Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio dos luceros, que cuando los abro
Perfecto distingo lo negro del blanco
Y en el alto cielo su fondo estrellado
Y en las multitudes el hombre que yo amo
The words above come from Chilean songwriter Violeta Parra when she penned her classic song "Gracias A La Vida", or "Thanks to Life." The words say,
Thank you, life, for giving me so much
She gave me two bright stars, that when opened
Can perfectly distinguish black from white
And high in the sky, the starry background
And within the crowd the man that I love.
Several years ago while I was visiting my then-80-something-year-old mother in Chicago, she sang this song to me as we were at the kitchen table. "Gracias A La Vida" has been one of my favorites, but the way she was relating this made the words take on a new meaning. Was she trying to tell me something? She continued with another verse.
"Thank you, life, for giving me so much. She gave me a heart, that shakes its contention, When I see the fruit of the human brain, When I see kindness so far from what is bad, When I look inside your bright eyes..."
This simple moment we spent at the kitchen table talking as she gave me pan dulce (sweet bread) and coffee came rushing back to me when I received word that my mother, Josefina, 91, passed away two weeks ago.
Life's events have a way of putting things in perspective really fast. Though petite and physically frail, she was lucid and could recall things from my childhood. This woman gave birth to 12 children and I was the seventh. Half of us were still at home when our father, Rafael, died in 1977 and she finished raising the rest of us.
But she didn't stop there. The grandchildren came along and many of them spent countless hours at her house to the point that some of them did not want to go home. I left Chicago in 1981, and every time I went back to visit I would stay at her house. She never remarried, yet she was never alone as a constant stream of friends or other family members would either drop by or call her. Thank God she had two telephone lines, but even then I might get a busy signal when I called her sometimes.
All visitors would end up at the kitchen table where in addition to feeding them, my mother would patiently listen to everyone and give advice to those going through tough times. She would turn no one away.
Attendance at her funeral was a testament to who she was. My mother always said she wanted no crying at her funeral, she preferred to have a festive time with a mariachi group. She got one wish. But the crying just couldn't be avoided.
Father Tomás of Santa Ines Church made an observation. Born in Mexico, my mother became a U.S. citizen while in her 70s under President Bill Clinton. Among the numerous pictures and statues of saints she had in her house was a picture of Bill Clinton and another of Barack Obama.
"But she did not have a picture of Donald Trump!" said the good padre.
It's mind-boggling to me when I realize that my mother was largely a self-educated woman with just a few years of schooling, married at 15 and my father was just a few years older. Yet both raised a large family, knew hardly any English yet provided all the essentials in an adopted country once they settled here in 1959.
In the last few months my mother would often tell me how fortunate we were to have come here when we did as today so many other families are being split up because of deportation. I thank God she lived a long life surrounded by family and others whose lives she touched in different ways. Aware that her time was near, she appreciated what life had given her.
"Thank you, life, for giving me so much. She gave me laughter as well as mourning. With both I distinguish happiness from pain — two of the ingredients that conform my singing, As well as your song, that is mine too, And the song of all, that is my own singing. Thank you, life, for giving me so much."
Gracias a ti, mamá.