On 9/11, with the radio transcribing the ongoing events and his white coworkers in the plant nursery going mad as though the place was burning down, all my dad could do was laugh. As far as he knew, the Omaha nursery was fine. The roof was still above their heads. The ground was unmoving. The sky still blue, and most importantly there was work to be done. The radio spat out English babble: some who-knows-what-is-being-said nonsense. It wasn’t going to stop my dad from taking inventory of the succulents, coral bells, black petunias. Perhaps he caught a word here and there—god and no and fall, but he understood fall as in the season, not as in collapsing. If fall is what he understood, then surely it was a weather report. If it was just a weather report, was the weather enough to go mad? There was work to be done—work was the reason he had immigrated. Gringos locos, he thought and got to work, even if they wouldn’t.
My dad doesn’t make eye contact when telling me of this memory. He looks down at his brown hands and nails. Dirt is wedged beneath them from a day of mowing lawns, building stone fences, and planting flowers, trees, and bushes. In almost a whisper, he confesses to the shame of coming home to images of the twin towers falling on TV. Shame of having laughed while people died. What if the radio warned of a missile headed for his home? What if, again, there was no one to translate? What if he laughed as all the English speakers prayed for their lives? “Hubiera muerto,” he says. He imagines himself dead on the ground, not realizing he has died. Death not translating into muerte.
Even though he had no previous interest in learning English, that autumn night at home, the nation mourning, my dad decided he would learn English. How, he wondered, could he survive without it?
It wouldn’t seem like much English is needed in the landscaping business. You arrive at someone’s yard, dig holes, plant some roses, water some tulips, remove weeds, unearth dead hydrangeas, replenish mulch, plant an autumn blaze maple, mow the lawn, build a fence, cut down a pine tree, roll out new grass, fill holes with dirt, and then go home with the sun planting itself into the horizon. A day where only the lawn mower speaks its buzzing language. And for recently arrived immigrants in the landscaping business, whose tongues are still trekking across the desert, this is often true—it’s just them and the lawn mower. It was true for my dad when he arrived, and true for the immigrant coworkers of his who I’ve briefly met in the past. But when more than just mowing lawns needs to be done, there’s a risk of misunderstandings if there are no translators at hand, and misunderstandings can mean loss of money.
While still new at the nursery, my dad was tasked with delivering a massive stone. Should have been easy but his language failed him. When it came down to it, my dad confused left with right. The business owner called my dad’s boss and asked how something so simple could be done wrong. He wanted the stone on the right side of the entrance. Right, he had said, not left! My dad had to return and fix his error without pay.
“Let this be a lesson,” his boss likely said, but my dad doesn’t remember. In fact, he didn’t understand. All he knew back then was he hadn’t been fired—he knew that word.
Before my dad unloads the truck, we jog over to the front door of the Northwest Omaha home and knock. No one opens. He messaged the homeowner before we headed out, so it’s likely she stepped out quickly if she found no snacks in the pantry. Besides paying, she likes to offer, if nothing else, a water and some fruit snacks every time my dad works for her.
This is not a job he does with the company, though he wears the company’s sweater with the logo on the left of the chest. Mud on his sleeves. It’s a side gig he found by asking around.
“Sabes,” he later tells me, “the first and most important phrase I learned is, ‘I’m looking for work.’” He pronounces work with a t at the end from too much emphasis on the k. He repeats the phrase twice more, to show me just how well he has memorized it, the accent on work gone the third time.
It’s necessary to know the phrase given how dependent his line of work is on the weather. If it’s pouring rain, my dad stays home where my mom will often complain about it. She doesn’t like that his job doesn’t have a definite schedule. Come winter, there will be no work unless there is snow. When not covering the roads with salt, he’ll be at home zoning out my mom’s grievances about how funds are getting low.
My dad knocks again, but no one opens. He checks the window. Other than the dogs’ barking, there’s no sign of people inside. He tries his phone. No new texts. There are no cars he recognizes driving down the street behind us. He looks down at his mud-encrusted shoes, then up at the roof of the house. For the holidays, he’ll climb up there to hang Christmas lights. He doesn’t always want to, especially when there has been rain or rain-snow because it means black ice. It’s easy to lose his footing, but the risk comes with the job. From up there, he can see the woman’s entire property. It dips into a mass gathering of trees down south and corners part of the lake to the west. Up north, there’s a horse stable and a grape orchard. During winter, everything—the trees, the stable, the stalks that hold the grapevines, the field the horses are free to run in and that uses about half of the acreage—will be covered in white like spilled salt.
“Un día,” my dad says to me, “I’ll own a ranch like that.” For now, we rent a small house in South Omaha. A mix-and-match menagerie of flower pots, plants, and bricks running down the east wall of our blue house. Leftovers basically—flowers and materials that weren’t needed or wanted anymore by his employers.
To own a house or ranch wasn’t always a goal of his. At seventeen, having just arrived in Los Angeles, almost thirty years ago, my dad’s dream was to earn enough money to buy a nice car. Now my dad laughs at the dreams of his teenage self. But the thrill when he was finally able to afford a car, though old and beaten, was like nothing else. He drove that thing all through LA until his adrenaline plateaued. Nowadays, owning a home is up there on his list of priorities, but he’s not in a hurry. His young self believed it could be quick, blind to the difficulties of immigrating to a foreign country, but today my dad knows better. A house is one of his long-term goals, but for the near future he cares most about being able to send money to his mom in México and seeing my sister and me, his (citizen) children, through college.
