In July of 2006 I was sitting at the kitchen table in my grandfather’s home in Eagle Pass, Texas, in the house where my father and his six brothers and sisters grew up near the Mexican border. I was visiting my Guelito Chente to celebrate his upcoming 80th birthday.
I looked at him with love in my eyes; at his thick and strong fingers as he unwrapped the painted rosary I had given him, at his blue eyes behind the thick glasses he wore. I listened to his melodic voice that spoke with the confidence that comes with having seen it all.
A few months later, I would be looking at my grandfather again, this time in a gray casket. He would be dressed in his navy blue suit with the American flag tie, his favorite. He would be surrounded by mourners and I would be staring numbly at his corpse, remembering that moment back in July.
“Se sufre para merecer,” my grandfather used to say to me, “You suffer to deserve.”
I used to think it was resignation when my grandfather would say this to me, the result of his traditional Mexican upbringing or too many years of hard work or uphill battles. But, the more I listened to him, the more I realized I wasn’t listening.
My grandfather Vicente Calderón was orphaned when he was eight years old. He never finished school. He came to the U.S. from Mexico chasing the American Dream, with a future where nothing was certain except for hard work. He believed that if he worked hard enough, he could give his generations something he never had: opportunity.
It worked. All of his seven children graduated college and I graduated from Stanford University in 2005. And while I’m not sure he understood the intricacies of the Ivy League system, he knew what his hard work had wrought.
He had suffered, so that I could deserve.
When he fell ill in October and died a week later, I was left with an unspeakable void inside of me. In the funeral parlor I saw his absence weigh on his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Life without him could not be the same, but somehow I knew we would all find a way.
I missed him, but I knew he was close: he had become a part of me. I could almost feel him there. He would smile at me, “Se sufre para merecer mi’ja,” he would say, hoping I understood what he meant.
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