Robert De Niro (left) and Ben Stiller in "Meet the Parents."
For most of us, the idea of meeting the in-laws is benign. Maybe it requires a drive to some sleepy suburb, or a trip to New England. And maybe, when you get there, you expect to find perfect lawns and family houses with more than enough space, and your in-laws greeting you at the door in coordinating argyle tops and holding glasses of lemonade.
What you don't imagine is driving through a foreign land where dogs roam the streets like squirrels and your English is a liability. And yet, there I stood last week in Juarez, Mexico, shifting the rocks under my shoes as I waited to shake hands with my father-in-law.
As to what would be my first words to him, my options were limited. I knew a simple "mucho gusto" wouldn't do for such an occasion, so I'd built up the courage to say "It's a pleasure to finally meet you" in Spanish. When the time came, I buckled, saying the whole thing in English, hoping he understood.
When you're in a situation like that, surrounded by native Spanish speakers, in a place where you're expected to know Spanish—at least enough, especially if you're Latino—English words spoken with an American accent tend to fall on the scene like a drenched towel.
To be fair, no one was offended by my inability to speak the language, which is supposed to be my language. But hard-core Latinos withdraw a bit from me and my broken Spanish. They avoid eye contact and become careful with their interactions, perhaps to spare me the trouble of putting a Spanish sentence together or spare themselves the trouble of listening to me try. I don't blame them. I'm probably the Spanish equivalent of Forrest Gump.
Fortunately, all eyes wouldn't be on me for the entire week. They wanted to see my wife, who was born in Juarez, and whose family we were visiting. My wife moved to Chicago when she was 2 and lived as one of these DREAMers we read so much about these days before we got married in Vegas. A trip to see her father in Juarez was always at the top of her "If I Were Legal" wish list.
I was unsure how to behave with my new dad. My old dad dipped voluntarily when I was about 7, and the only adults left in my family were my mom, my two aunts and my grandma. So I wasn't raised in the most testosterone-charged environment. And now that I'm a grown-up (kinda), I have no experience interacting with older men in any close way.
Suddenly, I'm in rough-and-tumble Juarez, surrounded by my wife's father and uncles (all carpenters) telling me about the repairs they've made around the house and challenging me to an arm-wrestling match.
I think the father-in-law liked me, though I'm sure I'm not what he expected in a son-in-law—dark, shaved head, bookish and English-speaking. At the end, he thanked me (for what exactly, I don't know), and he said his only hope is that we are happy, which we are.
When I met my wife a few years back, I didn't know she was Mexican, a DREAMer or any of that. But we can't help who we are, much less have a say in where we come from.
She's from Juarez and I'm from Chicago, and the Earth goes round and round.
Hector Luis Alamo Jr. is a RedEye special contributor.
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