My dad knocks once more. Dust shakes loose from the brick of the walls. The window blinds don’t move. The two-car garage stays shut. A light breeze shakes the trees and runs down the hill toward the lake. Sunlight dances on the surface with the water’s slow movement.
“Maybe she’s out back,” he says, and we go down a set of stairs to a fenced-in pool. He tries the gate door. Locked. A yellow rubber duck in sunglasses mocks us from the balcony above the pool.
We walk back up the concrete stairs, continuing down the cement path until it becomes a strip of dirt that bisects a row of pine trees.
There was a lot of walking when my dad crossed the border. And again more walking the second time he crossed. Both times must have been relatively uneventful because my dad doesn’t speak much about them. Or maybe he doesn’t want to. They happened is all he tells me. It was the third time he crossed into the US that is most memorable. He spent half a night at the bottom of a well. It was maddening to find black beneath him, black on the walls, and black above him where, if not the moon, there should have been at least one star to guide him but there wasn’t. “Pude haber muerto,” he says, and no one would have known but the coyote and the men and women that had been travelling with him, all too desperate to find shade from the merciless desert sun and moon to do a headcount.
We find the woman closing the gates of the horse stable. Two horses in the distance chew on grass.
“Jose!” she says. “There’s food in the house if you’re hungry.”
“Thank you,” he says.
She’s in a black turtleneck and khaki pants. There are sunspots on her white hands from age. The red hair on her head is thinning, her white scalp visible beneath the sun. For as long as my dad has known her, she has been battling skin cancer. “She’s in constant treatment because it keeps returning,” he later tells me, “but she doesn’t let it slow her down.” When not tending to her ranch, because every so often she’ll help, she is selling jewels.
She tells my dad that she needs him to clean the stable and to mow the land in front of the house. Her husband (a doctor in the burn unit) already mowed everything behind the house. I try to fall into the background as they talk, but I stay in earshot in case my dad needs help with translation. Being the son of immigrants, I’ve witnessed too much ridicule because my parents’ English fails them at times.
In Los Angeles there wasn’t much need to know English. Most people he encountered in LA were Latinx and spoke Spanish. And if they didn’t speak his native tongue, there was likely someone who could translate just around the corner. Once in Omaha—he moved here a year or two before 2001—the situation changed. He might bump into a few Latinx people, but the majority of the population was white and non-Spanish-speaking. He landed a landscaping job knowing just enough (“I’m looking for work,” “I can mow the lawn,” “I can work”), but he was laughed at constantly. He remembers one white coworker often asking others if they wanted to hear something funny. They’d say yes and the white man would call my dad over.
“Listen, listen,” the white man would say. “Hey, Jose, you have two sisters, right?”
“Can I fuck one?”
“Say yes, say yes.”
They’d laugh, and my dad would laugh too to fit in.
“Hey, Jose,” another white dude would say. “Can I fuck your other sister?”
“Say yes,” the white man would say.
When my dad learned what fuck meant, he was pissed. He continued to study the language, and when he knew enough, my dad went up to that same white man and asked if he could fuck his white sister. “I want to fuck your sister,” he said again. “Let me fuck your sister.” They deserved it, I say, but my dad says he shouldn’t have done it. He is ashamed that he stooped down to their level, but my dad was driven by anger.
So, always, I lean in just in case my dad needs help. But he holds his ground when talking to the woman and I don’t have to intervene. Then he gets to work.
I ask him, once we are back home, if he imagined himself doing this in his youth, and he says he doesn’t know. He dropped out of middle school in México and started working on the fields with an uncle of his. All he knew was that school wasn’t for him.
"No dreams of being a doctor? An artist? A cosmonaut?"
“I just wanted to work,” he says.
“Where do you see yourself in ten years?” I ask him, already envisioning an answer. I shouldn’t, but I project my own dreams onto him.
My dad shrugs.
“Piensas en regresar a México algún día?” I clarify. “Do you still consider it home?”
He takes a moment to breathe. “I’d like to see mi mamá again,” he says, “before she passes away.” I’m unsure if his eyes are red because they are dry or because he’s withholding tears.
“And in thirty years? Where do you see yourself?”
“Here,” he says. “I’ve earned it, haven’t I?” He’s hopeful that someday my sister and I will be able to help him get papers.
While mowing the lawn, my dad takes a break to answer a text message. It’s a man asking if my dad can stop by sometime during the week to mow his lawn. The man promises that his check, the one for mowing the lawn two weeks ago, will be in the mailbox. My dad hesitates because he hasn’t been paid. He stares at his phone without typing, but eventually walks over to me.
“Can you write ‘Tuesday’ and ‘thank you?'” He understands and can speak English, but writing it is difficult. I take the phone and type out the message. “Gracias,” he says. “I use and see ‘thank you’ all the time, but the spelling won’t stick. Like my brain doesn’t want to learn.”
I tell him it’s not his fault because he sounds defeated and it upsets me. At least he is trying. It may be tougher to retain some aspects of the language at his age, but he is trying. On the drive back, he shows me a notebook he keeps on him. He’ll write the same words over and over and over like small prayers, all to practice, all with hopes of memorizing the spelling. Writing in English is his new goal. I flip through the notebook and land on a page full of Thank yous.