Alvaro Bedoya

Alvaro Bedoya



35 years ago last night, my mother, brother and I landed at JFK on a long Lufthansa flight. My father had gone ahead of us; our mom didn't know if we had utensils at our new home, so she asked our flight attendant if we could keep the cutlery. She quietly said yes.

There weren't heavy winter coats in Lima, so when we arrived we wore little wool overcoats sewn from my great-grandfathers' suit jackets. We fell asleep in my dad's friend's car and woke up in the glow of a McDonald's. I thought the burgers had rice in them. It was dried onions.

Every morning, our dad would translate the cafeteria menu for us so we would know what to order. We thought the word "ketchup" was hilarious. "Catch"? "Up"? For tomato sauce? We chased him around our apartment, jumping on him and screaming "KETCHUP!"

Many mornings, before we walked to the bus stop, our mom would look at us in the eye and say: "Remember, you are the only Peruvians most people at school will every meet. Remember that."*

* Not true! Our parents had purposefully chosen this school district because two other Peruvian families attended there. But, you know, mothers.

On the bus, no one spoke Spanish except this one kid with an inexplicable knowledge of Spanish swearwords, which he would scream sporadically. This was also hilarious. We named him "MIERcoles."

My dad got a call from the school. The school told him that based on my standardized test scores, I was likely intellectually delayed. My dad told them I didn't speak a word of English. The school said that to integrate more quickly, we should exclusively speak English at home.

But while there were bumps, our school was amazing. They hired an ESOL teacher just for me and my brother. For some reason I did not like this teacher, and spent most of my early classes with my back turned to her, which to my 5-year-old brain was the ultimate insult.

We were only supposed to stay for two years. But with the situation in Peru deteriorating because of Shining Path and the MRTA, 2 years became 4, 4 became 8... when my brother went off to college, my mom realized we were here to stay.

The funny thing is that growing up, I didn't think of myself as "Hispanic" or "Latino"; I didn't know anyone other than our little circle of Peruvian immigrants. I remember going to Binghamton's Greek festival and thinking "I wish I could be a part of something like that."

That took time. One way I learned that was through music. My parents would play Latin American folk music on long drives. Jorge Cafrune, Chabuca Granda, Sylvio Rodriguez, Mercedes Sosa. This one song, Todo Cambia, always stuck with me.

"Cambia, todo cambia. Cambia, todo cambia. Pero no cambia mi amor, por mas lejos que me encuentre, ni el recuerdo ni el dolor de mi pueblo y de mi gente." "Esa es nuestra cancion," my mom would say. That's our song.

Why share this? Because it's been 35 years, and I am filled with gratitude at everything this country has given me. It's also Hispanic Heritage Month, and I don't know about others, but I spend a lot of time thinking about my own heritage and the people who made me who I am.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my mother, who changed professions, raised two boys mostly by herself for many years when my dad moved away for work, who made us fiercely proud of who we were even though to most people's eyes we didn't have terribly much.

I spend a lot of time thinking about her mother, mi Abuelita Evita (second from the left!) a schoolteacher from Cajamarca who instilled in my mother a love for education, music, art. Who taught her that pride.

And so now those Lufthansa spoons sit on my office counter @FTC, in between my mom y mi Evita. And I remember, and feel very lucky.

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