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I Am Light

by Melissa L. White


Fierce pounding on the door awakens me from a deep sleep. I glance at the clock; it’s after midnight. I jump up, peek into the hallway, and see my father answer the front door. Two uniformed ICE Agents thrust a Deportation Order in his face. My mother enters from her bedroom as they handcuff my father.

“He’s legal! He’s got papers!” Mama screams.

Black and white photo of a hallway in the dark with a little light shining from the window on the right and the open door in the distance.
Image credit: Chris Anderson on Unsplash

Her cries go unnoticed. They arrest my father and start to take him away.

Only after my father pleads with them to let him get dressed do they step inside the entry hall and shut the front door. I hear shouting down the hall, and a baby crying. I know an ICE raid when I see one. They’ve happened before at our apartment building.

When my father goes into his room to get dressed, my little five-year-old brother, Manuel, comes out of his room crying. I run to him, hugging him.

“I had a bad dream,” Manuel cries. I pick him up and carry him into the kitchen to give him some warm milk. We can hear Mama sobbing in her bedroom, even with the door closed. Manuel is frightened.

“What’s happening, Fina?”

I take his little hands in mine and try to calm him. “Papa has to go with the officers to answer some questions about his papers.”

Manuel frowns. “Is he coming back?”

I smile. “Yes. Do not worry.”

He sips his milk.

Mama runs into the kitchen, still sobbing. “Josefina! Bring your brother and come tell your father goodbye!” She runs back into the entry hall. I grab Manuel and carry him in my arms.

My father stands there with his hands cuffed behind his back. He wears jeans, cowboy boots, a red sweater, and his fleece-lined jacket. He smiles at us, but I think he looks frightened behind that smile. I go to him, and he hugs us.

“Be a good boy, Manuel, and take care of Mama and Josefina until I get back.”

Manuel nods, solemnly. “When are you coming back, Papa?”

“I’m not sure.”

He kisses my mother, and she holds onto him, trembling and sobbing. The ICE Agents grab Papa by the arm and lead him out the door. Shouting echoes down the hallway of our building. I step out and watch them take my father away. Dozens of ICE Agents swarm the corridor, leading away our friends and neighbors. My mother grabs me and pulls me back inside. She locks the door then runs into the kitchen. She takes out her cell phone and makes a call. She hesitates—fighting tears, then slams the phone down and starts sobbing all over again.

“Who were you calling?” I ask, picking up her phone.

“The Immigration Alliance Hotline. They don’t open till 8:00 am.”

“Can they help us?” I whisper, just now realizing the gravity of our situation. Without my father, we won’t have money to pay rent or buy groceries. My knees buckle and my heart starts pounding as this very real threat to our family’s survival hits me like a slap in my face. Cold. Hard. Unforgiving.

I look out the window and see the Department of Homeland Security van pull out of our parking lot. I feel a knot in my throat as I choke back my tears.

“Go put your brother back to bed, Josefina.”

“Yes, Mama.” I take Manuel to his room and tuck him in. He reaches out and grabs my hand.

“He’s coming back to us, isn’t he?”

I smile at him. “Yes. Everything will be fine.” I turn out the light and shut his door then hesitate there in the hallway. I’ve seen on the news how people have been ripped from their homes and deported, leaving their children, their families, their businesses, their whole way of life. Some of these people, like my father, have been here for 20 years or more. My brother and I were born here; we are US Citizens. So is my mother— her citizenship was finalized two years ago. My father’s Citizenship hearing is due to be finalized in less than a month. He was so close. How can this be happening?

I run back to the kitchen and find my mother on her cellphone, searching for legal aid services for immigrants. I sit down beside her. She glances at me and smiles.

“Don’t worry, Fina. The women in our family come from a long line of survivors. Your grandmother and great-grandmother supported their families for decades by selling papusas in the market. We are strong. We will survive.”

Just then, there is a knock at the door. Mama looks up, panicked. “Do you think they’ve come back for me?” she whispers.

“I’ll go see.”

“No! Don’t!” Mama says, eyes wide with fear.

Ignoring her, I hurry to the front door and look through the peep hole. It’s my cousin, Maria Elena, who lives down the hall. I open the door immediately.

“Josefina! Mama told me the ICE men came and took Uncle Carlos!” She steps inside our apartment. “I brought you this.”

She gives me a large refrigerator magnet with the name and phone number of an immigration attorney here in San Rafael.

“Thanks!” I run into the kitchen and give the magnet to my mother.

Mama looks away. “We don’t have money for an attorney!” She starts crying again.

Cousin Maria Elena goes to Mama and hugs her. “You pay what you can. They helped Aunt Silvia. Just call them!”

Photo of a woman, who seems upset, with her hand on her face looking down at her phone.
Image credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

Mama wipes her eyes on her sleeve. “I’ll call them later. You girls go back to bed. You can’t miss school. We’ll be okay. We are strong! Somos fuertes!"

I hug Mama then walk Maria Elena to the door.

