IT TOOK ME a long time to admit that my father’s ghost haunts me—even longer to figure out that his spirit was leading me toward reclaiming my identity.
He first appeared to me in a dream after his funeral. I was in my first year of college, sleeping in after another all-nighter. The dormitory was quiet, the other students eating breakfast in the cafeteria. Suddenly, the dorm room’s plaster walls faded, and I was standing on the porch of my childhood home. I could smell the pollen from the mulberry trees and felt a hummingbird buzz over me. It was morning, and my father measured a two by four on his workbench. He is probably mending a part of the house, I thought. (He had built it from the ground up.) The sunrise filtered over the trees, its shadow tracing the blue line he was drawing on the wood. He finished his lines and rubbed the back of his hand on his forehead, an old habit. His hair was black like it was before chemotherapy and before he died.
“I’m lucid dreaming,” I said to myself. The shock made me still. I waited for him to look up at me.
When he finally did, he smiled. “Utz awach,” he said. Hello.
I was about to respond when his shape faded. The house disappeared. I was alone in a dorm room again.
I felt I was missing something if I did not have all my father’s words.
This dream marked one of the first moments I asked myself what I understood about heritage languages. I asked my Spanish professor in college to identify some of the words my father had spoken when I was a child. I had already taken all the courses available to me in Spanish language and literature and was now studying Portuguese. I felt I was missing something if I did not have all my father’s words. At first, my professor looked puzzled by my question until another student who had Guatemalan parentage overheard us and came over.
“I know other words, too.”
We both wanted answers.
Our professor looked sadly at us. She did not know anything about our words, but she guessed they were an Indigenous dialect. She suggested we ask our parents. I didn’t bring up the fact I had no one left to ask.
I left the question alone for a long time, avoiding it because it was like picking at a fresh wound. But the question came up again when I embarked on the long process of scanning all of our family’s childhood pictures. I had not realized the mountains of photo albums from the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties that my family had amassed. I think, altogether, the tower could have crushed the small scanner. If only, I thought, there had been digital cameras sooner. I began to embrace the process, enjoying memories I had forgotten in the pictures. I admired my father’s photography skills.
As a child, I took for granted that he had worked as a photographer and had an eye for composition. My sisters’ and mother’s photos in seventies garb reminded me of the film Saturday Night Fever. Then I found a carefully composed headshot of my sister wearing a Mayan textile top and head covering. There was a photo of me as a toddler gripping my first tripod and wearing my first Mayan huipil. If I had been younger, I would have still assumed all Guatemalan citizens wore these. I found a photo of my father’s mother. It was ghostly gray, but she was also wearing the same textiles. The pieces of my identity did not come together, even after this.
I had put these questions to sleep for years, again, after asking my mother. She was not from Guatemala. She was from Veracruz, Mexico, the site that saw the arrival of Cortez. Everyone in that region had to adapt to survive. She suggested my father had left his language behind because he could not use it here. But I could see that even she had led a life of resistance where she could. She had learned enough English to pass the citizenship test, and then she spent the rest of her life speaking only in Spanish. It was our responsibility to adapt to her, not hers to assimilate. When I interpreted for her in public, I began to feel shame. I had absorbed the self-hate taught at school and accepted that we must shed a part of ourselves to assimilate. But the adult in me sees how deeply the resistance to this assimilation still burned within the languages my family kept. I continue to share phrases with my mother that my father used: “Quieres un kappe?” Do you want a coffee? The words hold more than just Mayan and Spanish; they contain the memory of my ancestors.
I had absorbed the self-hate taught at school and accepted that we must shed a part of ourselves to assimilate. But the adult in me sees how deeply the resistance to this assimilation still burned within the languages my family kept.
RECOVERING A LANGUAGE is an emotional journey. Yet there have been amusing and empowering moments. I still recall the first FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request I submitted to ask for my father’s immigration file—it was the back and forth with the Department of Homeland Security that I had grown used to as an immigration attorney. I submitted the documentation I needed to prove that I was my father's daughter and asked for “everything.”
The first reply was terse: “We cannot give you everything. Please be more specific.”
I responded curtly: “I am specific. See reattached document.”
They replied again. We went back and forth until frustration gave way to my replying, “I think you forget I’m an attorney. I know what you can give me. These are my father’s documents.”
They sent me a template letter back with a disc. In it were hundreds of pages, a few redacted lightly. From this, I began to draw out pieces of my father’s journey, his parents’ names. I then found his original Guatemalan birth certificate. I found out where he was born, my great grandparents’ names, and even the finca (plantation) where they were born. I also began to research Guatemalan Indigenous languages and how Indigenous languages were discouraged through a complex history of Ladinization.
Indigenous languages were discouraged across the continent, and I saw a new piece of that. That fact sat painfully within me. I was a child of the nineties. I remembered Proposition 187 in California, English-only movements in Arizona, and California Governor Pete Wilson. I grew up on the border, where assimilating into the “melting pot” is what determines how easily you can move, with immigration officers always present.
My parents frequently took our family across the border to visit friends. They were terrific visits to the ejidos, the unincorporated, rural enclaves outside the central city of Mexicali. However, coming back was an ordeal. No matter how late into the night we arrived at the checkpoint, I needed to sit up, recite my name, date of birth, and city of birth. I remember the flashlight in my face, and the many times my parents were sent to secondary inspection because of their heavy accents. In our words, I realized, we can usually find our truths.