She is the most precious creature my eyes have ever seen, the love of my life. When she smiles, I see heaven; when she frowns, so do I.
My daughter and only child, Lilia, is six years old and the greatest reason I see for being alive.
Yet she doesn't live with me. Almost three years ago, my wife and I separated, and she took Lilia away — two hours by car — to pursue career dreams in another town.
And so, I'm a part‑time father. Emotionally, it's the hardest thing I've ever had to do. It's tough on Lilia too. I worry about that — especially when she clings to me every time we say good‑bye. It's as if I were never coming back. She cries. I try to hold back my tears. We're afraid of losing each other.
After being apart for a few days, we somehow readjust to the reality of living separados. But every other weekend and on holidays the emotional roller coaster of our lives takes us on a wild ride all over again. It begins with an exhilarating reunion, races through a wonderful time together, and ends abruptly with another traumatic good‑bye.
Those highs and lows can be painful for parents. But for children the damage may influence la vida entera. The best I can do is stay as close to Lilia as possible. We speak on the telephone almost every day. But it's not like being there to pick her up from school, to help her with homework, to have dinner together, and to tuck her in with a bedtime story.
I feel cheated of precious time watching mi hijita crecer. And she grows and learns so fast that each time I see her I have to catch up on lo último. But she gives me cues with her questions. For example, she tells me there were things she didn't understand before. But now she feels ready for a full explanation.
That's when I brace myself for sorpresas, especially since I'm often at a loss for words during these sessions. She'll want to know why she went to live with her mother; why we live so far away from each other; or when and how she can get a little brother to play with. Even when I know how to respond, I often feel my answer should first be discussed with her mother.
Sometimes I find myself just copping out. "That's a question you should ask your mother," I tell her, as if I could get away with it. "Why?" she'll ask, letting me know who's in charge of the conversation.
When I'm in charge, I feel the urgency to teach her so many important things in so little time, especially now when she's learning so fast. I want to teach her about her raíces latinas; about a language and culture her papá wants her to maintain. I want her to take pride in being a little Latina.
But as a Latino ex‑husband of a white norteamericana, no es fácil for me to bring up an ethnically correct child. What makes raising her long-distance doubly hard is this feeling that I'm losing her to her mother's world. Even when I lived with her mom, teaching my daughter Spanish was nearly impossible.
How do you do it when English is the only language the spouses have in common? Poco a poco.
I buy Spanish computer games and audio and videotapes for children — we sing along en español on drives between my home and her mom's. I engage her in word-translation games, so that she can pick up some vocabulario. But for all my efforts, I'm the bilingual papá of a monolingual child.
Another conflicting factor blocks my efforts to rear a little Latina. La familia is a critical part of conveying culture: las comidas, la música, y las tradiciones. Since my relatives live far away, I'm alone in my attempts to teach la cultura.
Well, not exactly alone. Lilia and I often dine at Cuban restaurants and shop for condimentos at supermarkets. She knows how to spot a yuca and a malanga. She sits on my shoulders as we watch New York City's Hispanic Heritage Parade. She gets as many gifts on January 6 from Los Reyes as she does from Santa Claus on Christmas Day. But it's still note enough.
I want Lilia to learn about Hispanic American history, role models, our ancestors' contributions to this country. As she grows up with a Hispanic surname, I want her to know why Santa Fe and Colorado, among so many American landmarks, have Spanish names too. Lilia should learn as much about José Martí, the Cuban patriot and poet, as she will about George Washington. She should be proud to be an American of Latino heritage and be ready to defend herself from bigotry bred by ignorance.
I know it's up to me, not her mother or her teachers, to share my values with her, but I fear that part‑time parenting leaves precious few hours for the task.
Living in two different worlds is hard on me, but I can only imagine the impact our separation will have on Lilia's life. Much like time cheats me, Lilia is cheated of the stability of growing up with two parents. It's comforting, however, to know that next week — hopefully for the rest of our lives — we'll have quality time again ... just the two of us.