to only thirty thousand immigrants in 1980 when she married my father. Yes, a citizen.
Did your mother explain? Of course.
Did the agent believe her? Of course not.
What did he say next? He threatened to take my mother behind closed doors to see if she is who she says she is.
What did you do? What could I have done that would not have escalated the situation?
How did you feel? My face reddened. My knuckles whitened around the strap of my bag as I witnessed what I feared might happen though never thought would. I wondered how my mother could remain so calm, maintain a steady gaze of hope, or understanding, speak with a smile as if embarrassed, a smile that said, “I’m so sorry to be so much trouble.” But then I realized that for her this was not the first time.
What happened next? He let us go.
Just like that? No. He hesitated, as if waiting for a confession. Then, with a sneer, he slammed the stamp on our passports like he was crushing insects. He dismissed us with a wave, looked away as if we never existed and slouched waiting for the next traveler.
What do you think changed his mind? Maybe our silence was not the gateway to the showdown he was expecting. Maybe he suddenly realized he raised his voice at a sixty-year-old woman who stands just shy of five feet. Maybe he knew a simple computer check would have shown how wrong he was, that my mother held that card for longer than he was alive.
Why do you think he was hostile? Would a reason justify it? Maybe our differing last names confused him. Maybe our contrasting shades of melanin alarmed him. Maybe for him everyone is a suspect beyond the glass.
Was the agent white? Does it matter? He wore the blue like it was his own skin.
What did you do after? We took our documents. I made sure not to say thank you, though my mother was better than me. We brushed past the welcome sign with its fanged ‘w.’ The taxi ride back was quiet, my mother looking out the window with a stoic face that would not revive what just happened, letting it pass like the cars along the expressway with these-colors-don’t-run bumper stickers which had, indeed, faded. We sighed with relief when my key opened the front door, the same one I’d unlock every day after school. I rolled my carry-on into my childhood bedroom and slumped onto the bed, tired, and not just from the trip. I lay there for a while, weighted with the thought that not everyone is so lucky to walk through their own front door again. My mother called from the kitchen asking if I was hungry and I told her to relax, that I’d order takeout. Over dinner we texted our relatives to let them know we made it, sent that message flying, heedless of barriers.
Eric Odynocki is a teacher and writer from New York. His work is often inspired by his experience as a first-generation American of Mexican, Ukrainian, and Jewish descent. Eric's work has been published in American Poetry Journal, Green Mountains Review, [PANK], Magma Poetry, and others.