The captain of my family’s ship
CHICAGO — Every descendant of immigrants eventually goes through a moment of disconnection when the person who initiated their family’s move to this country dies.
It is the moment when a family’s origin story becomes just that — no longer a living fact, but a story. After the passing of a trailblazing loved one, the story feels crucial to preserve so that it can be passed on to subsequent generations.
This was my task last weekend when I stood in front of a room filled with family members — young and old, Hispanic, black, white and Asian — and memorialized the life of my Uncle Silvano. He brought us all into each other’s lives through his decision to come to the U.S. over half a century ago.
I looked at each child in the room and told them that because of this one man, they had the great privilege to be sitting in their nice clothes, next to their moms and dads, with their full bellies and their iPhones and iPads nearby.
Silvano was born to a middle-class family in Tampico, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, on Aug. 28, 1920. This was just a week after the first commercial radio station in the U.S. began operations in Detroit and the same month the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote was ratified.
At age 30, Silvano left behind his well-to-do family seeking a different life than the comfortable one he had known. He arrived in the U.S. in 1950, the year that the Federal Communications Commission issued the first license to broadcast television in color.
In his initial years in California and Texas, he made his living as an accountant, but when Silvano found his bride, my Aunt Maria, they were looking for a change of pace and made their way north to Chicago, where, supposedly, there was much work to be found.
In his adopted hometown, my uncle would buy a home, send for his wife’s mother and brothers, raise his two sons, become a naturalized U.S. citizen and, basically, live the storybook American Dream.
It was not the stereotypical immigrant journey of soul-crushing hardship — both he and his wife and her brothers were well-educated in their native countries of Mexico and Ecuador before they arrived here — but it had its share of universal moments of struggle and assimilation.
There were manual-labor jobs that were endured until English skills became good enough to move up the career ladder, the ups and downs of getting to know a new country and the vicissitudes that come with raising a sprawling family over the course of 65 years that, eventually, came to share only one common language: English.
My uncle was an extremely quiet, but omnipresent, man who was always there for his family. His failing health didn’t begin until around his 90th year when he ventured out in the cold wind and ice of a Chicago winter in search of his beloved Chihuahua, who had gone missing.
After escaping my aunt’s watchful eye and walking around his neighborhood looking for Hercules, he fell and broke his hip. The complications worsened from there, and he passed away, surrounded by his wife, sons and grandchildren, on Valentine’s Day.
At the funeral service, my cousin Juan, the eldest son, told a story about this introvert who had the moxie to leave a pleasant life in Mexico in search of something quite different than anyone would ever have expected of him.
“I remember him rushing from his factory job, picking us up from school in a hurry and taking us to the local department store to see Santa Claus,” Juan said. “He wanted us to have every experience possible and not miss out on things that were important in this country just because we were two little Mexican boys.”
When I first learned that my uncle had finally succumbed to death, I called my aunt. She said to me, “We’ve lost the captain of our ship.”
This column is dedicated to every child of immigrants who remembers the person who initiated their migration to this magnificent country. We all eventually lose the captain of our ship, but we must make sure that their spirit of adventure, appreciation of their blessings, and love for this country live on in their descendants.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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