My mom began baking during quarantine like the rest of us basic bitches, but she decided to experiment with gluten-free seed breads. She asked for various bags of strange seeds, which I sent her, my brother and I rolling our eyes on FaceTime as she showed us her earthy loaves. She asked for reusable water bottles that would keep her beverages cold and sent pictures of them filled with water and chia seeds at the bottom like little soot sprites, or alien seedlings, which is what we were called. Aliens.
My parents migrated from Ecuador to America in the early 1990s, 18 months after they had me. They settled in New York, first in Brooklyn, then in Queens. They were both in their early 20s. They separated in 2019 after 30 years of marriage, 28 of which had been in America, undocumented, their time together mostly spent worried about paperwork—bills, Social Security numbers, money, always in cash because they were paid in cash. It was hard to grow apart or together outside of a life lived in increments of hours.
When my dad left, it was her first time being single and basically alone in America. Her children were grown, although my 22-year-old brother still lives with her. They didn’t know how to do the chores my dad was in charge of; they didn’t know how to handle their first NYC blackout, their first hurricane warning, the pandemic. My mom was like a young woman in her first apartment except this one was haunted, with a ghost in every corner.
Without my father around to mock her, she fully embraced her love for wellness and kooky doctors whose videos she sent me. “Ma!” I cried. “That’s not real science!” “That’s why I’m asking you,” she’d say. “Because you’re smart.”
She was like the undocumented Gwyneth Paltrow.
My father had shamed her for eating “white,” which meant that my mother insisted on buying organic food, which was obviously more expensive. My dad thought it was out of our station as undocumented immigrants. He had absorbed the xenophobic rhetoric we were bombarded with. He liked Ecuadorian cooking, which was not always great for his heart and had to do more with a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that he had spent more years of his life in America than in his home country. He was always in a quiet, resentful mourning that sent shocks of anxiety through us when he came home from work each day.
Now, without him, she started yoga. She would text me selfies of her covered in sweat, doing Zumba videos and aerobics on YouTube. I logged into my Netflix account and saw that she had watched Eat Pray Love. She confessed that she had a crush on Joe Biden but did not want to give us a stepfather, as if that were the reason Joe Biden would not become our stepfather. Whenever I logged into Netflix, I prayed I would not see that she had watched Bridgerton.
My father had a difficult personality, and when she was in front of him my mother often wilted like a dandelion exposed to a fire hose. She was a different person when she was with just my brother and me. She was silly, crass, almost manic. If she’d had the opportunities I had here, I have no doubt that she would have tiptoed away from the Old Testament God and His unpredictable temper that almost rivaled my father’s and become a writer for Saturday Night Live or written jokes for Trixie Mattel. Her jokes are gallows humor, often playing upon our traumas. Last March, when I was going mad about the toll of people of color succumbing to Covid-19 at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, she joked that if she died of Covid I would need to prepare by losing 30 pounds in order to fit into the vintage clothing she’d leave for me.
The neighborhood in Queens where I grew up had rapidly gentrified since I left for my Ph.D. program at Yale in 2011, and it made me angry. I knew some of the people who lived there, and I saw on social media that they could afford tropical vacations and designer clothing; it seemed like some of them chose to move into a low-income neighborhood where rent was cheap so they could keep up their lifestyles at the expense of people who could not afford to live anywhere else. Yoga studios, expensive coffee shops, artisanal shops devoted to assorted whims started replacing our local businesses. Every time I visited, my neighborhood looked different, and it made me bitter and sad. I scowled at every yuppie face with Doc Martens feet I saw on the L train platform.
But this crazy bitch? My mom loved it. She loved that there was a Starbucks near her now, where she bought herself green tea lattes using the gift cards I got her. The gift cards were usually covered in rainbows, LGBTQ-themed, because even though she is evangelical, she is an ally. She became a regular at the neighborhood hipster coffee shop when Starbucks became too corporate for her. Was my mother a VSCO girl? When I was showing my partner around Bushwick with my mother, I stared down millennials who I assumed—I knew—to be gentrifiers, and my mom grabbed my partner, who is white, by the arm, laughed at me—and took her into a shop dedicated to rainbow bagels.
She asked me to get Michelle Obama’s book Becoming for her as soon as it was available in Spanish. She has already read all of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs. She loves both women because despite the famous men they are married to—icons, presidents—they are ferocious legends themselves. They ain’t never needed no man. That’s the stage where she is right now. She is becoming who she is after a lifetime of giving herself to America, to her man, and to her children unconditionally. She is learning who she is, learning to heal, and learning to trust herself for the first time in her life. At age 31, I am meeting my mother, for real this time, for the first time.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is the author of The Undocumented Americans (One World), which is out in paperback this month.