A Family Separated But Still Together

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio photoFor the past year I have spent countless hours with a New Haven family that seems brought forth by the pages of a Hollywood sitcom, so all-American and wholesome it’s hard to believe they’re not Cold War propaganda. They love each other so ferociously, spend every hour together so joyously, and like each other so genuinely that young people in the community flock to them for a sense of family.

Being around them has provided me so much comfort and genuine joy that my real family has become jealous. You’re about to note the bizarre irony of their jealousy.

The Pinos family is fighting a deportation order that threatens to break their family apart. Many New Haven families have been faced with deportation orders. But here too the Pinos family is unlike the rest.

Christopher Peak photoThe patriarch, Nelson Pinos, took up sanctuary in a local church on Nov. 30, 2017, in order to fight to be able to stay with his family. It has been nearly a year since then, and while the rest of us are figuring out a way to make small talk with our uncles, as we make curt comments over pie, the Pinoses are begging God for a Thanksgiving miracle. Their wish: for ICE to grant Nelson a stay of deportation that will allow him to go home after a long year away.

Nelson arrived in the United States 26 years ago, when he was just 18 years old. He has no criminal record, pays his taxes, and is a homeowner.

In October of 2017, Nelson went for his regular ICE visit. Instead of having his status renewed, he was fitted with an ankle monitor and ordered to leave the country 3 ½ weeks before Christmas.

Nelson moved into the First and Summerfield Methodist Church off the Yale campus in lieu of taking a flight back to Ecuador. He decided to stay to fight for his family.

He is a religious man who does not even like to jaywalk, but this was different. He has three American citizen children who are all still young—Kelly is 16, Arlly is 13, and Brandon is only 6, and any iteration of separation would destroy his family.

If he returned to his impoverished town of Ecuador alone, he would have no way of providing for them, and would not be around to see them grow up, wounding them psychologically for life, depriving them of a father. If he took them with him, he’d be depriving American citizens of their right to grow up in a country full of opportunities.

The children don’t even speak fluent Spanish. Kelly is a STEM genius and is graduating high school next year. She wants to go to college and be a nurse practitioner, perhaps a midwife. He couldn’t destroy her dreams.

Markeshia Ricks photoBut aside from practical matters, there is the fact that Nelson adores his children and his children adore him. “I couldn’t handle a separation from my children,” Nelson says. “It hurts my soul to even think about that. Without my children, my life would have no meaning.” So he decided to stay and fight.

I began visiting the Pinos family almost a year ago with my partner. I’m a PhD student at Yale and also come from an undocumented family. I am an immigration writer.

I began visiting every so often, bringing Nelson a green smoothie in the mornings or taking the girls to the movies on weekends. But the family is impossible to not fall in love with and I could not have predicted how close we’d become or how much time we’d spend together.

Some weeks, we see each other every day. Nelson and Elsa are natural caretakers and have taken many young New Haven residents under their wing. Elsa is only 7 years older than me, but she treats me like a daughter. Sometimes I get homesick and Elsa will cook my favorite homemade meals and when she gives me a warm hug and welcomes me to the basement where the family is congregating for a meal, I feel for a moment like everything is okay even though I know they’re living in hell. She’s too good for this world.

I see Nelson as a second father. I ask him for advice, tell him when I’m sad, and he always checks in on me. He took care of me after my wisdom tooth surgery when I was coming out of anesthesia, made me chicken soup and tucked me into the church basement couch to watch a History Channel documentary on an iPad.

I’m far from the only young person in the community who feels this way. “Nelson is a father to many of us in the community who are also struggling with various forms of trauma,” a young woman who has also become close to Nelson and the family shared. “We share with Nelson our moments of despair and vulnerability and find comfort in his strength and kindness. Our community has always been subject to violence, but under this administration it has drastically increased. With every new attack, we take to the streets to protest and find ourselves returning to the place where we feel most safe in our community, the sanctuary church with Nelson. That is what he has given us.”

The family’s life before sanctuary was hard but magical. Nelson worked hard at the same factory for 15 years. They went to church. They are homeowners in a quiet neighborhood. They kept their lawn neat. They put up holiday decorations. They went fruit picking in the summers and went to spooky trails in the fall with their kids. They loved animals and took their dog Jordy, a Shi Tzu, on long walks in the woods.

Now, their home is an abandoned menagerie, a wildlife sanctuary cobwebbed by an apocalypse. Their senior dog is alone most of the day, confused by why his dad disappeared one day, never to return. The two parakeets, Blue and Birdy, sing all day with nobody to hear their song. A goldfish named Fishy swims in the dark.

Every afternoon, when the school day ends, the children’s school bus pulls up to their house and the kids see their father’s car in the driveway, unused for a year. The kids go inside, and quickly pack their things for an afternoon and evening at the church: a change of clothes, towels to shower, homework, chargers, snacks, and pile into their mother’s car.

