My parents raised us to live our lives as though it could all change for the worse in a minute. When I was little they had residency, but with each changing election cycle actual citizenship seemed more and more precarious. They made us learn to speak, read and write Spanish. We learned all the states of Mexico and all the history and to name the presidents in order. They taught us to memorize our grandmother’s address in Tijuana should we ever have to give the information to a taxi driver. They made sure we were always prepared to live a life in Mexico should they ever be deported. Once we teenagers they made us independent so that if we had to stay here without them and live with relatives then we could at least survive. In the desert, this meant being able to drive and having a job that would pay more than minimum wage. This, for us, meant beauty school.
Mom and Dad always told me college is a choice and a luxury, but making a living isn’t. You have to have a trade; something to provide you with a living even if you’re studying for something else, something more than minimum wage. When people asked me what my parents did they questioned my decision to be a hairdresser. “But your mother is a teacher? And your dad doesn’t make bad money as a machinist. And aren’t you going to college?” As if that somehow pushed us into a middle class status that excluded manual labor. My mother graduated from John Muir High school in Pasadena with training as an airline attendant.
This meant she could do any airline job from stewardess to airline traffic control to administrative paperwork. She was in her first year of community college and pregnant with my eldest sister when her boyfriend refused to admit paternity and joined the marines. While he was at basic training in San Onofre USMC base in San Diego, she was working at American Airlines LAX control tower to support a newborn and pay her way through Pasadena Community College. Then when they finally married and he was stationed at Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii she became a real estate agent, working also as a housecleaner and a makeup artist because he still was not supporting them. Being a skilled worker made my mother able to support herself and a baby, eventually enabling her to divorce him.
My father left home at twelve years old, escaping an abusive father and crippling poverty. He left his small town and went to live with his aunt and uncle in Mexico City. Unlike his uncles and brothers, he had no talent for barbering and decided to learn tailoring from another uncle. He made suits for rich men in a garment district factory before leaving for the U.S. at twenty-one. For years he worked as a tailor in the garment district in Los Angeles. During this time he also worked as a gardener and a waiter before going back to school part-time to train to be a machinist for ITT aerospace.
In 1994, California was hit with a 6.7 magnitude earthquake in Northridge. This earthquake crumbled my father’s workplace. They guaranteed their jobs, but laid them off for six months while they were rebuilding in Valencia. My father was the sole bread winner for our family and without income for sixth months, he sought out other work. Without hesitation, he found work doing alterations for men’s suits for a Chinese shop owner in the San Fernando Valley. After the six months were over and he was called back in to work at ITT aerospace, now at their new location, he said goodbye to his boss who begged him to stay because he was such a hard worker. Those six months we were not without money because my father had a trade. My eldest sister never wanted for anything because my mother had a trade. My uncles, who all trained as barbers, didn’t have to work in the fields for twelve hours like they had in childhood because they had a trade. My parents wanted us to have that kind of security because it was the only security they could offer us in this world.
Besides always being wary of deportation, my parents also feared the exact kind of political situation we are living now under the Trump administration. Even though they eventually obtained their U.S. citizenship, they feared a war in which we might be rounded up, detained and eventually executed. “Remember what they did to the Japanese? The Jews? They were citizens of their country too. It never mattered to the government.” They always told us that becoming useful was the most valuable exchange for your life. The more skills one could have, the better your chances are of being spared. Therefore, besides teaching us how to do housework, landscaping, construction work and sewing, we were told to take advantage of the Regional Occupation Program that our school district offered at a reduced rate for high school students. This way, at age eighteen, we could be independent and support ourselves no matter what turns life would take. After all, during the Holocaust, tailors, blacksmiths, and even barbers were spared the gas chamber — for a while.