was born in El Salvador in 1990 and immigrated
to San Rafael when I was 9. Dad had left for the
U.S. when I was 1-and-a-half, during the last years
of the Salvadoran Civil War, and Mom followed
him when I was about to turn 5. I missed them so much
and when I turned 9, I immigrated to this country with
the help of a smuggler. My trip was supposed to take
two weeks, but ended up taking two months.
My parents didn’t know where I was. Neither did my grandparents back in El Salvador. I crossed into Mexico via a boat from
Guatemala to Oaxaca. From there, after various bribes, hitchhiking, illegal checkpoints, more bribes, I eventually made it to the
Mexican side of the Sonoran Desert. There, I crossed into the United
States and met my parents after years of being separated from them.
Those years, before 9/11, a child didn’t need a U. S.-issued ID to take
a domestic flight. Our little family flew over the Grand Canyon on
the way to San Francisco. When we landed, we took the Marin
Airporter from SFO and got dropped off at the Central San Rafael
Bus Terminal. The sidewalk across from the Citibank is the first
ground I stepped on in San Rafael.
WE JUMPED into a cab and got dropped off at 20 Marian Court
Apartment No. 2, a few blocks from Pickleweed Park. I’d memorized
this address from the yearly birthday and Christmas packages my
parents sent with a person who traveled from the Bay Area to El
Salvador. In between receiving those packages, I saw the address
in neatly written black ink across white envelopes that held the
biweekly, or at times monthly, letters.
This was how my parents raised me from thousands of miles
away. I dreamed of that address. Of the black mailbox with a tiny
red flag in front, the number 20 written in white. The wooden fence
in the front yard. The green backyard lawn, the sapphire s wimming
pool. I kept this address close to me in the two months I was traveling to get to my parents. Not on a piece of paper, but written in my
brain. I was trying to get to them, of course, but was perhaps more
excited for what the United States had granted my parents through
their hard work and time they’d spent away from me. Of course it had
to have been worth it. Those years without me. Those nights without
Mom’s stories to put me to sleep.
When we got out of the bright yellow cab. The place. An a-par-ta-men-to. I couldn’t even say it. I’d never heard that word. Even in
San Salvador, I’d only seen houses. What was this ugly thing? This
small, dirty, loud box filled with little boxes, cracked concrete all
around. A sea of asphalt with old cars in front of it. Where were the
trees? The corn and bean fields? I hadn’t signed up for this. No. No.
I didn’t want to live here.
tHE CANAL AREA is called that because of the canal (more accu-
The latter of which is populated by actual houses.
rately the San Rafael Creek) that separates Third Street (which turns
into San Pedro Road) and Canal Street. Of course people don’t live
“in” the literal canal. It’s more the various apartment complexes
and town houses in the loose rectangle formed by East Francisco
Boulevard, Bellam Boulevard, Canal Street and Catalina Boulevard.
Rarely do I see brown people drive past the Mi Pueblo (what used
to be a Circuit City), so it may be more accurate to call Bahia Way and
Playa Del Rey the last side of the rectangle. I make this distinction
because it shouldn’t be a surprise that “The Canal” is inhabited by
mostly Latinos. This was a comforting aspect of moving to the area
after El Salvador.
I lived two blocks from the literal canal, but was warned by
parents to not walk on Canal Street, like ever, because it was “
dangerous.” What that meant was that there were too many brown
people around. It wasn’t safe. Safety, at the time, was something I’d
never had to think about. From 1993 to 1999, the years I remembered
living in El Salvador, happened to be the most peaceful time in my
country’s recent history. But now, the murder rate there is higher
than in the civil war years (1980–1992) and we’ve topped the murder rate list for several years since 1999; thus, the ever-exponential
increase of Salvadoran immigrants to the United States.
My block in El Salvador was safe. I could run to the market and
come back because everyone knew me. Everyone would look after me
and there were only two roads in town so I really had to try to “get
lost.” The gangs were only beginning to take hold. I do remember
waking to a gunshot when I was 6. Someone was killed in front of
our home, but that was the one murder everyone talked about — on
my block. Nothing else.
Looking back, it was an ideal childhood. Safety was something I
learned in the United States. In the Canal. I couldn’t go out because
we lived in the brown part of town surrounded by a sea of whiteness
that was perceived safer by the sheer idea that white was safe, good,
rich, intelligent, moral, just, [insert positive adjective here]. Ours were
the streets with checkpoints at night. With “drug raids,” immigration raids. Our streets were perceived as dangerous. I never heard a
gunshot. Never saw a fight. But, I couldn’t go out to the park by myself.
I’m an only child and my mother, when she was home, and my dad,
when he was home, wanted to keep me in their sight. They’d risked too
much. They’d almost lost me to the desert, to Mexico, to El Salvador,
why would they do anything that might lose me in the Canal?
For the most part, I listened to them and stayed in the apartment.
My parents worked and I spent a lot of time alone, though, so that
rule was quickly broken. Most of my evenings I spent at Pickleweed
Park with friends, at first to play soccer and then, as we got older, to
spy on girls, to have our first kiss, first cigarette, to drink.
I’m an only child and my mother, when
she was home, and my dad, when he was
home, wanted to keep me in their sight.
They’d risked too much. I