“I will pray for you,” she says.

I nod then lock the door behind her. I go to my room and open my closet. My red satin Quinceañera gown hangs there. The party is next month. I cringe, thinking how much it cost. I clutch the gown, hugging it, breathing in its crisp, clean fragrance.

I hurry into the kitchen and my mother looks up.

I offer her the dress. “We can sell this to hire a lawyer.”

Mama smiles, takes my hand. “Bless you, little one!” She hugs me. “I know how much that dress means to you, sweetheart.”

I nod, thinking how little it matters when compared to my father’s deportation. I kiss my mother’s cheek, still damp with her tears, and hurry back to my room. Crawling into bed, I quickly pull the covers over my head, wondering if I will ever see my father again. I close my eyes and whisper a prayer for his safe return. At least I’m not in a cage at the border like so many other children my age or younger.

I do not feel fourteen anymore. I feel ancient, the weight of centuries of hardship and fear forcing me to my knees. I am a small light in a big dark world, but I refuse to let my flame burn out.

I lay still, listening to my mother crying down the hall, and I wait for dawn’s first light to creep in through my curtains, and fill me with the hope of a new day. I whisper softly, “Soy luz.” I am Light.

I close my eyes and remember my father telling me when I was six years old that a person’s value and essence is known by the way they treat others. “If you want to be respected, then treat others with respect. Period. If you want love and compassion, then give other people love and compassion. Comprendes, Fina?” I remember this like it was yesterday.

In my mind, I see my father in our garage— loading his tools into his truck— to use in his landscaping business he started with my Uncle Pablo: Carlos and Pablo’s Landscaping Services. I remember when one of his client’s huge trees fell in their yard, and they asked my father to cut up the tree for firewood and store it in their shed. My father’s chainsaw was broken, and he did not have the money to repair it or buy a new one, so he borrowed a chainsaw from a friend. Cutting up the tree, he’d stacked cord after cord of firewood, and when he came home that day, I watched him carefully take that chainsaw apart so he could clean it, oil it, and repair some minor damage that had already been present when he borrowed it. “No matter what,” said my father, wiping the oily rag over the saw’s pieces, “Whenever you borrow something, you must always, always, return it in better condition than it was when you borrowed it.”

In my mind’s eye, I watch him meticulously rebuild that chainsaw— his face solemn—as if performing open heart surgery on a child. He is serious, and he wants me to understand the gravity of the lesson he is trying to teach me.

“Do not forget this, Fina.”

I nod, watching in silence as he finishes repairing the chainsaw, then he refills the gas tank even though it was empty when he borrowed it. I have never forgotten this. His eyes. His hands. His words of wisdom.

After lying in bed for what seems like hours, remembering this moment with my Papa, I suddenly remember my 10th birthday when he gave me a Zebco 88 rod and reel fishing pole. I remember being so excited to finally have my own rod and reel, and no longer relegated to using the little cane pole to fish, like a very young child. This rod is shiny and new—and taller than me. I remember fishing in the San Francisco Bay on a warm summer day, from the pier at China Camp State Park. We sit at the far end of the pier, casting our lines. Suddenly I look up at him, reeling in his line.

“Papa?” I ask, softly.

“Yes, Fina?”

“Do you think God will punish us for killing these fish?” I stare at my father and feel certain our actions will warrant the wrath of God. I am very worried, frowning.

He kneels beside me, then looks in my eyes. “Listen, sweetheart. God knows what’s in our hearts and minds. He knows we fry these fish and gain nourishment from them. If we say Grace before our meal and ask God to bless the food to the nourishment of our bodies, he will not be angry with us for killing fish to feed ourselves.”

I’m still not satisfied. “But we could just as easily eat fruits and vegetables, without taking the life of any other creature. I just think it’s wrong to kill other animals. It isn’t necessary for us to stay alive.”

Photo of a little girl standing on rocks, holding a fishing rod while looking out to the water.
Image credit: Jess Zoerb on Unsplash

My father puts his hand on my shoulder. “You’re a kind-hearted girl. I can see where it may bother you to kill another living creature. But I assure you, that is God’s will. All throughout the Bible, it talks about sacrificial offerings that people make, doing God’s will, and receiving his blessing. I’ll show it to you when we get home.”

“That’s okay, Papa. I believe you.” I reel my line in slowly. “I don’t feel like fishing any more today.”

Papa smiles at me. He too reels in his line then sets his rod down on the pier. “Come sit with me a minute, Josefina,” he says.

I lay down my fishing pole and go sit on the pier beside my father, dangling my feet over the water below us.

He clears his throat. “Now, I know the Bible has a lot of parables and mysteries in it. And there are many things about our faith that don’t make much sense to me.”

“Like what, Papa?” I study his face as he wipes a red bandana across his forehead.

“Well, like the immaculate conception, for one thing,” he says.

“You mean the holy spirit giving Mary a child?”

