SoJung Ham/Daily.

My family and I spent a week at Yellowstone National Park this summer exploring the wilderness. An eventful day of sightseeing the geysers, waterfalls and buffalo in the park ultimately led us back to our cabin to get the rest we needed for the next day’s adventure. 

I didn’t need sleep. Instead, while my family was dreaming soundly in the cabin, I would quietly sneak outside to stare into the night sky and watch the stars. 

There were thousands of stars in the Wyoming sky. I was hypnotized by the dark abyss of twinkling lights. The sea of stars that adorned the black blanket of space overtook me. My eyes bounced back and forth between newfound stars. I sat outside gazing for what felt like hours. The stars distorted my sense of time. I didn’t mind. I had never seen so many stars together in one place — and I knew I wouldn’t see them like this for a while — so I was savoring the moment. Despite my seemingly hypnotic state, thoughts kept flowing through my conscience. 

From Luke Skywalker training to become a Jedi with Yoda on Dagobah in “Star Wars”, to Spike bounty hunting with Jet, Faye and Edward in “Cowboy Bebop”, Goku battling Freiza on Planet Namek in “Dragonball Z” and even McConaughey’s performance in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”, I have always been fascinated by the space depicted in popular media. For me, space represents the unknown, and the thought of space allows my imagination to run wild and wonder what is out there. I often daydream about the future of space travel and I imagine myself traveling through space, dodging asteroid belts in my ship, visiting planets and exploring their wonders. I’m not the only one in my family who has this fascination with space, as my dad is a firm believer in aliens.    

My dad works long hours; for six out of the seven days of the week, he leaves for work at 4 a.m. only to return home around 7 p.m. When he comes home from work, he’s yawning and ready to eat and jump onto the couch to watch whatever soccer game is on ESPN, but dinner grants me a few precious hours of conversation before he settles in bed. Dinner is where everyone in the house gathers as a family and enjoys each other’s company and the food.  

I’m always the one to ask my parents about stories from our time in Los Angeles and their upbringing in Mexico. This is how I found out my dad saw a UFO in the early morning before work in Los Angeles. He walked out the front door of his home at the crack of dawn and saw bright flashing lights moving in the sky. He was certain it wasn’t an airplane because it was moving erratically and displaying lights he had never seen before. After my dad finishes telling his story he likes to end with the joke, “Yo soy un extraterrestre!” which translates to “I’m an extraterrestrial.”

Not only does my dad believe in aliens, he believes he is one and that he just happened to be born on Earth. He thinks that the universe is so large that other lifeforms in space view him as an alien, but my dad is also speaking to his own reality with this joke. He recognizes that gringos, “white people,” sometimes identify him as an illegal alien because he’s Latino-presenting even if he doesn’t reveal his immigration status. I used to respond to him, “No, don’t say that!” because even if he’s poking fun at his own status or referring to his extraterrestrial nature, the joke is dehumanizing. Writing this piece is the first time I’ve had time to reflect on this joke so I had to get on the phone and talk to him about it. After asking me, “¿Cómo estás guey?”, telling me, “Espera, tu mamá quiere decirte algo”, and me reminding him about the UFO story and joke, I began to ask him questions. 

Me: “¿Por qué me dijiste ese chiste?” 

[“Why did you tell me that joke?”]

Dad: “Porque gringos dicen que somos extraterrestre” 

[“Because white people say that we [Mexicans] are extraterrestrials.”]

Me: “¿Cómo te hace sentir eso?

[“How does that make you feel?”]

Dad: “No me molesta. Me hace reír porque no saben lo que realmente significa ser Mexican. Sé que son ignorantes y que no quieren aprender. No me enoja. La gente blanca me habla y me trata de manera diferente solo porque soy latino. Siempre te tratarán de manera diferente, pero no puedes concentrarte en eso porque te afectará. Te hace inmóvil.” 

[It doesn’t bother me. It makes me laugh because they don’t know what it actually means to be Mexican. I know that they are ignorant and that they don’t want to learn. It doesn’t make me mad. White people talk and treat me differently just because I’m Latino. They’re always going to treat you differently, but you can’t focus on that because it will get to you. It makes you freeze.]

Me: “¿Puedes darme un ejemplo de cuando te trataron de manera diferente?

[“Can you give me an example of when you were treated differently?”]

Dad: “Cuando estoy trabajando, los Americanos siempre me preguntan, “¿de dónde eres?”. Les digo, “yo soy de México”. Luego preguntan: “¿Tienes una visa?”. Tienen curiosidad. Piensan que tener papeles cambia las cosas. También me preguntan si hablo inglés o si los entiendo.”

[“When I’m working, Americans always ask me, ‘Where are you from?’. I tell them, ‘I’m from Mexico.’ They then ask, ‘Do you have a Visa?’ They’re curious. They think that having papers changes things. They also ask me if I speak English or if I understand them.”]

Talking about his casual joke inspired deeper conversations about his experiences being Latino living in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 90s. I love these conversations with my dad because I have very faint memories of Los Angeles up until I was 5. I remember spending days with my parents at our toy model car stand in the Paramount, Swap Meet. I would play with toys sold by other vendors under the beaming Los Angeles sun. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve appreciated Los Angeles’s rich Mexican culture and whenever I visit the city it feels like home. In the 2020 census, Los Angeles County had the largest Hispanic/Latino population than any other county in the United States at 4.8 million people. Cities like Paramount are home to mi gente and I love hearing stories about what life was like in Los Angeles. Well, most stories. My dad had plenty of goodness to share about the city, but he also shared unfortunate truths about policing and racial profiling.

Me: “y la policía, ¿te han parado?

[“And the police? Have you been stopped?”]

Dad: “Cuando estas manejando, la policía te detiene porque pareces latino, no porque manejas mal. Especialmente cuando tenía el pelo largo. Cuando me corté el pelo, no me pararon tanto”.

[“When you’re driving, police stop because you look Latino, not because you’re driving badly. Especially when I had long hair. When I cut my hair, they didn’t stop me that much.”]

Whether or not these stories are uplifting, they’re the stories that describe my dad’s life as a Latino living in the United States. When he introduces himself to people and tells them he’s from Mexico, people are quick to make assumptions. Whether it’s implicit biases or stereotypes, he does not deserve to be racially profiled or interrogated following each work introduction. As I get older, I am fostering these conversations with my dad to learn more of his life struggles and to advocate on his behalf. My dad will always tell me to be proud of who I am and where I come from. I want to do the same for him. Being Mexican is my family’s biggest advantage in America. My dad is the smartest, most loving, funniest and toughest human being on planet earth. He is a curious man with a love for the earth and Yellowstone, so whenever we return, I will make sure we stargaze together in hopes of seeing a UFO.

MiC Columnist Juan Pablo Angel Marcos can be reached at marcosj@umich.edu.