Honorable Mention, 2014 Bethesda Magazine Adult Essay Contest
José was from Peru. He had a round, brown face like the center of a sunflower, and he wore pants that never wrinkled and polo shirts that were always buttoned to the top. He smelled good, which is to say clean, like petals or the pages of a new book.
In the eighties, he married my auntie. She was from Colombia. In our family, everyone came from someplace else and walked everywhere here in the States: to the fábricas and the A&P and school. José was different, because he had a car: a Mercury Cougar. The car keys sang in his hands.
One Saturday, when I was about ten, José drove my auntie, my mother, my sister, and me to Tops. If an appliance could be plugged into an electrical outlet, Tops sold it: blenders, stoves, air conditioners, freezers, alarm clocks, French door refrigerators. The washing machines lined the eastern side of the store, their lids opened, a group of white canyons in this strange land.
That day, my uncle was buying a television or a stereo system. I’m not sure now, but what I do remember is that he consulted with a man who had bushy eyebrows, a thick tie, a name tag pinned to his left breast pocket. The two of them talked for a while, because price tags at Tops were not numbers. They were pieces of land that could be scrutinized, debated, fought over. Finally, José and the man settled on a price, and we headed for the cashier.
Waiting on line, José took out his wallet, a brown leather man’s billetera, and I pulled on his arm. I wanted to see what men kept in their wallets. My own father never took us anywhere, and the one time I had seen the inside of his wallet, it had revealed nothing, just dollars, a social security card, and school pictures of my sister and me.
José tipped the wallet toward me. Inside, elaborate blue lettering decorated a white card with the words: “United States of America.” A picture of José’s sunflower face took up half the card, except that his small eyes looked very wide, almost startled, and above his forehead hung the phrase “Resident Alien.”
I didn’t know what the words meant, but immediately I felt I had done something wrong, that I had made him show me a shameful secret about himself. Later that day, I asked my mother about the card, and she whispered that José didn’t have his papers yet. His citizenship.
Years later, I learned the arc of his journey: immigrant, undocumented, amnestied, resident alien, citizen. But that day I didn’t know what my mother meant and I didn’t ask, because I could hear the worry in her voice and the fear too, and it was already horrible enough to know that someone—and not just someone, but the United States government—thought my sunflower uncle was a creature from another planet.