From the Mouths of Babes
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 Roberts
assimilation into the fabric of the country and is proudest of his
sons 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. Estebans 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. Estebans wife was a latina born in the
US. After they married he had trouble finding work here so they
moved back Mexico after Roberts 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
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 dont much care for immigrants who have not mastered
the language. Hed 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 thats a big thing when youve
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. Im 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. Estebans 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 dont 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 wasnt a big tough guy I would have cried
like a baby, and he said,