They have to move quickly, because they don’t want their dad to get lonely. They drive to the church; here they spend their evenings, do homework, eat dinner, and shower.

At around 9 p.m., they pile back into the car in their pajamas, and go home to try to sleep. They have done this every day for almost a year.

Kelly and Arlly are old enough to understand most of what’s going on, although in order to protect them their parents don’t tell them everything. But everyone tries to protect Brandon, so he is often confused.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio photosIn the early days of Nelson’s sanctuary stay, they told Brandon that Nelson was staying at the church to do work, but when that excuse expired, they told him that a man was forcing Nelson to stay in the church. That made some sense to him, because at rallies supporters chanted, “Keep Nelson home!” and Brandon chanted along.

Clearly they were chanting so someone could hear, and he is too young to know that when nobody listens, we hope God listens, and if you don’t believe in God, you hope your voice carries with the other voices and that carries some magic on its own. But he was loudly speaking to somebody. “Keep Nelson home!” Brandon chanted. Every night when they had to leave the church, Brandon would cry and that would make Nelson cry too.

This has confused Brandon. “Nelson” has come to mean the man in the church, and that man is scared and in danger. But he sees his father every day and his father is strong, goofy, and caring.

As adults, we can all remember the moments when we realized our parents were not infallible, that they were mortal, that they were vulnerable people. But for Brandon, it is happening within a narrative that escapes his comprehension. So he disassociates. He has begun talking about a man named “Nelson” who is his father and about a man named “daddy” who is also his father. When we go out for pizza, he wants us to bring back a slice of pizza for “Nelson.” Nelson is someone who can go hungry if food is not brought to him.

On our way to the aquarium one morning, we stopped at a Dunkin Donuts and Brandon happily asked for a donut with pink frosting and sprinkles. When I passed it to him, his face got very serious and he packed up the donut in a paper bag real tight, rolled it up and said, “I am saving this for Nelson.” My partner and I insisted he eat it, but he refused. His sisters turned very serious and sad, as if they had seen this behavior before.

Only when I lied and said Nelson gets stomachaches from eating sugar did he eat it and he ate the donut happily, hungrily, as if he was starved and as if he was denying himself food out of guilt that he could not eat if Nelson was going hungry.  Brandon saves snacks from his school lunch to bring his father. This survivor guilt comes from a six-year old in a sweater with bear ears on the hood and sitting in a booster seat.

Brandon stays over at the church for sleepovers with his father on Friday nights. Since Nelson sleeps on a twin-sized bed in a room converted from the pastor’s former office, and they can’t both fit, they usually sleep together on the floor atop some blankets.

One night, we were making dinner in the church basement and Brandon suddenly asked his sister Kelly why Nelson wasn’t allowed to go home. Kelly said there was a man who wasn’t allowing Nelson to go home. Brandon nodded, then turned to me and asked me why the dinosaurs died.

You should know Brandon is obsessed with dinosaurs. He studies their species and is something of an expert. He knew why. But he wanted me to say it. So I told him a meteor hit the earth and the dust blocked the sun and there was no food for the dinosaurs so the dinosaurs starved.

“Yes,” Brandon said. The extinction of the dinosaurs is the only tragedy Brandon knows. He doesn’t know about Hiroshima. He doesn’t know about the Holocaust. He doesn’t know about the Trail of Tears. He knows his father can’t come home and he knows the dinosaurs died. So every week, he asks his musical therapist to play sad music, “music like when a puppy dies and you want to cry about it, play that kind of music,” and then he cries. This way, he can cry about his dad without having to show his dad he’s having to cry about his dad. The Pinoses are always trying to protect each other.

Brandon’s older sisters are very protective of him and when you ask them what they’re most afraid of, they say they are most afraid of the impact this is all having on Brandon. Strength runs in the family. But although they are strong teenagers, they are young teenagers, and they are really just children, and they are also reeling.

Arlly is 13 years old. She is a firecracker. People who meet her compare her to the beloved rapper Cardi B, because she is vocal, clever, and a born star. Arlly wants to study acting and become a famous actress. But I think she is destined to become a CEO. She’s in the debate team at school and carries around her math homework even when we go out to eat. I’ve never known an 8th grader to have such wit.

Arlly finds honor and value in strength. She cries at rallies sometimes, but there is pride in her voice when she says, “I used to cry more before but not so much before. I mean, sometimes I cry but I cry at night, so my mom and sister can’t tell.” She tends to shut down when you ask her about her father and will discuss her feelings with nobody but her best friend.

But she admits that she finds it hard to concentrate at school, and spends a lot of time daydreaming about her family, going through happy memories of her childhood, thinking of whether she can place a moment where she knew things would change, thinking of her father at the church, wondering whether he is bored, or sad.

