Making the most of a bad hand
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, April 21, 2020
I know how to find an inmate.
In Florida, you can go to the department of corrections site and look up inmates via a combination of their last name, first name and DC number. This DC number is a combination of six digits, or an alpha character followed by five digits, that is used for identification purposes. This system does have a bit of a lag, but usually, inmates aren’t moving to different facilities anyway.
If you want the most up-to-date information, you can call the facility, and if they want to, they’ll help you find the inmate you’re looking for.
I’ve had to do this several times. Several family friends have been behind bars. Most of the time, the person was caught drinking and driving, with an unpaid ticket violation pending on their account. Typical alcoholic problems.
I didn’t expect, however, that one day, I’d use those inmate-finding skills to find my own blood.
My mother doesn’t like to have big birthday celebrations. As much as she loves to plan surprise parties and dinners for her friends and family, she hates to see it done for her. She has never been one for the spotlight.
My family doesn’t care that my mother dislikes surprise parties. We think she’s deserving of one. So, my brother, father and I invited extended family and some of my mother’s friends to a birthday party we were throwing for her.
My father picked me up from the Afterschool — where I go every day after school to receive homework help as well as snacks, physical education and mentorship.
We drove up to my uncle’s place. He lived in a trailer park, but his home was in the corner of the lot with a bit more space — just enough space for our plans.
My father parked two blocks away as usual. My uncle lived in the city limits, on a road that was patrolled by a bad cop that preyed upon any driver who wasn’t white. The cop would always come up with excuses for stopping a driver, and would arrest many drivers because they were driving without a valid license. My parents didn’t have a valid license at the time, so we knew to park two blocks from my uncle’s place before reaching the road where that police officer scavenged.
My mother thought my uncle was just having a small cake for her. The cake was indeed small; the rest, however, was not.
As my parents and uncle talked in the living room, our invited guests started to come in. My brother and I had secretly set up several chairs, a table, a cooler and the speaker in my uncle’s backyard while the adults had their adult conversations.
My mother didn’t suspect anything crazy as her nieces and nephews came. When her friends from her English-learning classes came over, it became apparent to her that we had set her up.
“Alberto no me digas que invitaste a todo el mundo,” she told my father. “Alberto, don’t tell me you invited everyone.”
At that point, my father knew to come clean because my mother only calls him Alberto when she’s heated.
My mother at first was annoyed, giving me and my father a look that words cannot describe, a look that said she was clearly not pleased with us.
Things changed, though, as the miracle work of my father’s barbecuing skills once again saved the day. The taste of carne asada, baleadas and Fanta Orange, my mother’s favorite soda, eased her tensions. My mother couldn’t help herself from conversing with her friends and family.
After taking a break from playing tag with my primos, I went up to my father who was putting some tortillas on the grill and gave him a fist bump. We both looked at my mother as she laughed with a group of friends. Getting my mother mad for a second was now worth it.
I was proud of the fact that we were able to do that for my mother because she is very much deserving of that. She has helped out people many times, even if they weren’t that close to her.
My mother once spent a month helping out a friend who was sick and couldn’t pick up her children from school. That’s who she is — she prefers to give rather than receive. That’s a choice she’ll make 90 percent of the time.
On the drive back from the celebration, my family and I had a lot of laughs. I’ll never forget that for a moment everything felt right. I remember the winds of April flowing in through the car window. I remember my mother’s adorably loud laugh. I remember seeing the dying light of the sun fade as we strolled down 27th Avenue. I remember that day vividly.
Unfortunately, I remember the next day just as vividly.
I always hated taking the school bus. My parents paid the driver with the smallest bus and the cheapest charge because they didn’t always have time to pick me up from school. Besides, I was just a small and scrawny fifth grader, so there was no way I was walking home alone.
The bus was always hot, humid and high on idiocy. There were bullies on that bus whom I was unable to stand up to, making bus rides a sweaty and fearful experience. It was a daily challenge.
The day after my mother’s birthday, though, I was riding the high of the previous day and I was feeling great. I sat on the front seat to the right of the bus driver and I had a smile no bully could take away from me.
The bus always took me to the Afterschool despite passing by my own home every time. My parents wanted me to be around other kids and getting homework help, so I’d pass by my home every day and only wish I could get off that bus early.
That day, I knew something was wrong as soon as the bus turned onto my block.
