By Lucas Lopes, Staff Writer
Saudade, which is characteristic of Brazilian culture, is a word that can only really be captured by the Portuguese language. At its core, it means a profound nostalgic state of longing for something absent; the love that remains after something or someone is gone.
December 21, 2000 was the last time my father ever hugged his father. That day, my parents took my brother and I, five suitcases, a few thousand dollars, and set off from Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil to Florida. A two-hour drive from Maracaju to Campo Grande led to a connection to São Paulo. In eight hours, we would find ourselves standing in Miami International Airport. Fear. Loss. Trauma. Faith. Grit. Inglês? America! Fear.
My normal, six-year-old life had been reduced to a small duffel bag. Gone was the big hammock in the backyard that contained a universe of adventures for my brother and I, our wiener dog Billy, and the old perfume bottles my grandmother had given me. Allotted to me was an armful of clothes and a scrappy family of my favorite toy animal figurines.
Bankruptcy, a region void of job opportunities, and increasing pressure from a conservative evangelical small town in Southwestern Brazil, lit the path for my parents’ departure.
To stay would have meant committing to a life trapped in the web of financial ruin, judgement from the church and from those around us, in a country destined to endure boom and bust cycles and regular political upheaval. Much to my grandparents’ disappointment, my parents had always been different, always willing to deny the status quo and look beyond their circumstances to create a life for themselves. This became a problematic truth when, at just 17, my mother married my father, who was nine years her senior and below the social class that her parents demanded she marry into.
My mother recently recounted to me that moving to America “was an assault on my life.” After her uncle, a minister, went back on his word that he would sponsor our family for permanent residence, we overstayed our visas and did our best to thrive in America as undocumented immigrants.
My then 27-year-old mother had no idea she would be throwing away two years of progress on a college degree to clean toilets and mop floors for 15 years. My then 36-year-old father could not prepare for what it would be like trade the daily job of running a small pharmacy to make and deliver pizzas for 60 hours a week.
As an undocumented immigrant, you are automatically relegated to the rank and file positions in America: to cleaning its rental cars, assembling its bouquets, laying tile and installing building soffits, cooking pizzas and cleaning hotel rooms. As an undocumented immigrant, you are automatically relegated to the arduous, relentless job of building America.
I think of the innumerable events and ways in which my family has been made to feel the cruel injustice of our circumstances. I think of how I have only ever seen my newborn cousin in photos. Of how over 11 million undocumented immigrants share similar stories with my mother, who had to say goodbye to her best friend who was dying of cancer over MSN Messenger. I think of all the weddings, funerals, graduations, countless birthdays, and family reunions that, for us, became nothing more than opened invitations stored in a box.
On August 21, 2018, I picked up the phone and heard my father’s broken voice through tears: “O vô Zé morreu…” My grandpa had died suddenly the night before. Eighteen years. Eighteen years. Eighteen years. Two words that have haunted me since then. Eighteen years and no reunion, no goodbye.
My story is not an anomaly. It is a very real, very profound and very painful existence that plays out every single day in the lives of the 11 million undocumented people living in this country. I suppose that between the caravan, the ICE raids, and all of the other headlines, it is easy to get lost in the saga of America’s immigration paradox. But let’s remember this: we are people. Migration is a human right. And, we, as Americans, have a moral duty to fight for, and uphold the sacred bonds of family.