I was born in El Salvador in 1990 and immigrated to San Rafael when I was 9. Dad had left for the U.S. when I was 1-and-a-half, during the last years of the Salvadoran Civil War, and Mom followed him when I was about to turn 5. I missed them so much and when I turned 9, I immigrated to this country with the help of a smuggler. My trip was supposed to take two weeks, but ended up taking two months.
My parents didn’t know where I was. Neither did my grandparents back in El Salvador. I crossed into Mexico via a boat from Guatemala to Oaxaca. From there, after various bribes, hitchhiking, illegal checkpoints, more bribes, I eventually made it to the Mexican side of the Sonoran Desert. There, I crossed into the United States and met my parents after years of being separated from them. Those years, before 9/11, a child didn’t need a U.S.-issued ID to take a domestic flight. Our little family flew over the Grand Canyon on the way to San Francisco. When we landed, we took the Marin Airporter from SFO and got dropped off at the Central San Rafael Bus Terminal. The sidewalk across from the Citibank is the first ground I stepped on in San Rafael.
WE JUMPED into a cab and got dropped off at 20 Marian Court Apartment No. 2, a few blocks from Pickleweed Park. I’d memorized this address from the yearly birthday and Christmas packages my parents sent with a person who traveled from the Bay Area to El Salvador. In between receiving those packages, I saw the address in neatly written black ink across white envelopes that held the biweekly, or at times monthly, letters.
This was how my parents raised me from thousands of miles away. I dreamed of that address. Of the black mailbox with a tiny red flag in front, the number 20 written in white. The wooden fence in the front yard. The green backyard lawn, the sapphire swimming pool. I kept this address close to me in the two months I was traveling to get to my parents. Not on a piece of paper, but written in my brain. I was trying to get to them, of course, but was perhaps more excited for what the United States had granted my parents through their hard work and time they’d spent away from me. Of course it had to have been worth it. Those years without me. Those nights without Mom’s stories to put me to sleep.
When we got out of the bright yellow cab. The place. An a-parta-men-to. I couldn’t even say it. I’d never heard that word. Even in San Salvador, I’d only seen houses. What was this ugly thing? This small, dirty, loud box filled with little boxes, cracked concrete all around. A sea of asphalt with old cars in front of it. Where were the trees? The corn and bean fields? I hadn’t signed up for this. No. No. I didn’t want to live here.
THE CANAL AREA is called that because of the canal (more accurately the San Rafael Creek) that separates Third Street (which turns into San Pedro Road) and Canal Street. Of course people don’t live “in” the literal canal. It’s more the various apartment complexes and town houses in the loose rectangle formed by East Francisco Boulevard, Bellam Boulevard, Canal Street and Catalina Boulevard. The latter of which is populated by actual houses.
Rarely do I see brown people drive past the Mi Pueblo (what used to be a Circuit City), so it may be more accurate to call Bahia Way and Playa Del Rey the last side of the rectangle. I make this distinction because it shouldn’t be a surprise that “The Canal” is inhabited by mostly Latinos. This was a comforting aspect of moving to the area after El Salvador.
I lived two blocks from the literal canal, but was warned by parents to not walk on Canal Street, like ever, because it was “dangerous.” What that meant was that there were too many brown people around. It wasn’t safe. Safety, at the time, was something I’d never had to think about. From 1993 to 1999, the years I remembered living in El Salvador, happened to be the most peaceful time in my country’s recent history. But now, the murder rate there is higher than in the civil war years (1980–1992) and we’ve topped the murder rate list for several years since 1999; thus, the ever-exponential increase of Salvadoran immigrants to the United States.
My block in El Salvador was safe. I could run to the market and come back because everyone knew me. Everyone would look after me and there were only two roads in town so I really had to try to “get lost.” The gangs were only beginning to take hold. I do remember waking to a gunshot when I was 6. Someone was killed in front of our home, but that was the one murder everyone talked about — on my block. Nothing else.
Looking back, it was an ideal childhood. Safety was something I learned in the United States. In the Canal. I couldn’t go out because we lived in the brown part of town surrounded by a sea of whiteness that was perceived safer by the sheer idea that white was safe, good, rich, intelligent, moral, just, [insert positive adjective here]. Ours were the streets with checkpoints at night. With “drug raids,” immigration raids. Our streets were perceived as dangerous. I never heard a gunshot. Never saw a fight. But, I couldn’t go out to the park by myself. I’m an only child and my mother, when she was home, and my dad, when he was home, wanted to keep me in their sight. They’d risked too much. They’d almost lost me to the desert, to Mexico, to El Salvador, why would they do anything that might lose me in the Canal?
For the most part, I listened to them and stayed in the apartment. My parents worked and I spent a lot of time alone, though, so that rule was quickly broken. Most of my evenings I spent at Pickleweed Park with friends, at first to play soccer and then, as we got older, to spy on girls, to have our first kiss, first cigarette, to drink.
