My mother doesn’t remember the change of seasons, her mother’s smile, or the home in Stamford, Connecticut where she spent the first years of her life. When she’s three and her older sister is five, they become orphans due to fate and a man’s choice. Their mother is diagnosed with aplastic anemia and dies just a few months later, and their widower father refuses to be the sole guardian of two girls. There is a third child, one born with the privilege of a penis. The father sends the two girls more than 3,000 miles away, to the country he originally migrated from, and reserves his fatherly duties for the boy who can stay with him in the United States.
The girls are sent to Milagro, Ecuador, a coastal town about an hour away from the hub of Guayaquil. Despite its name, the town lacks miracles, though it makes up for it in sugar and pineapples. A river, in which the town’s kids swim, weaves through its center. The sugar mill’s tower rises above most of the edifices and cloaks the air with a hint of molasses, while slivers of ash from the factory fall on clothes hung out to dry across the town, like a volcano emitting a persistent spew of smoke. In the 1970s most of the streets are still dirt. The few concrete ones bear the onslaught of the rainy season for four months, and by the time April arrives and schools open, the streets are battered with holes the width and depth of pots made for gumbo. With only two main streets, it takes just a few minutes to enter from the east and continue onto the outskirts of the town where only sugar cane fields and rice fields mark the landscape.
“An anchor baby is a child who was purposefully brought while in the womb to the United States by a foreigner so that they would receive US citizenship upon their birth. It is widely considered to be an offensive term to immigrants, especially Asian-Americans.”
The sisters first live with their maternal grandmother. About a year later, Tía Yolanda, one of their father’s eight siblings, visits the girls. She finds them both on the sidewalk. They have long unkempt hair and even though they are two years apart, they are both the same height. Their skinny bodies are tanned from the equatorial sun, and the oldest is a few shades darker than her sister. Their shirts worn through with holes, and they are sweaty with old dirt on their necks, new dirt on their fingers, and Tía Yolanda initially mistakes the lice crawling on their faces for moles. She claims the girls, taking them to the house she shares with her mother and brother.
That first night, she heats up water and bathes them. She pours lice shampoo on their small heads, caresses their scalp, and makes sure none of it seeps into their eyes. Tía Yolanda, a teacher who prayed for children of her own, is granted the children of her brother by Diosito. The girls sleep in a separate bed in her room. She can finally be a mother, kiss her quasi-children goodnight, and for years the girls don’t understand how good they have it.
Tía Yolanda is plump but petite with black hair that almost reaches her shoulders. She never leaves home without lipstick or mascara, which makes her small eyes pop. Men look back to take in her beauty, especially on the monthly bus ride with the girls to the U.S. Consulate in Guayaquil. When the gringo officials see the girls, their guardian is handed a Social Security check for each of them, which is financial help from the government due to their mother’s death. It is more money than what Tía Yolanda earns in six months at her teaching job. She then takes the girls to their favorite restaurant, where they eat juicy meat, moros con lenteja, and leave with protruded bellies. The girls always wear matching socks, clean underwear, and dresses with no holes. They are enrolled in their small town’s most expensive school and attend an English academy on the weekends. “It’s for you to understand basic English once you move back to the United States after high school,” she tells them. Tía Yolanda promises the girls that no matter what happens, they will attend a bilingual high school in Guayaquil. The girls will have to wake up at five a.m., make new friends, start homework on the bus back home, but it will all be worth it. Every year, during the months of school vacation, the girls go with Tía Yolanda to the United States for a few weeks, a treat paid for by Tía Alba, who lives in Stamford, Connecticut.
In November 1986, President Reagan signed the “Immigration Reform and Control Act.” Reagan’s joint statement declared, “Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.” In 1990, the cost for a U.S. citizenship application was $90. By September 2020, the cost had increased to $640. As of October 3, 2020, the new fee is $1,170.
The girls only see their father during annual trips to the United States. I can’t imagine how it must have felt, to know that your father is still alive, thousands of miles away, unwilling to reach out. He doesn’t write, he doesn’t call, and he doesn’t send money. But they are children and children love their father. They hug him when they arrive at his home in Connecticut, call him Papi, and are polite to his new Argentinean wife. They also visit Tía Alba, who visits the girls every year in Ecuador, sends them new clothes, and continuously asks Tía Yolanda whether they need anything.
According to the article “New Media and the ‘Anchor Baby’ Boom,” published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in 2011, the term anchor child describes a young immigrant who will petition relatives in other countries to become permanent residents or citizens of the United States.
