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Hispanic Heritage Month: A Personal Reflection

Jose Carrillo

Since 1968, Americans have observed Hispanic American heritage.  The observation initially started as National Hispanic Heritage Week, but then was extended to National Hispanic Heritage Month, now observed from September 15 to October 15.  During this time, we celebrate the histories, cultures, and contributions of Americans whose families immigrated from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.  In light of this year's upcoming Hispanic Heritage Month, I sat down with my 88-year-old grandmother and asked her to recount our family’s immigration story and our contributions to this great nation.  Contributions, I would come to discover, that were not without sacrifice. 

My grandmother was born and raised in a rural town in Mexico.  In the 1940s she was wed to an abusive husband and became a mother at a young age.  She spent most days behind a padlocked door in her home while her then husband was away at work.  

After much abuse, she built up the courage to run away to America, seeking a better life for herself and her baby boy, Salvador.  One day, she filled up her son’s diaper bag with what little money she had saved, broke through a glass window, and escaped from the confines of her prison home.  When she reached a nearby road, she called out to a passerby for help.  Scared, my grandmother and Salvador traveled hundreds of miles north to the U.S. border.  When they finally arrived at the border, my grandmother met a couple with an American-born daughter. Hearing my grandmother's story of abuse, the couple offered to take Salvador across the border by dressing him up in girl’s clothes and passing him off as their daughter.  Having no other choice and fearing for her life, my grandmother kissed her son goodbye and watched as the couple took Salvador across the border.  A few hours later, she reunited with her son and so began our family’s American story. 

By the 1960s, my grandmother settled in the small border town of Nogales, Arizona.  There she had remarried, had more children, and had been raising her young family.  Now 19, that once small baby boy, Salvador, had grown up with an intense sense of appreciation and love for the only country he had ever known—America.  Although he was not yet a U.S. citizen, Salvador decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps and serve his country in the Vietnam War.  Like any mother, my grandmother worried about her son’s deployment but was comforted by his conviction and she grew proud of his resolve.

One cold night, while working a late shift at a produce packing plant, my grandmother saw my grandfather walking up to her alongside two Marines in their Dress Blue Uniforms.  Immediately, she knew that her son Salvador had been killed in action, serving the country that was not his own, but the only one he knew and loved.  

Listening to my grandmother tell me this story, I could hear the pain in her voice as she remembered that fateful day, and the kiss she gave her baby boy at the start of their American journey.  This loss, my grandmother told me, is her greatest sacrifice and our family’s everlasting contribution to this country.  She sacrificed greatly for our family and put herself at risk for a chance at a better life.  Because of her courage, our family today is filled with students, professionals, business owners, teachers, soldiers, and an employment immigration attorney.  Bolstered by our Hispanic heritage and the memory of our family’s contributions and sacrifices, our family will carry on that same, deep sense of appreciation and love for America—instilled in my Uncle Salvador at such a young age—forever.