On a sunny afternoon in 1978, my mother and I sat at a picnic table by the beach in Mexico, just miles from the California border. We'd arrived there after a month of hiding in a shack in Tijuana, brought by the coyotes, or people smugglers, whom my father had paid to sneak us back into the United States.
"Listen, nena, this is it. Any slip-up now and everything is over -- we have no more chances," my mother told me.
I had grown up in New Jersey, watching "Brady Bunch" reruns and Miss America pageants, eating hot dogs and playing freeze tag with the other kids on my block. My American upbringing was missing only one thing: a green card. My parents had overstayed their tourist visas when I was only weeks old, meaning to build a nest egg before going back. But six years later, when my grandfather died, my mother and I flew to Argentina for a bereavement visit and discovered that returning to the United States would be far harder than our initial entry had been. What we'd planned as a single month away turned into two years of trying to rejoin my father in our tiny basement apartment.
"What am I supposed to do?" I asked my mother.
"Normal how? I don't know how." It felt like too much was riding on my ability to do this "normal" thing.
My mother pointed to the man who had arrived and sat down beside her. "Act like you would if this man was your dad and we had just gone to the beach with him and now we were going home."
She and the man got up, walking toward the parking lot with the easy closeness of a couple. I registered brief amazement that my mother, usually so nervous and skittish, could play the part so well. I felt all arms and legs. I couldn't remember how I acted with my father; he'd become mostly a blank in my mind. But I could imagine being happy and carefree, so I skipped all the way to the car. We got in, and the man began to drive.
"One more checkpoint," he said eventually.
From the back seat, I looked at my mother in the front.
"Look American, nena," she said absently.
Look American? It seemed like such a tall order, and I was sure that when we were dragged out of the vehicle by men with guns it would be due to my failure to pull off this impossible task. What did Americans look like? What did they do? I scoured my mental archives as the checkpoint grew larger in the distance.