AT THE PARK there’s a trailhead that starts at the playground and circles around the soccer fields. I would bike there and it was on this path I first saw the houses with boats on the water side of Canal Street. From the other side, for the most part, all you see are apartments. Typical. Expected. The place I knew I lived in: the heartbreak of the “American dream.”
From the trail, you can see the big houses. The decks. Across the waterway, someone else’s boats docked at the marina. On top of those hills, homes scattered like balconies along the ridge of the mountains. Sort of like the hanging gardens of Babylon I’d read about in fifth grade. I began to frequent the trail once, twice a week. I began asking, who owns those homes? Who lives in that house on the hill that looks like a piano? Where are those people? Where are the people who live here, on Canal Street, but in homes? I never saw them walking on the street.
I was in elementary school when I asked these questions. Yearning. I attended Bahia Vista Elementary on Bahia Way, two blocks from Pickleweed Park. Almost everyone was Latino. I learned English with other ESL students. I think we were expecting something different our first week of school in this country. Everyone looked like me. “Where are the gringos?” we asked at lunch. Laughed. When I transferred to the regular classroom, there was one white girl in my class of 30. One black kid. One Asian. By sixth grade, a small increase, but not much, at Davidson Middle School. I took a bus there. Though by then, I’d joined a club soccer team and we were all brown, from the Canal or Richmond, and we played against other teams. One of these teams was the Central Marin Bulldogs. Everyone on that team was white, except for one black kid.
They were a different “class,” they were U-12 class 1. We were U-12, class 3. Which on paper, means they were supposed to be better than us. They had won their league and were undefeated. We had gotten second in our league. A brief rivalry ensued.
MY PARENTS, like the other parents on the team, had trouble finding The Branson School soccer field. Most of us had never been to Ross. Dad cleaned the yard of one of the homes on top of the hill, near Bald Hill. But not even he knew there was a small private school in Ross. That there was a soccer team for the people who lived in those big houses and that that soccer team played on the soccer field we were trying to find.
Perhaps most of the parents weren’t new to places like Ross. I know for a fact most of them were nannies like my mom, landscapers like my dad, RNs, took care of old people, cleaned houses, drove tow trucks, worked at restaurants, occupations that most likely put them in direct contact with those who could afford a house on a hill, or somewhere near it. Marin is very hilly.
We were late to the field. But still had time to warm up. The field was nice, but not as nice as I was expecting. I don’t know what I was expecting. A professional field? But it was better than Pickleweed’s patchy, brown-grass field. The game started and you could see the split on the sidelines. On the parking lot. Things were different. Two different “classes.” Mostly trucks and used cars, our cars. Theirs, newer. They sat on one side of the field, and we on the other, like we were supposed to. It was us, their children, that tackled each other. Could fight in the mud, to score. Score we did. First they did. The Bulldogs. Then us, the Canal Clash. No one could outscore the other. The score told what we all knew was truth. We tied 2-2. We drove home to our sides of Marin. Our parents proud we didn’t let the rich white kids beat us. In our trunk, one of their brand-new Nike balls I would use to train and train.
I’VE BEEN WRITING this article years later from Marin Coffee Roasters in San Anselmo. A few blocks from The Branson School, from that field that has now been upgraded to a synthetic field. I eventually attended that school, on a scholarship. The coach of the Bulldogs was the athletic director at Branson at that time, and still is. His name is Tom Ryan. Hi Tom! After the game, he asked my parents if I wanted to play with that team, almost for free. That conversation changed my life.
Across from this table, I can see the counter, where the workers charge you. They’re all white. Around me, everyone white. I’ve been here five times the past two weeks. It’s always the same. From this table, I can see the kitchen. Everyone in there looks like me. I can guarantee this cafe, the soccer field, Canal Street, have wide rivers flowing between them. I guess through my privilege of education, my writing “profession,” I’ve learned to swim through them, or it’s become easier for me to see the river and try to fight across it to the other side. Not everyone is as lucky.
A few days ago, the president repealed TPS (Temporal Protected Status) for more than 200,000 Salvadorans. He had already repealed it for Haitians, Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Sudanese, etc. The morning of the announcement, Mom woke me, crying, saying, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” I couldn’t say anything. She’s been sick with a cold since.
Yesterday, the president called my country, Haiti, and the other African nations that hold TPS “shitholes.” I will not engage.
I won’t try and prove to anyone I belong here. I’m tired. But if you’re privileged enough to read this, I ask you to be aware of the canals, of the water that separates us. Be aware of those who want to widen that gap. Please stand up for us in those private conversations, tell them we’re only trying to pay for our children to play on the same field as everyone else. And if you happen to have one more minute, please call your representatives. Ask them to support a comprehensive immigration reform where not only the “children of immigrants” benefit, but our parents too. We’re all trying to swim.