Sunday night Abinadi and Herlinda drove up after a day driving from Palmyra, New York, where they had gone to see the Hill Cumorah Pageant, a Mormon spectacle depicting the founding of the church. For Abi, coming to Madison has become something of a pilgrimage since he lived here for 10 months in the late 90s. He had met my sister in Houston where she had served a mission. She had invited him to come and stay for a few months in my parents’ bed and breakfast in order to learn some English. My mom used to read him children’s books. The bare ability he gained in that time made a transformative difference when he went back to Houston.
“That little bit of English I learn here, when I go back to Houston they make me foreman,” he said the night they arrived, as we ate dinner. “Why? I don’t know the job more than the others. Because I speak a little English.” Wielding his clumsy and unwieldy English, he exuded far more confidence than I feel. Beginning with very little, he feels his progress keenly, and that energy and satisfaction is what makes successful “small” immigrants (as opposed to the super rich who buy their way in) such dynamic people and community builders. Whereas I, of the nation’s racial and educational upper strata, struggle to find my “place.” Unlike Abi, who saw English lift his hourly wage in a startling way, I lack a clear and definable trajectory. Dollarwise, my salary will be most likely down from my father’s.
His kids’ names tell something of his life. The first daughter, Lizette, is named after my mother. When they got out of their car Sunday night little Lizette held a plant with a bow on it, obediently handing it to Mom, who hugged her namesake. The second daughter is Nimbe, a Mexican Indian name. And the little tike who hid his head in his mother’s embrace is named Heber. I don’t know if the name comes from the Book of Mormon (like the name Abinadi) or if Abi spent time in Heber, Utah, but somehow they must like the name. “He-BEAR, no a la calle!” I heard his mom call out to him today from the front yard.
Right now little Nimbe prattles away in mom’s and dad’s bedroom in Spanish, and dad labors with what remains of his missionary Spanish from more than fifty years before. Yesterday we got on the I-chat on mom’s and dad’s computer, and there was my sister J--, in Utah in 100 degree heat, who had originally taught Abi in Houston those years ago. The adults maneuvered the computers to catch the squirming kids for each other, and I heard her Spanish begin to grope from its sickbed of slow forgetting.
There were moments of discomfort, of two worlds coming together: like tonight when they cooked dinner for us, my parents dug in as soon as our plates of enchiladas were on the table. Abi and Herlinda only came to the table later with their food, and I felt weird about that. Or mom asking Abi if he would not like to come back to work at the deli nearby where he had worked before, when Abi is a successful subcontractor making hundreds in a good day. But these are small things. We feel their pride, their struggle. Herlinda tries to pronounce words of English. I enjoy their kids’ liveliness, roly poly as kittens. Literally: they climbed atop the big exercise ball in the basement, Abi trying to hold them atop it, but always sliding off into a heap. We feel connected – not only through this church I have disavowed (which Abi does not know), but through a human connection, a sharing of resources.