My grandfather’s name was Bonafacio Alvarez. He was born in the town of Aviles, in the province of Asturias, Spain, in 1890. Times were terrible and his family was dirt poor. As a boy of 14 or so, he came by himself to Cuba, where everyone spoke Spanish, and found work there in a sort of general store. In 1917, he got on a boat and then a train, again alone, and came to the United States, where nobody spoke Spanish, and made his way for reasons I’ve never known to Waterbury, Connecticut, where he met and married my grandmother and got a job at the Anaconda American Brass on Freight Street. He was a maintenance electrician there for 40 years. He spoke English with a heavy accent, took all the overtime he could get, helped raise two boys, learned more about American history and geography than most natural-borns I know, and like millions and millions of others did his best to be a good, solid American.
By the time I was in my last two years of high school, he was retired, and I remember that he came to a few little dual cross-country meets with my dad. In the summer of, I think, 1964, I was asked to run in an invitational high-school mile at some sort of athletic festival they were putting on at what was then Central Connecticut State Teachers College. My dad brought his dad along to watch. There was a big crowd—by far the biggest I ran in front of while I was in high school—and it was a good race. In the last lap, I made a move on the final turn to try and steal a win from a couple of guys who I was pretty sure had better kicks. It didn’t work. I couldn’t separate myself enough, they did have better kicks, they overhauled me in the final straight, and I finished third.
When I eventually climbed up into the stands to find my two fans, my grandfather was smiling and chuckling and doing everything but dancing a jig, incluidng uttering his standard phrase of amazement, “Jingoes, boy!” This was very uncharacteristic behavior from a very reserved, stoic man. Especially, I thought in my self-centered way, because I had lost.
I looked at my father, who said, “They announced your name.”
It turned out that when I took that lead going into the turn, the PA announcer did what PA announcers do, he got all excited and essentially narrated my kick around the curve. I didn’t hear it. But my grandfather did. And the marginal, hard-working, heads-down immigrant who had missed the hoopla surrounding his son’s football games because of work, had never before heard our family name, his name, announced publicly like that, let alone accompanied by a cheer or two. It was a kind of validation for him. At the time, I thought this was amusing. Sweet, and undeniably cool for me, but mostly funny.
I find it funny no longer. A hard-working grandfather with a heavy Spanish accent?
Who came here, like tens of millions of others, without permission?
Probably should be sent back where he came from, no?.
No. Rational immigration policy? Yes, of course. Family-splitting mass deportation? No. I know which side of the metaphorical wall of decency I’m on. It’s in my bones.
And my name.
I stand with los abuelos.