This column was almost about a very
different topic. I was going to write about
how proud my immigrant father was that
my memoir Flying Free would be published this
September. I was going to write about how
I imagined his voice in the background when I
worked in Silicon Valley as one of a very
few Latina computer programmers in the 1980s,
giving me inner strength. The strength to face
my fears and even learn to fly. I was going to
write how his pride in me led me to write
my memoir and sustained me through the
stunningly difficult task of laying out ninety
thousand words into a compelling narrative.
But then, five days before the article
deadline, my father stopped breathing. Before
that day, the beat of his breath had rasped
out from his bedroom, a constant backdrop
throughout my home. I could hear him when I
cut up fruit in the kitchen, when I worked on
my laptop at the table, when I ate dinner, his
breathing a counterpoint to the forks and knives
clinking on plates. He’d had a stroke only the
week before, and could no longer eat or talk. But
he still smiled whenever I entered his room,
the radiant smile a nurse remarked on in the
hospital. “Just being in the same room with that
smile lifts my spirits,” she said.
It was the identical smile that had sustained
me throughout my childhood, despite the teachers
who dismissed me and classmates who
I remember sitting in my second-grade
classroom, surrounded by dark green linoleum and
black-and-white alphabet wall cards. On my desk
in front of me lay the census form we’d all been
asked to fill out.
My teacher loomed over me.
“Mark your race as ‘Black,’”
she instructed me.
I stared at my own skin in bewilderment.
Then I timidly raised my hand. “I’m sorry, I
don’t think I’m Black.”
And she said, “Well, you sure as heck
I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in a small town
in Indiana where almost everybody else knew each
other’s grandparents, but both my parents
were immigrants who spoke with thick
accents. Who are you if you have a Chilean father
and a Filipina mother? I didn’t even belong to a
recognized minority group—but I so wanted to. I
desperately wanted an identity group—I wanted
to belong somewhere. But, moments like filling out
that census form were a regular part of my
upbringing. And every time it happened, I felt
confused, upset, and diminished.
Cecilia Aragon is an author, air-show pilot, and the first Latina
professor in the College of Engineering at the University of
Washington in Seattle. She coauthored Writers in the Secret Garden,
has worked with Nobel Prize winners, taught astronauts to fly, and
created musical simulations of the universe with rock stars.
Her major awards for research, and a stint at NASA designing
software for Mars missions, led President Obama to call her “one
of the top scientists and engineers in the country." For more
information, visit ceciliaaragonauthor.com.
But there was one constant source of support
in my life: my dad. When I did well in math, he’d tap
my head and say with a huge grin, “This brain
About the Author
Whenever I brought home one of those big
red 100s, he‘d beam at me proudly and say, “My
buttons are popping.”
How could I write an upbeat article about how
my father had been my source of strength for
decades when he was now gone? How could I
keep functioning without his breathing drumming
in the background, the heartbeat underlying
everything I’d accomplished?
Only a few days before his stroke, he’d told
me he was ready to go. “I’ve made up my mind,”
he said. “I’m dying this week.”
“No,” I cried. “I still need you. Your
grandchildren need you.”
“You’ll be fine. And they’ll do well. I’ve left you
with everything you need.”
And he smiled at me.
By Cecilia Aragon
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