I crossed the border from Mexico with my parents when I was six years old. I remember walking for a day and a half and wading through a river. I remember sitting on my dad’s shoulders, feeling his skin peeling and blistering.
In Mexico, we had worked on a farm, growing and selling tomatoes and potatoes and carrots. My dad taught me to work hard. His motto was: Work to live another day. When we got to Houston, I enrolled in school while he worked in construction, and my mom stayed home with my younger siblings. Things were good for a while.
But less than a year after we arrived, my mom got a call, and I heard my dad had been arrested for driving under the influence. He was incarcerated for two years. Suddenly, it was like being on a tour without a guide. He could speak English, but none of us could, and my mom couldn’t drive.
We moved to Austin, where we had more family, and my mom got work with my aunt, cleaning houses. It was so hard without my dad, but I learned English and by third grade I’d become the man of the house, helping my mom get around and watching my younger siblings while she worked.
When my dad was released, he started working again. I stopped having to watch my siblings all the time, because my mom was able to stop working herself. I finally got to be the kid in the family, to play that role. I joined a soccer league at school. I thought this new feeling would last forever.
But it didn’t last long.
Dad was still using alcohol and drugs, and he would come home drunk and fight with my mom. He demanded that she stop working, and stay home while he made the money. That meant that when he was arrested a second time—a DUI, again—our life flipped upside down, again.
I was about to enter middle school, and realized I’d let myself get my hopes up. This is when it started to sink in, that this would be my life, that I wouldn’t really get a childhood because he would always be gone, and I would need to work to help my siblings and my mom with money. She missed my elementary school graduation because she had to work. She never had time to show me love, to say “I love you, I’m proud of you.”
I was angry, and the bad things that happened to me started to feel like the result of what my dad had done. For example, my mom made extra money cooking menudo and serving it to construction workers, and one morning I was helping her carry a 50-pound pot of soup from the fire outside into the house. My shoes were wet, and I slipped on the tile floor. The soup burned my arms and legs, and I needed skin grafts. I was in the hospital for two weeks. I thought, This wouldn’t have happened if my mom didn’t need to work, and she wouldn’t need to work if my dad had not gone to prison.
When I visited my dad, I told him, from behind the glass at the detention facility, “This happened because of you. I’m ashamed to take off my shirt in public because of you. I’m ashamed when I look in the mirror because of you.” He was speechless. Then he cried and said, “I’m sorry.”
In middle school, I started to notice that other kids in my position, with fathers in prison and mothers always working, were finding family elsewhere—in gangs. I felt like I had a lot in common with those kids. They sold drugs, and it seemed like such an easy way to help your family with money. But I was small for my age, so I was afraid, watching my friends get “jumped” as part of gang initiations.
I think the principal at my school could tell I was slipping. She saw this nice, humble kid suddenly becoming careless, dressing differently. In seventh grade, she told me she’d be assigning me a mentor; there was an organization, called the Seedling Foundation, that provided adult mentors for kids with parents in prison. At first, I said, “I don’t have time for this,” but she explained he would come meet me at lunch. His name was Tucker. He started showing up once a week. He’d come through the lunch line with me and then we’d go sit on the school’s porch, away from the noise.
He asked me about school, about my hobbies. I was shy at first, but I told him I liked soccer. He asked me about my favorite teams, whether I’d watched a particular game over the weekend, whether I was going to try out for the school team. He pushed me to make time for soccer, because he knew it was one thing I could do to feel like myself, to let go of all the pressures. Tucker and I kicked a ball around during lunch one day and he said, “This is who you are.”
Little by little, I opened up. I had never talked to a grown man in this way about myself.
“You know what?” I said one day. “It’s pretty rough. My friends are having fun on the weekends, and I can’t go because I have to watch my siblings. I want to give up on school.” I’d never said these things to my mom or dad. I was keeping so much inside me. And I think that’s why I’d gotten close to joining a gang.
The other kids teased me for having this strange guy around. They called him my babysitter. I’d think, and sometimes even say to them, “You have your mom and your dad to give you attention. I have Tucker.” When middle school finished, Tucker asked if I wanted to continue into high school, and I said yes.
After my father’s second arrest, he was detained and then deported. He tried to cross the border, but was detained and deported again. Now, he is in Mexico, and I haven’t seen him in five years.
I wouldn’t say we really have a relationship, but we do talk. He calls me sometimes and we catch up. The last time was four months ago. It’s usually when he needs money. One year, I waited for him to call me on my birthday, and he never did. Tucker gave me a soccer ball.
Some people don’t get to have a dad at all, and I know I have one out there, which is still comforting, even if he isn’t in my life. I used to be so angry at him. I once said, “I didn’t get to have a childhood because of you.” But now, I feel a little more that everybody makes mistakes, and if it was my son who said that to me, it would hurt. I apologized for speaking harshly to him.
He said, “For you to say what you feel takes guts.” In a way, he was proud of me for being honest. And we both know I learned from him. I work at a grocery store now, and I bought myself a truck with my own money. I feel so proud saying: “This is mine.” And I know I learned that pride in work from him.
I grew out of my anger and moved on, because I realized the anger wasn’t going to help me in life. No matter how much he messes up, no matter how far away I push him, he’s always going to be my dad.
Kevin was a mentee for six years in the Seedling Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, that provides volunteer mentors from the community for children of incarcerated parents. He asked to be identified by first name due to his immigration status.