One day last summer, after a family gathering at my grandparents’ old house, I stood outside on the front lawn. Beyond the bunches of neighborhoods lay fields and dairies, stretching south toward the mountains that wall in the south end of California’s Central Valley, and north toward Bakersfield, where I’d grown up.
“That’s where the shack was, where you all used to live when you first moved here?” said one of my cousins to his mom, my aunt, pointing in the direction of an empty plot of land, past the end of the block and across the intersection. She nodded yes. I cast my gaze out toward where he pointed. The shack was gone now, but parts of its foundation remained.
- 4th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- 1st Place: “Just one second in the highlands,” Rachel Plassmeyer Bené ’10
- 2nd Place: “Silhouette in the headlights,” Michael Benz ’09
- 2nd Place: “The strongest handshake,” Ben Moeller ’13
- HM: “Navel gazing,” Reggie Henke ’12
- HM: “Settling for your dream job,” Josh Bradley ’12
- HM: “The arc of dreams,” Alyssa Morones ’12
I’d spent countless childhood Sundays and holidays, all blended together in my memory now, at this house, running through its front yard and through the back yard with my cousins, diving into its obscure corners during games of hide-and-seek, piling into the kitchen for lunch, too young to be impressed that my grandmother could casually whip up a meal for however many of her six kids and their families were there.
And all the time they had been right there, just out of immediate view, the remnants of that shack — the first place my family, my grandpa and grandma and my dad and his five brothers and sisters, had lived, where they left from for work, and slept and ate and did their homework, when they first moved to California from Texas, and from Mexico before that, when they’d followed my grandpa here for work — the remnants of a past I’d never known. If I wanted, I could walk across the street and walk on them.
“Started from the bottom now we here,” said my cousin, quoting Drake. He was making a joke, but it was also true.
Growing up, I would let my mind surge forward, past the valley’s wall of mountains, into my future. I’d imagine all the exciting things I would do and new places I’d see and live, wondering why, of all the cities and towns in California, places with better weather, nearer the beach, my family would choose to end up here, a part of California that nobody thinks about when they think about California, outside of whatever amount of time it takes to read The Grapes of Wrath in high school.
I didn’t understand because choices have always meant something different to me. I was always at the center of my imagination, the center of my dreams. They began and ended with me. As a child, I thought as a child; almost believing that if I closed my eyes the world would cease to exist. I suppose I still think that way sometimes. That doesn’t make it true.
I realize now that “choice” had very little to do with how my family ended up in the part of California that they did. There was work at a dairy that paid more than my grandfather’s similar job in Texas, which had paid more than his job in Mexico. It was more like the obvious answer to a logic problem than anything else. They were choosing to chase a future. This was a step toward that, not the end itself.
When my grandparents dreamed of a better future, they didn’t dream it for themselves as much as they dreamed it for me. And when they worked toward that dream, toward that better future, they worked toward it for me, a part of the future. A part of their future. They looked forward, hoping all things and enduring all things, with faith that their slow, hard work would yield something worth working for, even if they weren’t around to see its full bloom. They understood more acutely than I perhaps ever will, to borrow a phrase from Hamilton, that a legacy is planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.
Isn’t that what immigrants believe when they uproot their lives from everything they’ve known before, to chase a dream they aren’t sure exists? Not just certain groups of immigrants, but each wave, unique in their time and circumstance but not in their hope.
My little plot of earth in the family garden is already soft and tilled, accepting of new seeds. I have my choice of which to plant. The view is nice, the shade pleasant, the chances of a good outcome a little higher. How hard must it have been to land on tough, dry dirt — a new, unworked, resistant piece of land — and look at that little plot and say, “Here we will grow a garden,” and begin to work, trusting that the outcome would be good? I’ll never know.
As I get older, I see more and more how my present is buttressed by so many others’ dreams, so many hours of others’ work, invisibly connecting me to the past, pushing me toward the future. I see that what I do now adds meaning to what my grandparents did when they moved here, just as what they did gives meaning to what I do. I see that my present will also one day reach into the future, giving and getting yet more meaning.
And just as my dreams needed the dreams of my grandparents and my parents, their dreams needed the dreams of so many before them; dreams that I imagine they recognized, when they moved to a new country all those years ago; dreams of ordinary people like themselves, doing extraordinary but also laborious and tedious things, also like themselves. Dreams of others who looked forward and planted some seeds, counting on the future to tend to them, admiring the garden not for what it was, not a calcified version of their present, but for what it could one day be, all just a small part in a much larger narrative, changing and shifting, rising and falling, with its multitudes.
The success of a dream is measured in the arc of its legacy.
I remember that every time I think about the remnants of that shack my cousin pointed out not so long ago, there for us to see with our own eyes and say “This is where I once was,” and to look at the present and say “This is where I am now,” and, connecting the two like dots on a graph, to view the upward projection of the ray, a positive-trending arc corresponding to the forward projection of time, and to look into the future and say “And this, this is what I may one day be.”
Alyssa Morones’ essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2016 Young Alumni Essay Contest. See all the results here. She also won an honorable mention in the 2013 contest for her essay “How to be 23.”