When the bus turned onto our corner, I saw that there was a cop car with its lights on right in front of my apartment building.
Immediately, I sat up straight and nervously watched as the bus approached my home. I didn’t want to attract the attention of bullies or make it seem like I was nervous because I didn’t need that at the moment.
I just needed to know if my family was okay.
Halfway through the block I knew things were bad. My father was home because his car was there, and my father usually doesn’t get home until two hours later. My heart was racing.
I noticed as well that my father’s car was behind the police car and that my mother’s car was in front of the police car. The 2004 white Toyota Corolla was parked in front of a police car … that had its lights on.
When the bus reached the scene of the crime, I saw the worst family portrait I’ve ever been in.
My father was in front of my apartment building, holding my little brother with his right arm and talking on the phone with the other.
My brother was crying.
I quickly glanced at the Corolla to see if my mother is there, but she was not. I knew she had to be there, though, because only she picked up my brother.
The bus driver, Don Julio, asks me if everything was okay. How was I supposed to know? I hoped it was, but it didn‘t look like it was. But how could an 10-year-old tell a grown man that things are, indeed, not fine? How was I expected to react Don Julio?
I looked at Don Julio and told him I didn‘t know if everything was okay. I looked back at the scene as the bus continued on, trying desperately to search for my mom. My eyes dashed across every inch and corner searching for the most important woman in my life.
And then, I spotted her.
Sitting in the back of the police car on the left seat, with her hands cuffed behind her and tears falling down her eyes. Her face was sweaty and red. I knew she knew that I was inside that bus.
As we turned to another block, I stared at the floor and I couldn‘t believe what I’d just seen.
“Damn, they got somebody arrested boy!” someone in the back of the bus said.
My heart felt crushed. This was going to end terribly. My parents had been training me for years with the idea that one day they might be caught and deported. Whenever my father saw a cop car on the street, he’d tell my brother and I to be careful. We’d put our head down until he gave us the green light. I never actually expected the worst to happen, but there I was, just a few steps away from that becoming a reality.
I didn‘t want to be bullied or call attention to myself, so I forced my tears in.
I got to the Afterschool and spent a brutal two hours waiting for someone to tell me something about the situation. Finally, at about 5 p.m., the director of the Afterschool, Lauren, called me into her office.
My dad was in the office. He was quiet.
Lauren explains to me that my mom had been arrested for driving without a valid license. After picking up my brother from school, she crossed an intersection and almost got hit by a police car she didn’t see because of a truck that was in the way. The police officer wasn’t pleased that he was a couple of seconds away from almost injuring or killing my brother and didn’t hold back on my mom.
My mom was going to jail and would likely be deported.
Once in the car, my dad and I sat in silence. Dozens of thoughts stomped on my mind. And after holding in my tears for so long, I finally began to cry when I saw that the strongest man I knew was silently letting streams of tears flow.
“¿Papi, que le va a pasar a mami?” I asked my dad. “What’s going to happen to mom?”
My dad explained that she was going to be in jail and that sooner or later, ICE would figure out she had an old deportation notice, and they would send her back
The more he explained, the harder it was to keep talking.
When my mom got to this country, she was ordered to go to immigration court. She had crossed illegally across the southern border with me on hand. She was scared that going to court would lead her to get deported, so she never showed up. And that absence on her record was absolute reason to deport her.
And then my dad told me something I’ll never forget.
“Tu mama es una buena mama y una gran mujer. La amo hijo, la amo.”
“Your mom is a good mom and a great woman. I love her, son, I love her.”
I woke up the next day shell-shocked. My life was different now, and I didn’t know how much longer this nightmare would last.
I had spent the previous night crying myself to sleep. My dad, brother and I all prayed before going to bed. We cuddled as my dad tried his best to keep our spirits up — something difficult to do when your own spirit is broken.
And that is in fact how we all were — broken.
My usual routine of having my mom wake me up for school and having breakfast ready for my brother and I was gone. I woke up an hour earlier than usual because my dad now had to meet with potential lawyers. He asked for the day off of work and was granted the rest of the week off.
My brother went to my aunt’s. I had to go through the day at school, but my head was anywhere but academics. I could only imagine what my mom had gone through.
I later learned she was inside the police car with her hands cuffed behind her for almost seven hours. The police officer said he would take her straight to jail after her arrest, but that was not the case.
