Life Lessons: Immigrant Wisdom from My Abuelito
In this divisive and ugly political climate, it’s so easy for so many to forget the impact and value of immigrant wisdom. Immigrants are thought of as workers and laborers at best, and criminals and thieves at worst. Little discussion seems to be devoted to the dreams, talents and values that they pass down to generations of new Americans. In my family and many, many, many other families like mine, Mexico sent their best to the U.S. And my grandfather, my abuelito, brought the best of Mexico with him.
Three generations later, much of his family still resides in San Antonio, or we’ve left and come back. Here we’ve built families, careers, businesses and lived, thanks to him. Even though we lost him in 1999, I like to think he lives on, at least a little, in the way I live, in the choices I make and the values I embrace. These 11 pieces of immigrant wisdom that will stay with me forever.
See what could be, not just what is. My grandfather’s house resides in a tight neighborhood of small homes on equally small lots that don’t leave much room for elaborate landscaping. But in that small space he created a beautiful garden that grew chiles, cactus, rose bushes, sunflowers, wild flowers, a pecan tree, grapes on the vine, tomatoes and a whole plot of flowering and fruit plants. He even built a shed, playhouse and doghouses with his own two hands. He, like so many immigrants, didn’t just see and settle for what was, they saw what could be and kept working to make that a reality. He proved that from little much could be made.
Be vivillo desde chiquillo. This is a saying that’s been a part of my family forever. Basically it means, be alert and aware from childhood. He understood the importance of knowing how to navigate real-life challenges as a kid so you can overcome just about anything that comes later in life.
Be artistic. He may have been a laborer all his life, but inside, my grandfather was an artist. He didn’t need a studio, expensive paint or even proper instruction. With little more than a few taped episodes of Bob Ross’ “The Joy of Painting,” and the ganas to do it, he found an outlet for his creativity and appreciation for beauty and nature. He didn’t hide his light and he was happy to share it. His art was one of the things that brought him joy in a life full of hard work. And because he picked up a paintbrush, his children would be artists, too. One daughter became a painter, another an artisan, two sons are excellent sketchers, and my mother and another sister work with flowers. My cousin decorates cakes, and I write.
Get your hands dirty, too. I sometimes wonder what my abuelito would think of my days spent Tweeting, Instagraming, or writing away on my computer. He was physical, a doer – fixing cars, painting, building, tending and otherwise creating. In Mexico, he was of a generation when being good with your hands was a necessity, and he brought that ability across the border.
Sit and enjoy your lunch. Not every bit of wisdom is life changing, but they are all important. Just about every day that I spent with my abuelito and abuelita, there was always a lunchtime. Plates were prepared, tortillas, beans, meat and other goodies hot and ready for the mid-day meal, like they were in Mexico. We sat and enjoyed the homemade food with each other – no phones, TV or other distractions other than perhaps a radio playing. I’m often guilty of the grab and go lunch, but every once in a while I’ll remember to fix myself a plate, sit and eat mindfully and with gratitude.
Fill your home with music. In his home, the radio was always on. Granted it was always playing static-y Spanish religious music on the AM radio that I found grating, but there was always music playing. He was either practicing songs for his church choir, plucking guitar strings or playing on the organ he had in his home. Music was another way he brought life and energy into his home.
Value hechos, no palabras. There were few spoken declarations of love in my family growing up. No grand “I love yous” or anything of the sort. My abuelito can perhaps be thanked for this. He was a steady, solid presence, always ready to offer a ride somewhere, an open door or outstretched hand. Like so many men from his generation he was strong, efficient and the man people relied on in good times and in bad. Love wasn’t spoken as much as it was shown.
Treasure your partner. Life wasn’t always easy for my grandparents, but I remember my abuelito showing his love for my abuelita in small, meaningful ways. When he’d slice open a watermelon, for instance, he made sure that each kid got a slice, but that the heart of the watermelon – the sweetest part – was reserved for her. When he got older and ill, he would remind his children to take care of their mom. After he passed, I discovered he had written by abuelita love letters during their unlikely courtship. My abuelita, a youngest daughter of a very strict father, and my grandfather a hard-working young man.
You manifest magic. Perhaps this isn’t how my religious grandfather would have put it, but to a magical thinker like me, his ability to create and attract life was nothing short of supernatural. He filled his home and surrounding land with the energy and sounds of seven children. He tended to dozens of dogs, countless cats, not to mention chickens, ducks, pigeons, three calves, a goat and a pig. His green thumbs seemed to conjure blooms from the earth, a trait I have tried to emulate with my modest gardening. But that ability to grow and care for life in all sorts of forms will forever amaze me.
Don’t waste a minute. Like so many immigrant men, he worked dangerous, hard labor jobs that would ultimately rob him of his health and life. These jobs lined his lungs with field pesticides, cotton fibers, dust from the mines and cement factory residue. But every minute that he was alive, he was alive. He rose early, always had much to do and yet made time, caring for all of his creations from little kids to stalks of corn while working more than full time. There was time for everything.
Work hard and do what’s right. My abuelito found dignity in work, no matter how grueling and challenging. And because he worked so hard – whether in the fields as a migrant worker, in cement factories or in construction – he ultimately helped feed and build up the U.S. His children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren will remember those contributions to his family and his country, even if others have trouble finding gratitude for immigrants like him. I hope he can look down on his growing family and be as proud of us as we are of him.