When my mother is twelve, Tía Yolanda falls ill with pancreatic cancer, and Tía Alba does everything in her power to take her to see a doctor in the United States. But before Tía Yolanda can leave, she undergoes emergency surgery in Milagro. She will never regain her strength to stand up and teach. The girls hear her crying out in pain for weeks. At times Tía Yolanda stifles her moans so the girls can sleep. Her bosom, once wide and full enough to allow a toddler to comfortably sleep in, begins to disappear. Her waist shrinks until her clothes cover her like bedsheets.
The night she dies, the girls cry themselves to sleep: the oldest one because a second mother is gone, and the youngest because, while it’s not the first mother who dies, it’s the one she will remember. Their future paths are again wholly altered by death. An uncle takes them in, but uses the Social Security checks to support his love of whiskey. The girls never go to school in Guayaquil and they don’t learn English. They leave the private high school and enroll in the overcrowded public one. The uncle’s number one priority for the next few years is to make sure the worst fate doesn’t befall them: premarital pregnancy. He only lets the girls out of his sight to go to school and then they must head straight home after the last school bell rings. But my mother meets my dad when she’s in high school and she sneaks out to see him. When school is closed for the holidays, the girls lie to their uncle and say they indeed have class to experience some semblance of freedom.
At seventeen, my mother becomes pregnant with me. Somehow my mother, father, and their friends keep it a secret from their guardians. If they hadn’t, she would have been forced to drop out during her senior year. People think a pregnant girl in class is contagious and will lead to more children out of wedlock. In their high school graduation photo, my father and mother are standing side-by-side, along with my paternal grandfather. Their expressions don’t look mischievous at all, but their ability to keep a secret is one of the reasons they’re smiling. In a few weeks, when she is four months pregnant and she knows no one will be able to take away her high school diploma, my mom and dad confess. My mother’s uncles and aunts call her father, and it’s only then that he decides his presence is warranted.
Excerpt from Chapter Three of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Policy Manual: United States Citizens at Birth (INA 301 and 309):
“A child born outside of the United States and its outlying possessions acquires citizenship at birth if:
• The child was born before noon (Eastern Standard Time) May 24, 1934;
• The child’s father is an alien;
• The child’s mother was a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth; and
• The child’s U.S. citizen mother resided in the United States prior to the child’s birth.”
My parents remember that the day after I’m born, my maternal grandfather arrives in Milagro. He stands in the doorway of my mother’s room, demanding she promptly get dressed in white and walk down the aisle. The second worst thing after premarital pregnancy is no marriage after a birth. My father promises he’ll take care of my mom and me, but a wedding is out of the question. They’re still teens, and no one forces my dad to do anything he hasn’t decided to do himself. Mom and Dad leave with me wrapped in a blanket and they move in with my paternal grandparents—but without a promise to wed. The man who abandoned my mother was left reeling in shame for what she did to the family name. Decades later, my mother’s father will ask me to call him Uncle instead of Grandpa, so I refuse to call him either.
No one outside my immediate family knows that when I’m born, my mother is given a document that says Certificate of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the United States of America with my name on it. My father learns his girlfriend doesn’t have an Ecuadorian passport just a few months before I’m born. For years, no one knows that my mother is, on paper, actually a gringa. No one knows because she doesn’t speak English and because the trips to the United States had stopped years before.
In 2008, a “birther” controversy erupted during Barack Obama’s candidacy for president of the United States. It began when opponents alleged he was born outside of the country. On August 6, 2012, Donald Trump tweeted: “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.”
In July 2008, Fred Hollander filed a lawsuit against John McCain and the Republican National Committee in order to disqualify the Republican candidate from the U.S. presidency. The suit alleged that McCain couldn’t become president because he was born in Coco Solo, Panama on August 29, 1936. At the time, the Panama Canal was under U.S. control.
I was born in 1989, and by the early 1990s, my Abuelo was one of the wealthiest people in Milagro. After my father graduates from high school, Abuelo gives him the money and the space to start his own business. In a few years, though, he is on the verge of closing his business for the second time. He refuses another loan. Instead, at 22 years old, he decides to go to the United States and start over. His father is adamant he stay and tries to convince him that the perils of immigration aren’t for him. But his pride doesn’t allow him to stay in Ecuador.
