Alex visits the state capitol in Austin, Texas

Alex visits the state capitol in Austin, Texas

It was the fall of 2003, my freshman year of high school, when I met Alex. He was a fair-skinned, dark-haired boy with enormous brown eyes. We spent most lunch periods together as we both got used to the ins and outs of United High. He had the same taste in movies and music as me and could quote Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory line for line.

When Alex and I were first introduced, I remember his friend, Jacob, a blond-haired, blue-eyed lanky boy, told me, “Call Alex a Mexican.” He proceeded to laugh.

“Why?” I asked. It seemed like such an odd thing to bring up. We lived in Laredo, Texas, where 95 percent of the city’s population is of Mexican descent. No one calls anyone Mexican because we all are, except for Jacob, I suppose. I had assumed Alex was just like me, a third or fourth generation Mexican.

“Hey Alex, Jacob told me to call you Mexican,” I said awkwardly to him, the way any 14-year-old girl would approach a member of the opposite sex.

“I’m not Mexican. I’m from El Salvador,” Alex retorted.

I felt three inches tall after that. I didn’t bring it up again. From then on, our conversations were about Gene Wilder’s best movies and his exposing me to new music.

Alex and I dated that year. I learned that he moved from El Salvador to Miami and finally Laredo. I learned he and his family were immigrants – not the illegal kind most people think of when they think of South Texas. His family left El Salvador for better opportunities. His mother hoped her children would grow up in a place where poverty was not so ubiquitous and likely to affect them.

At 14, I didn’t ask many questions. I wasn’t curious about Alex’s earlier life. When we broke up, we stayed friends by talking about the weather or history class, but we never spoke again about his family or El Salvador.

I’m in college now more than 1,000 miles north of Laredo. Recently, Alex and I caught up with each other over a spaghetti dinner in Austin, where he lives now. We broke the awkward silence by discussing what we carried in our wallets. He brought out his green card, informing me that he is a permanent resident in the United States. He is not a citizen. He told me how he wished he could have voted for Obama in 2008 and that he hoped to go back to El Salvador one day as a politician. Dating him for a year, and knowing him for about seven years, his citizenship status had never come up before then.

Over the course of our catching up, I learned that members of his family, most of who still live in El Salvador, are politicians and business owners. He recalled memories of being held at gunpoint as a toddler when his family was being robbed and playing at the beach without a care in the world despite the extreme poverty around him.

I realized Alex had so much to share about his life and in seven years, I never asked or even wondered. I think of how many immigrants in my life, whether passing them in the supermarket aisles or living next door to them have stories similar to Alex’s. All we have to do is ask or listen.