By the time my mom got out of the police cruiser, her wrists were bleeding from being cuffed for so long in such an uncomfortable position.
While authorities examined her case, she was temporarily placed in a federal prison.
I got out of school and realized that I was replaying the nightmare all over again. I hesitated to get on the bus, hanging out in the front steps of my school before Don Julio motioned to me that his bus was about to take off. I had no choice but to go through the whole bus route all over again.
Once again, I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t be seen crying in front of the other kids. That was not cool.
I headed to the Afterschool where Lauren called me into her office as soon as she found out that I had arrived. She offered me advice and said that she would be there for me and my family for as long as I needed.
That promise gave me a reason to smile, even if just for a moment.
As soon as I got out of the office, one of my classmate’s was curious and asked why I was in Lauren’s office. I paused for a bit before finally coming up with a worthy and believable excuse.
“She was just talking about how my grades are good,” I told my friend.
Nobody in the Afterschool or at school during that school year ever found out about what happened to my family. I made sure not to spill anything.
My aunt picked me up from the Afterschool in what would become the first of many visits. She took me to her place where she had cooked dinner for the entire family.
Forty-eight hours earlier, my uncles and aunts were all together celebrating my mom’s birthday. Now we were all mourning together what was inevitably going to happen: my mom was going to leave the country and not be allowed back in. No adult wanted to tell me it was going to happen, but I knew from my parents’ teachings that my mom was leaving.
The adults in our extended family pooled some money together and hired a lawyer who had been recommended by a mutual friend who was deported a year earlier. The lawyer was not cheap; a financially poor family like mine made a great sacrifice in putting $8,000 together.
We prayed that he’d be able to pull off a miracle and keep my mom from being deported.
A few days later, my mom was moved to a women’s detention center that was about a five-minute car ride away and next to my family’s favorite park.
We would go to that park and play basketball and soccer, and sometimes even baseball. We had a lot of great memories there, and it never dawned on me that it was next to a detention center.
That park, to this day, is still our favorite.
That first weekend without my mom was the first time I got to see her after her arrest.
I had trouble sleeping the night before. I created several scenarios in my head on how it would all play out. For each scenario I imagined, I finished the thought with tears.
It was too hard. Too hard to imagine my mom as an inmate.
My aunt picked us up at noon. My dad wasn’t going to drive to a government facility because he didn’t have proper documentation to be driving. My cousins and uncles had already made it to the detention center, they were just waiting on us to get there.
As I sat in the waiting room, my heart raced. Up until then I thought I had gone through the worst of the nightmare.
I was wrong.
We went through two sets of heavy, white metal doors into a small room where only about six of us could fit at once. The room had a thick glass in between and although we could faintly hear the voices from the other side, we needed to use a black, wired telephone to clearly hear the person on the other side.
My aunt and dad took the lone two chairs in the room. My dad moved right next to my aunt who was the first to hold the phone. My dad wasn’t ready to talk first, but he did want to hear the conversation.
I took the front-right side of the room and stood there. My slim four-foot-tall frame had more than enough space in that little corner of the room.
My uncle, brother and cousin stood in the back of the room.
We waited a long two minutes before a guard came and showed my mom where to sit.
There she was in an orange jumpsuit, hair braided in a way I had never seen before, thick reddish bags under her exhausted eyes, lips dry. Her wrists, wounded.
My mom looked mentally beaten. She looked defeated.
Everyone teared up when my mom sat down.
My aunt talked to my mom for a few minutes. It was a different feeling to hear my otherwise animated and lively mom speak in a monotonous voice. It’s almost like she wasn’t there.
Then my aunt offered me the phone.
I took it and I told my mom two words that I had been so desperate to say: “Hola, mami.”
I had a hard time coming up with clear sentences because I kept choking on my emotions. In an almost instinctive act, I raise my left hand and put it against the glass. I expressed more with that act than I could with words.
All I wanted was to feel my mom again, feel her warmth, feel her skin, feel her love.
She gave the first of few smiles that day when we “touched” hands over the glass.
A half-inch of polycarbonate separated my mom and me.
Through all this frustration, my mom gave me a smile. She spoke of not losing hope, of trusting in God, of staying positive.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said.
One of the first things that my dad bought after my mom was arrested was a small Bible that had a navy-blue cover with silver-like linings on every page. The more than one-thousand pages of scripture were as large as a state-ID card. The letters almost required a magnifying glass to be seen, but they were enough for my mom. She read the Bible for hours at a time and became a devout believer in Christ.