My parents, now married for several years, arrive at the U.S. Embassy. They’ve consulted lawyers, filled out paperwork, obtained bank statements—but they’re still worried. Green cards are rarely granted so they’re scared he might have to wait a few years or go back to the embassy in a few months. The workers don’t even peek at the paperwork. Instead, they ask who I am. My father grabs me by my armpits and raises me up to the gringos. In that moment, I become their anchor to the United States. I look like my father, and they tell them that’s all they need. He has a green card within a month and leaves to start a new life in Connecticut before we can join him.
In 2020, the Trump Administration announced a travel ban on Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Eritrea, Tanzania, and Sudan. These countries were added to a previous list of countries with travel restrictions, which initially include Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, called the new travel ban “pure discrimination and racism.”
I’m five when we join my father in Connecticut. My mom has papeles but no command of English and only finds work cleaning houses. In 1996, on a day towards the end of spring, late to one of my mother’s appointments, we board the first train heading south. Mr. Cutacelli will be at the Greenwich train station to pick us up to clean his home, while I’m left in a room to play with toys that aren’t mine. My mother doesn’t like to venture to an unknown location if she’s alone. When she needs to take a bus or train, her knowledge of English evaporates, and she enters into a rush of panic over what the unknown could bring. She fears a train will end up in New Jersey or Florida, far from the comfort of all that she knows. On the train, she suddenly notices that it isn’t making any stops. There should be five stops between South Norwalk and Greenwich but the train proceeds at a high speed and by the time we approach the platform, my mother is holding back tears. She spots and waves at Mr. Cutacelli, the house owner who promised to pick us up. The train doesn’t stop, and my mother looks around for a face that might know Spanish to find out where we are heading.
On Saturday, September 21, 2019, Cristina Riofrio sat a table with friends in a McDonald’s in Georgia. A man at a nearby table overheard her speaking Spanish and ordered her to “shut up” and “speak English.” She filmed the encounter then posted it on Twitter and wrote, “In America, I can speak FUCKING Spanish if I want to.” Cristina was born in California to Ecuadorian parents. I think, That could have been me. Not only are my parents Ecuadorian, my mother’s maiden name is Riofrio.
Within a week, the man who hassled Cristina was fired by his employer, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office.
My mother finds a conductor aboard the train and explains as best she can. Her hand, holding mine, is wet with worry.
“Grenich. No stop? Stop in Grenich?” my mother says.
“Oh, you got the express train, honey. Next time take the local. LOO-CAAAL.”
He stretches out the vowels as if this will prevent any future mix-ups, as if my mother knows what these words mean. The man has some stubble over his lips, and I can’t see his hair under the navy-blue conductor’s hat. His shirt is a lighter blue, the color of a cloudless day.
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell you which train to get on once we stop so you can head back to Greenwich. Sit down, okay?”
The other passengers have books or newspapers open, some are wearing t-shirts or light sweaters and they glare at us, others have worried eyes, but they are all bound by silence.
“Mami, are we okay?” I ask. If she cries, I’ll panic. But I don’t see any tears, and she tells me there is nothing to worry about it. I cling onto her like I always have. I’m five and I have never had a nanny. She is everything to me. I make sure I’m touching her hand or arm, and I feel like the weight of our worry is like a heavy anchor that will cause the train to halt.
I have never seen the end of train tracks before. In my mind the tracks circled around the world in a never-ending path to take people to their destinations. The terminus is not what I imagine. The track is covered with trash, from coffee cups to old newspapers and receipts accidentally flung from people’s pockets. We are the only ones who cross the track to the other side; everyone else on the train makes their way past the railings, through a gloomy tunnel to wherever they need to be.
We thank the conductor and head back towards Connecticut. Cellphones are not common yet and my mother doesn’t have a beeper; we can only hope Mr. Cutacelli is still at the station and not eager to fire her. When we arrive at the Greenwich stop, about an hour and a half after my mother waved to him from the express train, he knows exactly what happened to us and is ready to take us to clean his home.
In 2018, on a televised show called Axios on HBO, President Donald Trump said: “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States… with all of those benefits… It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end.”
What I don’t know on that day, when my mother utters I’m sorry too many times on the train platform, is that she is not an immigrant to this country. What I don’t know, even to this day, is who the anchor child is. Is it me or is it my mother? Maybe it’s both of us. What I don’t know on that day is that my mother was born just a few miles from where Mr. Cutacelli stood, beaming with an expression of pity reserved for newcomers who don’t know the difference between the express or the local train.
Victoria Buitron is currently working on a memoir and recently graduated with an MFA from Fairfield University. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in Entropy, The Bare Life Review, Spry Lit and more.