It was a year of firsts for my 79-year-old Abuelita Lupe.
It was the first time she left Mexico, the first time she boarded an airplane, the first time she visited the United States and the first time she met several of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I'll never feel the joy I felt in being part of something I thought may never happen.
But through an Abuelitas (grandma) Program, facilitated through Sen. Mark Kirk's office and social groups in Waukegan, Abuelta Lupe and several other grandparents from Mexico got to visit family in Illinois for a month.We were the first Quad-Cities' family to participate in the program.
Abuelita Lupe is from Mexico City, the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere, but without wealth or connections in Mexico, residents can't travel as they please, especially to the U.S.
Such travel is a privilege reserved for those with property, businesses, long-standing careers, money, connections - basically a guarantee that you will return.
For those in Mexico, travel requires interviews and background checks. For those from a humble background, the chance of getting a vacation visa to the U.S. are slim to none and could cost about $300 in the process.
Despite the obstacles, my maternal grandmother, Abuelita Lupe, as we call her, was able visit the United States for the first time, at the age of 79. It was months in the making, every detail carefully choreographed.
On Friday, Oct. 12, about 30 families gathered in a rental hall north of O'Hare International Airport to meet elderly loved ones coming from Mexico to visit family in the U.S. for a month.
Four generations of my family would be united for the first time. My mother, Beatriz Cervantes, hadn't seen her mother since 2007, and my daughter, Isabella, 3, finally was going to meet her great-grandmother.
Tables in the Waukegan hall were draped in red and white linens, with floral centerpieces and balloons brought by the families. Mexican music filled the air.
The first family to be united was asked to gather in the middle of the room, and an emcee told the crowd it had been more than 30 years since they had all seen their grandmother.
Now, just two swinging doors stood between them. When those doors opened, a happy mariachi song was played, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house as an older lady was escorted by a pageant queen to her family.
Then the family of Guadalupe Fuentes-Rojas was called. I was slow to react because they didn't say "Abuelita Lupe." I went to the center of the room with my mom and Isabella, and after some applause, the doors opened, and there was Abuelita Lupe in the room with us, on American soil.
She was wearing a white pea coat with a red turtleneck sweater, gold trim on her glasses and a big smile.
"It was a very emotional moment," she told me later. "Until I saw it for real. It was a very special feeling."
Throughout the month that Abuelita Lupe was here, she met more family members for the first time, and was here for my brother Tony's 22nd birthday.
My brothers and sisters introduced her to their kids.My uncle, Salvador Cervantes, her oldest son, had not seen her for decades. His son, Jaime, and daughter, Anna, got to meet their Abuelita Lupe for the first time, as did their children.
Abuelita Lupe said she was "very, very happy to see my son after 30 years, and it made me very happy to see all of my grandchildren."
My sister Fabiola hosted a family gathering, and over hot bowls of my mother's pozole, we shared stories, took pictures and showed pictures. My cousins in Mexico commented on our Facebook pictures from Mexico City.
Abuelita Lupe stayed the month at my mother's, with relatives visiting regularly. We took hershopping and to American and Chinese restaurants. She went toChicago with my sister, and we spent a beautiful Saturday afternoon with the kids at the LeClaire Witches Walk, and took pictures downtown, along the river and next to the steamwheeler.
That was one of my favorite days with her. She got to experience a great American town, a great family event, and we got a picture of her first taste of Happy Joe's Taco Pizza, which she liked.
As the days passed, she told some stories that even my mother didn't know.
I asked Abuelita Lupe if she ever thought she may never meet all her family in the U.S."Well yes, you know going from one country to another is sort of difficult at my age," she said. "I thought about it, because of my age, that maybe I may not go see you guys."
As her time here was winding down, we had a reunion at Old Mexico with cousins of my late grandfather, Salvador Cervantes Sr.
After my grandparents divorced, my grandfather started a new life in Moline. His cousin, Fidencio, and wife, Dolores Barajas, still kept in contact with family in Mexico, including my grandmother, who they've known forabout 60 years. The stories they shared were gold.
Abuelita Lupe loved the United States."It's better, the lifestyle, everything is better here than where I live," she said. "Everything, the streets, the restaurants, the people are very different compared to Mexico (City). I felt very safe and very comfortable here."
She said her time here "was very special. I will always take with me, this very special experience, to get to see another country and to be able to spend time with all of you all the days that I was here."
At the airport as she was leaving, I got a kiss and one final embrace from Abuelita Lupe. It was bittersweet. The wonderful month with our grandmother was over, but we may be able to do it again next year.
I'm happy in knowing that thanks to our experience, others in the Illinois Quad-Cities area will be able to again feel the warm loving embrace of their Abuelitas or Abuelitos.
Alvaro lives in Moline. He was born Mexico City and came to the Quad Cities in 1987 as a child with his parents.
The Abuelitas Program was established in December of 2005 as part of a coordinated effort between Chicago-area Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, and local Mexican Social Clubs to help senior family members in Mexico get 30-day travel visas to visit American relatives in Illinois.
“Abuelitas is extremely important for the Latin American community,” Sen. Kirk said. “Family is the strength of Latino culture and reuniting grandparents and older relatives with the younger generation is critical for the development of those children.”
Since it started, the Abulelitas Program has reunited more than 1,400 Mexican residents with relatives in Illinois, which is home to more than 1.5 million citizens of Mexican descent. Sen. Kirk is working with the social clubs to expand the program
For more information contact Eileen McGrath at Sen. Kirk's office at 230 South Dearborn, Suite 3900, Chicago, Il 60604, call her at (312) 886-3506 or email Eileen_McGrath@kirk.senate.gov.