My parents met at LAX.
It was 1967, the very day my mother landed here from El Salvador.
The story, at least on its face, is the stuff that romanticized American immigrant origin stories are made of.
But not every American origin story has a fairytale ending.
My parents were both raised in stable middle-class families in El Salvador, believing in the myth of the American dream. They were young and restless, in search of something else; a promise perhaps, one that only a foreign land could fulfill.
But the gains made by emigrating to America can be fragile and fraught with loss. Émigrés are caught in a gelatinous melting pot that doesn’t so much melt as compel them to shed parts of themselves and subdue their identity in an effort to assimilate, or neatly fit into boxes, while simultaneously reinforcing that they are “other” and do not belong. A skin tone a slight shade beneath what is acceptable, or an easily detected accent, mark them and serve as opportunities for others to oppress them.
This was especially true in the 1960s, when my parents arrived here.
My father, Carlos, emigrated to the United States from El Salvador in the early 1960s. He arrived on a tourist visa, applied to stay and became a naturalized citizen shortly thereafter. In El Salvador, he’d studied history and political science.
When my mother, Julia, came to the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1967, she came with her best friend Victoria, who also happened to be my father’s sister. She had studied accounting.
On the day my father arrived at LAX airport to pick up his sister, he met my mother for the first time.
They fell in love, and with the promise of a future beyond what a middle-class educated person could dream of in El Salvador. They were not refugees — this was many years before the war — but rather young people with big ambitions.
Dreams And Struggles
Like most immigrant parents, though, mine took jobs they never intended to hold. My father initially wanted to join the Army, but he did not meet the physical requirements. So he worked in a military airplane factory for a short while, then took a permanent job as a baker in the Fairfax district, where he worked from 4 a.m. to 12 p.m. six days a week for more than 30 years, never calling in sick.
He was saving for his own donut shop when he became ill and lost his savings and health insurance. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. After his illness left him unable to work, I remember his boss telling us that my dad, an American citizen, should “go back to his own country so he doesn’t become a burden to the American healthcare system.” It was almost as if once he no longer served a purpose in America, as an exploitable tool, he was disposable.
My mother faced challenges finding employment. There were limited opportunities for folks who did not speak English in the 1960s. She worked in various factories in the garment district of downtown Los Angeles where she and her sisters, who eventually joined her in L.A., learned embroidery and how to operate industrial sewing machines.
In the factories, my mother found a community of women like herself, trying to stitch together an American dream for their families. Factory life might not have been the career my mother had dreamed of the day she landed at LAX, but sacrifices had to be made in a foreign land without the benefit of a safety net or the support and warmth of her parents. She was tethered to her country of origin more than my father was, and the distance from her family was difficult to bear.
‘You Can Accomplish Anything You Want!’
Together, my parents brought three beautiful brown baby girls into a world that they believed held a future for them.
Once my mother bore their first child, she stayed home. My father was the sole provider. It was important to him that we receive a private Catholic school education much like he had received in El Salvador, where he was reared by Jesuits.
The 1970s were a time of empowerment for women, and my parents felt this world would be safe, America would be safe. They held the belief that free elections and a democratic government were the measure of a great country. They made sure they voted in every election, and we were there to witness it. My father always emphasized how important it was not to take this right for granted.
He would corral us almost every day and repeatedly tell us, “You are American and you can accomplish anything you want!” This became a mantra in our household.
We, the byproduct of this American illusion our parents held, must contend with both the falsity and reality of this ideal. Those of us who inherit this legacy by way of immigrant parents bear a great responsibility to achieve in ways that honor their sacrifices, while continually challenging “monocultural...concepts of our social reality” as Anzaldua writes in the Chicano literary classic Borderlands. We ask ourselves, guiltily, if it is okay for us to acknowledge the cracks in the dream.
It’s true that my sisters and I would have opportunities beyond my parents’ expectations. But my parents suffered here.
My father physically sacrificed his body at that bakery, repetitively kneading hope to form a life worthy of us. But becoming ill and losing his work and insurance forced him into substandard care in the Medi-Cal system.
As for my mother, after years of living in an apartment by a gas station, she was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. I was 19 at the time. As a first generation American, I had no knowledge of how to navigate the social service and health care systems to help her access resources, or to advocate on her behalf.
She hung on a few more years, fortunately. But I would spend my late teens and 20s caring for two terminally ill parents, then burying them. All this time I struggled with multiple jobs and tried to finish my degree, just as they’d hoped I would.
At some point in our lives, we must reconcile with the reclamation of our own American origin story. Mine begins at LAX.
A few years ago, I tried to capture that life-altering moment at the airport, and its aftermath, in a poem called ‘Parental Threads.”
I see them standing in the mid-century LAX lobby,
I see my father strutting out
of a 1960 Ford Mustang, with
a prematurely peppered Brylcreem pompadour, I
see my mother with a 1960s glossy synthetic bouffant
wearing a polyester miniskirt, clutching her purse tightly
standing by the arrival gate near an automatic door
that opens behind her sensing the heat
in the mid July air.
Is there still time to turn around?
They are about to meet, they are about to get married, they
are about to have children. Not necessarily in that order.
They are naive, they are fools, all they know is they are
I want to run to them and say GO BACK!
This country will kill you.
You are going to suffer in cruel ways,
You are going to die. And your children will never recover.
I want to run to them and say it.
Her fair complexion, a vibrant rose
Hers, unvarnished skin full of promise
His, an olive complexion, sun kissed
Him, a bon vivant, full of lofty ambitions
I want to run to them, but I don’t
because I want to live.
(*This poem is a nod to my favorite poet, Sharon Olds, and was originally published in MORIA literary magazine.)
I sometimes ask myself, as I did in this poem, whether it was worth it for them, two parents who did not live to see me graduate from college.
Leaving home and family, embarking on difficult lives, sacrificing so much for their future children. For me?
Yet I would not be here had they not made the decision to leave their country. The fragility of the American dream, for first-generation immigrants, lies in what they lose — so that we, their children, may gain.
Monica Aleman Gibbs is a Salvadoran-American writer and a native of Los Angeles.
She has a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in MORIA literary magazine.
She lives in Los Angeles and currently works as a political consultant.