I got the call on the corner of Irving Street and 22nd Avenue in San Francisco while standing next to one of my best friends from college.
My brother, his voice steady and calm, had called to tell me my grandmother passed away. My parents, he said, would fly out in a few hours to Peru. Someone who we loved very much was gone from our lives forever.
My friend stood quietly beside me, paralyzed in silence, until I said that we should just continue our day. I wasn't going to go home to New York City, and I wasn't going to go to Peru.
Everyone has grandparents, but my life with mine was a little unusual. From what I can glean of most of my (white) friends' experiences, grandparents are people you see at various holidays, graduations, life moments; they coddle you and sometimes even slip you a $20 bill at family events. For me, my very few memories of my grandma consist of her last visit to the United States in 2013 and our weekly phone calls whenever I was home.
Family and our connections to them are some of the deepest struggles first-generation children like myself face. It's our fragile relationships with our extended family that we cherish so badly but also barely have a connection to. Because of visa problems and terrorism in Peru while I was growing up, I never got to really know my grandparents in the way many of my friends know their grandparents. There were no summer or weekend barbecues, no email exchanges. All I had to grasp on were weekly phone calls on Sunday nights that lasted 10 minutes at most.
The calls were very similar. A lot of "como estas" and "feliz cumpleanos." But in each phone call, I could feel my grandparents and especially my grandmother's pull and voice to let me know that she really thought of me all the time and hoped I was doing well. As someone who could barely remember her grandmother's visits when she was younger, I nodded, said hello, and always finished our conversations with a "cuidate y te quiero."
My freshest and really only memories of my grandmother come from her surprise summer visit in 2013. I had just graduated from college, working away at an internship, but spent those summer days coming home to her freshly cooked meals. She'd then sleep peacefully on the bed across from me in my room around 11 p.m. like the elderly lady that she was.
We spent that summer, along with my cousin and the rest of my family, going on various adventures, from Madame Tussauds to the Statue of Liberty. My birthday, a day on which I have spent many times sick in bed, was spent at the Bronx Zoo and Coney Island. We got hot dogs and walked along the boardwalk. It was in many ways a birthday that should've happened every year if she had lived in the States or if I had been in Peru.
Since that summer was the first that I didn't need to pay for college tuition in the fall, I finally decided I could go to Peru — my homeland. In my 22 years, I was never able to visit for one reason or another, and this was finally the right time to go. For about two weeks, I traversed along Lima, Cuzco, and Tarapoto, meeting family members for the very first time. Many of them, including me, cried as they hugged me and asked me all about my 22 years of life. My grandmother was beside me during all these moments.
My mother's side of the family comes from Tarapoto, Peru, a place so full of life and happiness that I can only describe it as paradise. My grandmother joined me there and showed me everything there was to know about the place — it was where she was from, where she grew up, where she met my grandfather, and where my great-grandfather raised her and my eight other aunts. As one of the first families in Tarapoto, for us, this place is very sacred. I lived my entire life in New York City, but now I know that Tarapoto is truly my home.
We ate maduros, went for a swim, giggled, took selfies, and drank smoothies. Throughout my entire visit, I imagined and wondered if this is what it must be like for those without immigrant families or for those lucky enough to have the money to always see their grandparents. Needless to say, these are some of my happiest memories — ones I don't think I could try to forget even if I tried.
My grandmother passed away on the same day as my aunt's birthday — an aunt I also never got to know in real life, my mother's younger sister. My family and I believe that it was her time to go — and what a perfect time to be reunited with the daughter she lost to cancer in 2011.
I've been described as being very similar to my grandmother. We both share a certain zest for life, always out with our friends, and restless whenever we spend a day at home. My mother, who is the complete opposite of us, always noticed our similarities and often told me that we are both people who need to schedule in a time to chat with her. She was the type of person who would be up at 7 a.m., ready start the day, and end it at 3 a.m. Even in her late age and with her small 5-foot-4-inch frame, she loved going to parties and dancing.
Once, when we were in Tarapoto together, we ate at a restaurant/nightclub that started playing salsa music, and up she went, moving her hips and owning the dance floor. And even though she knew nothing of how to work an iPhone, she smiled and looked straight into the camera as we took a selfie together. She was the eldest of nine sisters; you would think my grandma would've been a much more serious character. But she wasn't — she was the sister you wanted to be and have at every party. As my mom always put it, "She was never satisfied being unhappy and stuck at home. She lived for the outside world."
Children of immigrants face a number of problems, but one of the greatest that is integral to Latinos is missing out on our connection to our families. Due to lack of money or visa issues, many of us never get to develop a connection to our families — and most importantly our grandparents, who raised our parents and, in many ways, raised us. Our already fragile relationships with our extended family is broken the minute our parents move to the United States. I would give anything to have had my grandparents come to my orchestra recitals or my college graduation.
On the corner of Irving and 22nd Avenue in San Francisco. I cried for five minutes and told my friend that we should keep going, that we should keep on our original journey toward Golden Gate Park. We spent the day exploring San Francisco, as it was his first time there. We roamed from Dolores Park to Alamo Square and ended up in Noe Valley, eating cheese and drinking wine, and then we fell asleep at 11 p.m while my parents were en route to Peru.
That day, I was surrounded by people I loved while still 3,000 miles away in both directions — New York City and Peru — to be comforted by either my parents or my extended family. I realized that day that my grandmother and I are very similar. We both appeared to believe that life goes on, but to love and be loved by those around you — that's what matters.
I plan on buying a house someday in Tarapoto, the land where I got to know my grandmother and see what her life was like all this time while I lived in the United States. There will be mango trees, plantains, and a freshly cooked meal every day.
Her name was Irma.