From the Mouths of Babes
Gardena, California
October 30, 2001

Robert is eight years old going on twenty. I met him at the Car Wash. His father, Esteban, was detailing my car. Robert is not the name he was born with. Both he and his father tell me he is an American now, so Robert it is. Though Esteban has kept his name and struggles mightily with English he is thoroughly committed to Robert’s assimilation into the fabric of the country and is proudest of his son’s command of the language…though the list of things he is proud of his son for is dauntingly long. Once you meet the boy you know why.

Four years ago they were living in a remote village on the Baja Peninsula. The area was apparently a place where drug lords of some sort were fighting each other. Esteban’s English is not very strong and for most of our conversation Robert served as translator. Esteban, however, would not let Robert be a part of the conversation when I asked about his mother. As such I only picked up bits and pieces of the story. Esteban’s wife was a latina born in the US. After they married he had trouble finding work here so they moved back Mexico after Robert’s birth. It was very important to both that Robert be born in the US. Four years ago his wife developed an infection after receiving a wound of some sort and died for lack of medical care. There were few doctors in the area and by the time they realized how bad the infection was they could not get her to a doctor in time to save her. Esteban worried that the escalating drug war could catch either Robert or himself in the cross-fire. He did not want to lose his son or leave him orphaned. So, they got out.

When I first started talking to Esteban it was mostly small talk, with me doing most of the talking and Esteban not speaking much beyond monosyllables. I later learned it is because he is embarrassed that he does not speak English well and does not want to offend those who don’t much care for immigrants who have not mastered the language. He’d had a number of such experiences. He did not break the monosyllabic binge until I asked him about the card he wore on a shoestring around his neck. Then he beamed. It was a picture of his son. Looking back at me from behind the laminated cover was the most serious little boy I had ever seen. Esteban told me his son was very smart and one day would be a “dok-tor and help the people”. I guess that’s a big thing when you’ve seen someone you love perish for lack of medical care.

Every day Robert gets out of school and comes up to the Car Wash and watches his father until Esteban gets off work. Robert likes watching Esteban and tells me “My father works hard and you should always work hard at whatever you do”. I suspected I was hearing the words of Esteban in that. He likes having Robert come and sit on the curb and do his homework. There is also a sense of fierce protection. Esteban always knows where Robert is, even when he appears totally engrossed in his work.

As his father worked I helped Robert with his arithmetic and vocabulary homework. He thought he needed help. I’m not aware of his needing my assistance in anything. When he focused on a problem his eyes would squint causing deep furrows in his forehead. At one point Esteban asked me how Robert was doing. I told him that Robert was getting everything right. Esteban’s serious face melted away again and he slid into a smile broader than the Mississippi. He assured me that Robert was “the best student”.

I asked Esteban some questions and he beckoned Robert over to serve as translator. The conversation rambled through matters political and trivial. On the attacks Esteban said only, “very bad people. They don’t know America”. Esteban had the car gleaming with clean (as rare as rain is in Southern California it did manage to rain the very next day). Sensing my time with this remarkable little boy and his equally remarkable father was coming to an end I posed one last question to Robert.

“When you came to America were you scared?”

He nodded furiously in the affirmative.

“If you could put up a sign for all the people who come to America like you did, what would it say?”

There was that knitted brow, the wrinkled forehead, and the laser focused, intelligent young eyes, again. He thought about it for a long time. Then he looked up at me with that little face so earnest and serious that if I wasn’t a big tough guy I would have cried like a baby, and he said,

“Everybody welcome.”

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