Her grades have dropped. She got her very first D when she got the first piece of bad news about her dad’s case. She has some anger she does not know what to do with. It doesn’t help that some of her teachers don’t understand.

Out of all his children, Arlly is the most like her father. Nelson is a gregarious, goofy man, and Arlly matches him perfectly. Seeing them talk is like watching a championship tennis match.

On her phone background is a photograph of her father when he is newly arrived in America, a picture of a young, handsome Nelson, with a round, babyish, hopeful face.

Arlly slips into some disassociative moments too. Sometimes she’ll slip into the present tense without noticing to describe past events that haven’t been true for a year. One evening, Nelson was discussing how he used to wake up very early to go work at the factory where he worked for 15 years and Arlly said, “What do you mean, daddy? You still wake up at 5 am every morning to make it to work.” Nelson gently reminded her he didn’t.

Then there are the sleep problems. She feels exhausted but cannot reconcile sleep, often until 4 in the morning, her mind running with thoughts of her father. She overheats easily out of a sense of bodily anxiety.

And then there is the fact that she thinks this is all happening because God is punishing her because as little girls she and her sister Kelly might not have been as grateful as they could have for all the blessings they have had. Have you ever heard an 8th grader talk about their sincere belief that God is punishing them by potentially separating them from their father forever for not being grateful enough that once they got a $25 pair of jeans?  Yet she loves her God and she devotes her energies to showing him that she is grateful for all her blessings, including the fact that she can still see her dad everyday. 

Kelly is most like Elsa. She still has all the vim and vigor of Nelson, but she is more quiet and sweet like her mother, and she likes to keep her head down and focus on work.

She is a straight-A student who is ambitious and has big dreams. She was a track star as a child, a talented dancer, a STEM wizard since she was little and now participates in Yale’s HPREP program which is feeding into her love of medicine.

She’s very much the eldest sister. The responsible one. The one who has to keep it together. But she’s finding it excruciating.

One night, faith leaders from around Connecticut set up an all-night prayer vigil outside the ICE offices in Hartford asking ICE to use their discretion to give Nelson a stay and set up a table with pictures of Nelson with his children and candles. The pictures were from their life before—of them at the park, apple-picking, dressed for parties. Kelly stared at the pictures for a long time.

“They made it look like he died,” she said. Then she threw herself into the arms of my partner and sobbed. “When will this end?” she asked as she heaved. She could barely get out the words.

Once we all piled into the car back to New Haven, the girls asked us to play sad music. An enormous yellow full moon followed our car through Hartford and the girls stood up to film it through the sun-roof, hoping it was a good omen, but it disappeared once we arrived to New Haven. We all stayed quiet.

There is also a quiet sadness in Kelly, a weight she carries around from the day this all began. She remembers the humiliation of seeing an ankle monitor attached to her father’s ankle, a man she respects and adores.

A man who paid his taxes. A man who gives to the homeless. A man who tipped well in restaurants even when he didn’t have the money. “I watched as an officer asked my dad to pick a foot and snapped a monitor onto his right ankle. He looked so sad. I’d never seen him look that way before. When we got home, we both wept. That was the first time I had ever seen my dad cry.”

I remember the first time I saw my father cry. I think about it every day. I was in the 8th grade. He came home from work and walked slowly towards me at an angle a child could only interpret as a terrible fall. He collapsed onto me to cry into my neck. My father the dictator! Heaving, full-throated sobs!

He handed me a letter. The letter said that Governor George Pataki had suspended driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants as part of a national security measure. My father had just lost his job as a taxi driver. He had also lost his state ID. Over the next twenty years, he’d lose many more things, but let’s put a little blue thumbtack on this memory map. The first place in hell we visited.

It was hard to see my father fall because he was the most powerful person I knew. So I know the fall of a powerful man. And I know the effects of being separated from your parents. I was separated from my parents as a child too. I know what can happen to Brandon, and Arlly, and Kelly, and I want to protect them from it, but I can’t.

Paul Bass photoAll I can do is use the most ancient tools we have, writing and courage, and urge ICE to use their discretion to grant Nelson a stay. Nelson was here unlawfully—that is the long and short of ICE’s position. But Prometheus stole fire from Zeus himself to provide life and warmth and civilization to mankind and that is how we have civilization.

Sometimes we do things out of love, sometimes doing things out of love is the just and Godly thing to do. Jesus Christ himself has asked us to take care of the smallest among us. Kelly, Arlly, and Brandon are the smallest among us and Nelson stole fire for them.

Any man, if he loves his children, would have made the exact decisions Nelson has made. Jesus Christ himself demands that we follow the spirit of the law, which is based on love and compassion, and not just the letter of the law, which is merely optics. The application of laws of this country based on its Judeo-Christian heritage demands a loving and compassionate application, and this November, that can only mean one thing for the Pinos family: a compassionate use of discretion by ICE to let Nelson Pinos go home. 

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