“Exactly. I know you understand the way babies are made, with a sperm cell and an egg, then the embryo starts to grow inside the mother. But without a sperm from the male body, there is no way a physical baby can grow. I just don’t believe a “spirit” could impregnate a woman. It’s not physically possible.”

I smile. “But that’s the whole idea behind our faith. That God became man in Jesus Christ. If you don’t believe that, how can you believe in Christianity?”

“I’ll tell you how,” says Papa. “I believe in Jesus’ teachings. Love God. Love yourself. And love your neighbor as you love yourself. Those three things are more important in following the Christian faith, than believing a virgin can give birth.”

At that precise moment, I love my father and his simple beliefs more than I ever imagined it possible to love another human. He doesn’t let his doubts interrupt his faith. He is a good man. A simple man. I decide right then that I will strive to be more like my father, and not worry about or question things that don’t make sense. I smile up at him and sigh. “I guess that’s why they call it faith.”

“That’s right,” he says. “I have complete faith in God’s plan for us. And that includes fishing.”

Lying in bed, remembering that fishing trip on the bay, it occurs to me that it is on this very same fishing trip, during the ride back home in his truck, when my father tells me that the most important thing a parent can give their child is a belief in the afterlife. I remember him sipping his Coke, and driving down that winding bay shore road, telling me about the mysteries of life.

“We either go to heaven and see our loved ones again, or we reincarnate and find our spiritual family members again and again throughout time. If we believe that death is not the end, that our souls continue to live on throughout time, then that is the most important gift any parent can give their child.”

I take a sip from my juice box and wonder about heaven. Papa is serious now as he drives. He sets his Coke can in the cup holder and glances over at me. “This helps a child accept death without being depressed about it. It helps them learn that life is transitory, and that giving and receiving love is the most important life experience we can have.”

I nod, sipping my juice—my young mind being opened and expanded.

“If you remember nothing else that I’ve taught you, Josefina, remember this. It is our main responsibility to love as much as possible. Understand?”

I reach up and touch my father’s hand on the steering wheel. He looks at me with tears in his eyes. It is a moment I will never forget.

Remembering that now helps me have faith that my father will soon come home to us, and that we will survive until he returns. Closing my eyes, I try to fall asleep. Without fear. Without doubt or worry.

**

Several days later, I hurry home from school and find Mama in the kitchen talking on the phone to an immigration attorney. Some cash sits on the table, next to a receipt. I grab the receipt, read it, then look up at Mama. She smiles, nods, keeps talking.

$175.25 is the price she got for my gown at a local resale shop in town. I count the cash, exactly $175.25. How much advice will this buy from an attorney? Don’t they charge more than that by the hour? I wonder if Papa is tired, hungry, or cold. I wonder if he’s still in Northern California. Or if he’s now in a cage on the border.

Mama hangs up the phone.

Image of a receipt laying on a table.
Image credit: Joao Viegas on Unsplash

“Fina! This money is going to save us!” She reaches over and hugs me. “The Immigration Alliance will take this as a down payment. Once your Papa is returned to us, we can pay off the balance over time. Thank you, my precious angel!


Your Papa is coming home!”

“Are you sure?” I ask, hearing in my head all the yelling and chaos from that ICE raid. It’s only been a week, but it feels like eons since he’s been gone.

“Don’t you worry,” Mama reassures me. “The attorney I met with today has your father’s citizenship papers. He guaranteed Papa’s safe return.”

Mama’s joy is infectious. She hugs me, then jumps up to make me some tea and a snack of sopapillas with honey.

**

Three weeks later, my father walks in the door and gives both Mama and me a red rose. The color of my gown. The color of love. Overjoyed, I hug my sweet Papa, whispering prayers of gratitude, then I sing out, “Gracias! Dios mío! Soy luz!

I take stock, memorizing this moment— so I can tell my own children this story years from now, of how their grandfather was miraculously returned to us. When so many others just like him were deported, their families destroyed, their lives shattered. I will tell my children to believe in the light inside themselves. Because no matter how frightened they are, and no matter how difficult their lives may be, they must never give up. Never give in to darkness, and always let their light shine out unto the world. My father has taught me this. To believe in love—and to believe that we are light.

Image of a hand stretched out with sunlight shining on the hand.
Image credit: Dyu - Ha on Unsplash

***

Black and white photo of the author, Melissa L. White.
Melissa L. White

Melissa L. White is a screenwriter, novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Her screenplay about Georgia O’Keeffe won BEST SCREENPLAY DRAMA, and BEST BIOPIC at the 4Theatre Film Festival in June 2023. It was selected as a Finalist for the Catalina Film Festival in Sept. 2023. Her LGBTQ+ Rom Com screenplay, “Modern Marriage,” won 4th Prize in the Writer’s Digest Annual Contest 2021. Her recently published essay, Can AI Learn How it Feels to Cry? won 2nd Prize in the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Contest 2023. Melissa lives in Encino, with her fiancé, Mark, an award-winning commercial photographer.

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