That Bible and its contents were some of the main reasons she stayed positive. She read of a loving God, she read of a forgiving God, she read of hope.
And despite me being broken to the core on that day, my mom’s words of hope were a breath of fresh air. It was different hearing it from her than it was hearing it from everyone else.
She was the one that was about to be taken away. She was the one that was behind bars and forced to share living quarters with total strangers. She was the one that wasn’t treated well in the back of a police car. She was the one who had cried so much since her police stop that her eyes had run dry.
And yet, she was holding on to hope. So, why couldn’t I do the same?
My mom, in her trademark stamp of courage, showed me light that day. And I held on to it.
It was hard for my mom to miss my birthday. It was family tradition to wake up to my parents singing Las Mañanitas to me. On my 11th birthday, though, I woke up to my dad’s phone alarm.
It was 5 a.m., much earlier than I would usually wake up. But I had a special Skype call.
I talked to my mom over Skype as she congratulated me on turning “double-ones.” She was with my grandma back in the motherland. I wanted to cry because she wasn’t with me, but she assured me that everything was going to be well.
Later that day, my extended family made sure to make me feel special. Although they usually didn’t come to celebrate my birthday because everyone was always busy, they threw a little party for me and helped me smile.
It was hard for my mom to miss my first and only trip to Disney. My school had an accelerated reader program that included a challenge. Every student that won the challenge won a free trip to Disney World. I had tried every year, but I had always come up short.
Finally, on my last try, I made it to the exclusive list of students that could go to Orlando. My mom had always pushed me to try and make it, and as hard as it was to go to the trip without being able to thank her in person, I dedicated that trip to her, vowing to not go back until I could bring her with me.
It was 5 a.m. when my dad dropped me off at the school to catch the bus to Orlando. That trip ended up being one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had and a good distraction from my rough life at the time.
It was hard for my mom to miss my elementary school graduation. Every time I won an award for good grades, my mom was there to support me. She’d embarrass me by shouting my name when I was called up and proceeding to take a hundred pictures.
The day of my graduation ceremony, nobody from my family or extended family was there to see me get my prop diploma.
It was 5 p.m. and I looked over into the audience when my name was called up. Nobody was there to scream for me. Nobody was there to flash their cameras. Nobody was there for me.
It was hard.
But I kept some hope.
One of the best things that came out of this unfortunate situation was the fact that I became a lot closer to my extended family. I’d usually only see them for the holidays or whenever my aunt — who has the biggest home — wanted to throw a party. I’d rarely visit my aunt and uncles.
After school, though, I’d always get dinner at my uncle’s place. My trailer-park-uncle had us over for dinner every day. My dad barely knew how to cook at the time, so getting warm, home-cooked food was great. Not to mention the fact that we had daily conversation with blood relatives. That, in itself, was a blessing.
My aunt hosted us for dinner on the weekends. She’d prepare a big feast for us and we’d spend hours at her place on Saturday and Sunday talking and having a good time.
The split of my immediate family brought my extended family closer.
Take my relationship with my cousins, for example. I was always shy and quiet around my cousins because they couldn’t relate to a lot of the issues that I had as a young child and that always made me feel inferior. They talked about going to the movies, but I didn’t go to a movie theatre until I was 13. They talked about their new smartphones, but I didn’t get one of those until sophomore year of high school. They talked about going to the beach all the time — I barely went in the summer. There was a disconnect.
But the more time I spent with them, the more we bonded and got to know each other. It turns out we shared a lot more similarities than we thought, we just had to actually talk to each other. Today, my cousins and I are great friends.
Lauren, the director of the Afterschool, helped my family a lot as well. She received a lot of donations at the Afterschool and always made sure that we were one of the families that got free canned food and groceries. She helped us in ways that went considerably beyond her job description. Today, she’s my mentor and second mom.
I performed better academically as well. I got a lot of motivation out of the predicament and I pushed myself to master English. With Spanish being my first language, and being the only language spoken at home, I was behind the average student in my English-language proficiency. Over the summers I read a lot of books and by the end of my time in middle school, I was two grade-levels above the average student in English mastery. Today, I am a few weeks away from obtaining a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame.
Great things came out of an awful situation.
Life has given me a bad hand, but I am making the most of it.
Charlie Ortega Guifarro
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.