Written On the Body: One Family’s History

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In sharing the story of each of her tattoos and their meaning in this piece at ProPublica, journalist Adriana Gallardo — who was once an undocumented immigrant from Mexico — recounts her family’s hard-won luck at life in America, a luck they earned by back-breaking janitorial work and sheer determination, toil that allowed Gallardo to become a journalist to “revisit difficult stories in complicated places.”

On my left arm is a garbage can with a few peonies and a calla lily tossed inside. When I shut my eyes and think about my childhood, I see my mother pushing a loud, circular, plastic, gray trash can on wheels. Our family business took on anything. From factories to the YMCA, churches to strip-mall office spaces — you name it, my parents were up for cleaning it. I grew up chasing behind my mother and that garbage can.

Owning a business was never in the plan. My parents were young immigrants raising a family in the early 1990s just outside of Chicago. When my dad’s boss was ready to move on, he offered them a chance to take over the business on a generous payment plan. They took a gamble and the janitors became business owners. I was 6 and my brother was 2.

After I returned to the border I began to ask questions. My parents’ answers were exactly what I was afraid to hear. I did not want to know that they got to the border without a plan. That it was on my mother’s insistence that we all come along. That it took them a full week of door-knocking to find anyone who could smuggle my mother with a baby and a toddler. That it was February, it was cold and we didn’t bring many clothes.

Once I started listening, once I traded the half-memory and self-constructed story, when I bothered to really look, the details seemed to arrive as if I had invited them.

Just after Christmas, I complained about a meal and mom’s memory jumped back to those days at the border. She tells me we ate the same street tacos for every meal that week because that was all they could afford. That I complained and it broke her heart, but that was all they had.

I asked about where we stayed. She said it was a dingy and dark hotel with no running hot water. There, my brother got very sick from the cold. When we talk about how cold she remembers it was, she casually mentions she was breastfeeding all along this trip. A detail I never considered given my brother was just a few months old. The image of my mother breastfeeding a sick baby in the cold, with nowhere to go, drained any last drop of romance from our story.

I became a journalist to revisit difficult stories in complicated places. To labor on stories worth telling because they carried a truth we might be ignoring. To dig, find and hopefully do justice in the re-telling.

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