Updated: Sep 12
Kelvin Acosta De La Cruz
“Ven aquí, mi muñeco lindo.” Her voice pacified through the sirens outside. The vecinos in 5F were no longer heard grumbling with one another. Mamá's voice is powerful enough to stop the world from turning. Many around her would fret about her expressive ways, but I didn't care. "Sí, señora?" She sat on her bed with arms outstretched. The aroma of Café Bustelo was her alarm clock—the day had finally come. “Ven búscame la chancleta debajo de la cama, por favor.” I grabbed a pair of red floral slippers and put them on her feet. She smiled and kissed my head. Having Mamá over for a few months from the motherland always felt blissful. From the dulces de coco y leche to playing the current merengues and bachata that were out, there was never a dull moment in the house. This visit was different, though. This was the visit that would determine how long she'd be able to stay on her next trip to the United States.
“Vamos a practicar un poco,” I say to her. I read through her practice exams as she keeps savoring the Bustelo in her cup, slowly swirling her mug. "Washington," she answers. I nod and remind her he was the United States' first president. Several questions later, my mother walks into the kitchen. “Mira, se tienen que ir. Mami, preparase." Mamá gets up and hurries to the bathroom. Mami drops her purse on the kitchen table and heads toward the stove to start cooking for later. I gather all Mamá's practice papers together so we can study more during our commute on the train.
It's a long train ride from the Bronx to downtown. Mamá and I wait on 183rd Street for the four train to arrive. "Ay, a mí no me gustan los trenes,” she exclaims. I chuckle and tell her it'll" be fine. I start asking her more questions until it's time to board. We find two seats by the door and sit back. I look at Mamá as she looks around the train car. “Hay que tener cuidado. En la noticia mataron a un joven en el tren.” I shake my head and just tell her it'll be ok. Mamá is always cautious when it comes to her surroundings. Life has never been easy for her.
She grew up the third of seven siblings. Aside from mentioning her humble beginnings in Santo Domingo, she'd never elaborated on her upbringing. Mamá and her siblings grew up poor—no school, dreams, or self-made decisions. It was all too costly for her to indulge in her desires. Her father was noted for his austerity towards a few of his children, pushing her out of the house at eighteen years old. Marriage, divorce, and six children later, Mamá had what she wished for: a healthy family. Until one day, she sat on her mecedora on her patio and looked at the sky, with the scent of her cafecito and its steam dispersing with a flock of birds moving north. She thought about how free those birds must've felt going to a new place and how quickly they adapt to any environment and rely on one another. Her cafecito soon turned to gotas; nothing left but a sugar trail. Mamá decided to migrate to the United States and leave Santo Domingo behind.
“Era la mejor decisión que hice.” We take a break from studying as she reminisces on specific moments of her life: her two ex-husbands, living with her sister when she first came to New York, and, finally, having a place of her own with all her children. “Yo quería lo mejor para mis hijos. Y sabía que allá [Santo Domingo] no iba a tener oportunidades.” Her hand pats my lap and smiles. “Mira ahora, mis nietos son unos profesionales.” I was far from it, just a nineteen-year-old college student who wanted more out of life. I stare into the blinking light, indicating the next stop. "This is 161st Street, Yankee Stadium," the speaker shouts. Many folks step out of the train while Mamá and I remain in our seats. The doors close, and the train resumes movement. “Barack Obama es el presidente de aquí.” I nod. I keep encouraging her about how well she's retaining all the information. I ask her how old one needs to be to vote. "Dieciocho años." "Sí, Mamá." I move on to the next question.
As brave as Mamá was to migrate to the United States, she managed to throw us into an ocean filled with pressure—the pressure to become successful and make something of ourselves, the pressure to become prosperous enough to help our loved ones because that's what family does. But I was drowning. I was surrounded by my folks adapting to their new culture, yet I couldn't seem to leave theirs behind. I didn't blame them. Who would want to give up the harmonious bachata tune every Saturday night in the apartment? The fritura on the table, the edible centerpiece that welcomed the tias, tios y primos. They carried their culture wherever they went, and I followed. I followed them to WIC appointments, doctor visits, and even shopping to help interpret for them. We were living in a world full of sharks and hungry to make it out of a community of folks trying to make ends meet. "Ponte las pilas para que seas un profesional," Mamá would tell me as a child., her fingers stern and eyes focused on me. Yes, Mamá, I am trying.
“Aquí votan por un presidente cada cuatro años.” Another question, right? I tell her she's correct and keep looking over the screen to ensure we did not miss our stop. We still have a couple more stops to go. Mamá begins to feel nervous the closer we get. “¿Ya estamos llegando?” “Sí Mamá, casi casi.” We decide to leave the studying alone to avoid excessive cramming. I put the papers in my backpack, carrying a bottle of water, my house keys, and extra pencils in case she needs some for her exam.
We arrive at city hall and pass security. The guards give us directions to the waiting room. I tell Mamá to wait a few minutes for her name to be called. She smiles, that nervous kind of smile. A proctor steps out with a list. He puts his glasses on and clears his throat. He calls several names before he gets to Mamá's. She looks over at me, and I wish her luck as she walks toward the proctor. The door shuts. I remain in the waiting room, looking at the large American flag hanging by the reception area. To think it is up to me to bestow generational wealth. Hmph! How can I? How will I? One place thinks I am already successful, while another forcefully reminds me I can't afford school without grants or loans. The financial and familial burdens shove me to the ground between those two worlds.
My thoughts are soon interrupted by the sound of a door opening. There are smiles, hugs, laughter, and some tears. Mamá is still inside. I hope they give her a Spanish version of the exam. What if she needs a pencil and the proctor doesn't speak her native language? My mind feels heavy with every scenario, and it is all weighing me down. Suddenly, I hear a familiar voice. "¡Mi niño, lo pasé!" Her warm embrace makes the cloudy sky show a peek of sunlight. I congratulate her and grab my phone to take a picture. The proctor congratulates her, too, and hands her a small American flag as a reward. She looks at the camera and snap! I take the picture, and then we're headed back to the Bronx.
“Ay, tengo que llamar pa’llá.” I tell her we'll make a pit stop at the bodega for a calling card before heading home. She holds my hand and looks at me. “Ay mi niño, muchas gracias por ayudarme. Tú sabes que siempre será el niño de Mamá.” I laugh. We walk towards the station as New York City traffic stretches behind us. Then, I realize what lies between those two worlds: a dream.
Kelvin Acosta De La Cruz (he/him/his) is a poet, writer, and advocate for immigration and queer/trans rights. Born and raised in the Bronx, NY, his work has been featured by local organizations like BX Writers. He earned a public justice BA with a creative writing minor from SUNY Oswego. He also holds an MA in human resources management from Manhattanville College. Kelvin's passion for writing began in his second-grade classroom with an assignment to create his own fairytale. It became an outlet for his voice to be heard and liberated his imagination.