“Ven aqui, mija,” Lito’s (short for abuelito) deep and weathered voice beckons to me from the kitchen table. I get up from the carpet in the living room and go to the table. I had been petting Chula, one of Lita’s (short for abuelita) beloved chihuahuas, and half listening to the telanovela (Latin soap opera) that hummed quietly from the old-fashioned TV set. Eight-year-old me recoils internally as I look down at his lunch: a steaming bowl of menudo (a Mexican soup made from cow intestines) and a side of cactus. He gently places a worn $5 bill into my tiny palm.
My sister and I dart out of the house past Lita, who quietly knits what is probably the tenth blanket she’s made for us.
I almost trip over the statue of the Virgin Mary on the porch that’s locked in chains— the last one was stolen. The sounds of dogs barking and children begging their parents for change in Spanish can be heard as we join the already growing line at the palatero’s (ice cream man) cart. Olivia and I whisper excitedly about which ice cream we’ll pick.
This is an ordinary day spent at my grandparents’ house. My Lito and Lita immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1962, doing just well enough to make ends meet. Even when I was a kid they didn’t have much, but they always spared ice cream money for Olivia and me. As a child, I always appreciated how generous and caring they were toward me, but I didn’t fully comprehend the degree to which they made the most out of their circumstances.
My dad understands from firsthand experience just how humble a beginning my grandparents had.
He spent the first five years of his life living with his aunt in the small mountain village of Huatlatlauca, Mexico because my grandparents didn’t have the resources to provide for him at the time. The only reality he knew was one where water was obtained by trekking down a mountain by mule to the river below. One day, he was picked up on a bus by someone who seemed to him to be a random man, but was actually his father. Brought back to the United States, my dad was thrown into elementary school not knowing a word of English.
Lito and Lita were always limited in resources, especially when my dad and his two brothers were growing up. Despite their financial situation, they did everything they could to provide their sons the best childhood possible. Instead of going on fancy vacations, they went camping— my grandparents slept in the car while my dad and uncles slept in a tent. Instead of buying expensive Halloween costumes, my grandpa handmade my dad’s costume, which he wore proudly to school.
Instead of giving their sons a luxurious life filled with nice materials, my grandparents gave their sons a life filled with love and sacrifice.
My dad went on to become the first person in his family to attend college, paying his own way through it. In spite of —or rather because of— his humble upbringing, my dad is one of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met. How he lives his own life has impacted me in ways that will forever shape how I live mine. I’ve inherited not money, not genes, but something else entirely that holds invaluable meaning to me.
My dad has passed down to me a quality I consider to be one of my most fundamental: compassion.
My father is quiet about his compassion. He doesn’t tell anyone about the small acts of kindness he performs— I’ve just learned to notice them. Just the other day, I smiled to myself in admiration when he paid for two random kids’ tickets to a soccer match without a moment of hesitation. A few weeks ago, a man playing the flute at a shopping center unknowingly received a $5 bill that my dad silently dropped into his case. He is compassionate by nature, and he’s instilled the trait in me.
My compassion is also quiet. It is humble and does not like to be seen. It appears when I listen to a friend talk about a challenge they’re dealing with and share my advice, even though I’m feeling down myself. In other instances, it manifests when I stay an extra few hours past my tutoring shift because a student is struggling and I can tell they’re very stressed, even though it’s late and I’m extremely tired.
It’s most prominent in my outlook on the world. I feel the most compassion when I see a kid that reminds me of my dad when he was a child, or an elderly couple that reminds me of my Lito and Lita. Because in those instances, I am reminded of my family’s humble beginnings. I am reminded of what matters most: not money, not things, but love and concern for others, and the power I have to positively impact others the way my grandparents impacted my father, and the way my father in turn has impacted me.