Inequitable and Uncalled-for – Gabriela

My parents have always been the people I admire and look up to for everything. I remember, as a baby girl, cruising around the city in my dad’s bright red ’68 Impala, my sister and I in the back and my mom in the passenger seat with my dad’s arm wrapped around her seat, bumping oldies or rap music with the top down. The men posted in front of the liquor store gazed at my dad’s car with jealous eyes when we rolled past them. As each birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebration passed over the years with my dad in prison, I held onto that memory of Sunday driving with my dad.

When I was little, I noticed my daddy wasn’t around anymore, and I had no choice but to deal with being away from him. At three years old, I remember one of the first times my mom, my older sister, and I went to visit him. My mom walked to the center desk of the huge quiet building and returned to my sister and I with a clipboard full of papers. I still remember the sound of her black high-heeled shoes tapping the hard, polished floor. There were framed pictures of police officers and badges lined up against the wall. I thought to myself, “My dad is here? Jail?” But it wasn’t. It was more serious than jail; it was prison. I was so confused because it seemed to me that my dad would never do anything bad. “Mommy, where are we?” I asked. Immediately, her facial expression changed from ordinary to serious. “Your dad will be going to school here for a while to learn a few things.” Her response left me quiet. I felt like something was being kept from me. That something turned out to be my dad.

Eventually my dad was moved, from being close by, to an all-men’s prison hours and hours away. They moved him so far from us that when we visited we had to leave home before sunrise. Three hundred miles away was nothing to my mom. The four hours there and back were completely worth it to see my dad, whether it was a contact visit or peeking at him through a glass window, speaking through the phone.

My whole childhood consisted of visits. Every time we would be one of the first people in line for visiting hours to avoid how long those lines get. Besides getting to see my dad, there was nothing fun about visiting. We would stand in line watching the sad faces of the families who weren’t able to see their loved ones that day because their shorts were too short or their shirt color blended in with the inmates. We were surrounded by obnoxious guards and the stares of emotionless police officers, who didn’t know anything about our situation. Once we were in the visiting room, we would wait patiently in uncomfortable blue plastic chairs for my dad to walk through those doors.

He looked different each time, his hair and facial hair grew quickly and they often switched his uniform colors from tan to orange. I always sat on his lap, and every visit he would hand me a comb and tell me to brush his short hair. We would play board games, dominoes, and make houses out of playing cards. The guards would give my parents a warning each time they got too close or kissed each other.

As for life without my dad, we wrote letters often and talked on the phone almost every night. My letters were always short and simple, but I’m sure he loved seeing what my child brain was thinking and what my baby hands could write. He would always tell me he loves and misses me and that he never wants to be away from us again. “Don’t worry about me when I don’t call. It’s hard to get ahold of the phones here. But I think about you all day everyday,” he would write to me. I could tell he really hated being there and that he had a lot of regret about whatever he did.

Not knowing why my dad went away bothered me a lot. My mom never told me why he was arrested and I still don’t know the reason why. I think she did that to protect me so I wouldn’t overthink things more than I already was and be worried. We had a lot of support from both sides of the family, but I would have rather had my dad around than think of him all the time. Almost everything reminded me of him. Whenever we would drive through a tunnel, my sister would tell me to hold my breath until we reached the end and then make a wish. My wishes were always for him to come home.

My dad’s absence affected my mom by making her closer to my sister and I. We went with her everywhere to handle things about my dad—court, visits, the lawyer’s office. As a kid I could see there was a lot on my mom’s shoulders, and that she was stressed out from playing both mother and father. She worked until 6 pm, and still managed to cook Filipino meals for our dinners. She took us shopping, on family outings, and other things we should have been doing with my dad. I felt left out that my dad wasn’t home throughout my childhood to share his Mexican side with me, speak to me in Spanish, and teach me the language. My sister knows Spanish, but I don’t.

I experienced all of this before I was even eight years old. My life changed dramatically when my dad was released. I felt more complete than ever, like his release was the last piece to my puzzle. I was finally able to throw a birthday party with us together as a family again after so many years. He got a job as a construction worker, and since my mom was already working, the extra income from his job helped us move into a new house we all loved. I had a bedroom all to myself for the first time ever, and we were finally doing things as a family again. Then, out of the blue, our happy family went downhill.

I remember being in the backyard with my newborn kittens, not even ten years old. I walked into the house, only to watch our front door get kicked down and two cops bark at my mom like pits, asking her why she wouldn’t answer the door. The chain lock was broken and there was a huge hole in the door. My mom was vacuuming and is deaf in her right ear, but of course they took that as an excuse. They were obnoxious and careless, tearing up our house and leaving everything a mess. They ignored my sister and I on the couch. My sister finally asked what they were planning to do. “We’re going to have to take her in,” they said, after spending all that time in our house without saying a word to us.

Both of my parents went to Santa Rita Jail when I was 11. My reaction involved many different feelings—upset, sad, scared, disappointed, but never shame. I love my parents, and no matter what happened or what will happen to them, I will never turn my back on them for something they did. People learn from their mistakes and I knew there was a reason they had to be in there. I got through it by telling myself it was only temporary.

With my dad, and now my mom, not around, my older sister and I stayed with my two aunts in their townhouse, which was a positive experience. We sometimes ate out, prayed the rosary every night, went to mass, and had something planned every day. But it was nothing like life with my parents. At Santa Rita my sister and I sometimes had to talk to my dad through a glass window. Visits with my mom were through a glass window too, but luckily I qualified to have contact visits with her in a gym with other moms and their daughters. My mom was in a cosmetology program that allowed me to see her and touch her. She did my makeup and hair, and it would have been perfect for my sister to be a part of it, but she was over the age limit by a year, so when she visited it had to be through a glass window, which felt unfair to my mom.

After about seven months my mom was released, but my dad had to serve more time. At one of his court dates, my sister wrote a letter to the judge asking her to release my dad early. She explained that her high school graduation was coming up, that she would be the first in our family to graduate, and that she wanted my dad to be there to see that accomplishment. But the outcome let her down. Sentencing laws do not require judges to consider children when they make decisions about their parents. I really hope that judges can understand their decisions have effects on our lives.

My parents play an irreplaceable role in my life and in my sister’s life. Our relationship with them is vital, important, and essential. Don’t I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent? Some police officers and judges don’t think beyond people’s actions, or think about their families and children, and the way it could affect them. It didn’t even seem like my sister and I mattered to them.

My parents’ incarceration brought challenges into my life. It has been hard to calm my anxiety and stop being so worried all the time, but overall I’ve learned a lot from these experiences. I felt like I was stuck on a roller coaster. The ongoing pattern of being separated from my parents was traumatizing but life-changing. It motivated me to be clean-handed and pure, making all the right decisions, and leading me to do things that are important over things that could get me time behind bars.

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