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Norma Alicia Cruz with her husband Ismael Perez.
Norma Alicia Cruz with her husband Ismael Perez Sr.
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A salute to Norma Alicia Cruz: a Mexican mother who raised American children

It’s a perfect time for the Sun-Times’ Ismael Perez to learn more about his mother, as Mexican and American mothers are both being celebrated on the same day this year.

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Norma Alicia Cruz usually receives two cakes for Mother’s Day in May and two cakes for her birthday in July.

Not because she is a chingona who raised five children while working double shifts as a janitor and as a maid. It’s because of the calendar.

Ismael Perez, who works on the audience team for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Ismael Perez, who works on the audience team for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mother’s Day in the United States is celebrated every second Sunday of May, while May 10 is the official dia de las madres in Mexico. This year, though, Mexican and American mothers are being celebrated on the same day.

It’s a big day to celebrate a Mexican American mother like mine — a 55-year-old woman who’s seen the Mexico-United States border play a huge part in the biggest moments of her life.

One of the moments Norma missed out on as a mother was when she couldn’t drop off her 18-year-old son for college. She was undocumented and couldn’t cross the immigration checkpoint without risking deportation.

Norma Alicia Cruz at 12, living in Coahuila, Mexico.
Norma Alicia Cruz at 12, living in Coahuila, Mexico.
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“I felt bad because, one, I couldn’t see you off,” she told me in Spanish. “And I’d just think, ‘Poor baby, he’s off to a new place all alone without knowing anyone.’ ”

Hearing my mom’s concern about me moving two hours away is quite laughable.

When she said goodbye to her own mother, she was a single mom preparing to cross the Rio Grande into the United States with a 5-year-old daughter while knowing no English.

“I was ready to leave everything behind and not turn back,” she said.

Here’s what I know about my mom. She dropped out of middle school, her favorite color is yellow, her youngest brother died in a drive-by shooting, she believes in ghosts, and she makes the most amazing tamales.

Norma Alicia Cruz.
Norma Alicia Cruz.
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Norma is a secretive and witty person. You pick up interesting points of her life only when she accidentally lets her guard down, even now as an American resident.

But that is what happens with some immigrant parents, I think. When you have federal agents looking to arrest and deport you, you want your children to know as little about your life as possible.

My big brother recently found out that his father was alive after my mom told him — and all of us — that he had died when he was a baby. This woman can keep a secret. My brother found out only when my uncle decided to break a 20-year-old secret.

It was like something right out of a telenovela.

My mom justified her actions by saying (to me only), “This man left me with two babies to raise on my own, why would anyone want to go looking for him?”

The good thing about being an adult is that you get the courage to ask your parents questions you were afraid to ask when you were younger.

In fact, most of the things you are reading about my mom, I recently found out by interviewing her for this column. When I first asked for an interview, you could see her holding her breath and tensing up, trying not to say too much.

“You are worse than immigration officials,” she joked when I asked what part of Nuevo Laredo she crossed the Rio Grande from.

Her answer was off the record, of course.

Ismael Perez, Norma’s youngest son, at left, watches her work on the house she built in 2004 while her kids were at school.
Israel Perez, Norma’s youngest son, at left, watches her work on the house she built in 2004 while her kids were at school.
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The most important question is: How did she do it? How did she raise five children who had homework in English? And why did she insist on struggling just so we could get more opportunities in America?

The question really answers itself.

Mothers like Norma Alicia Cruz deserve two cakes — and more.

A mom who says her only wish is for her sons and daughters to achieve their goals without having to cross deep rivers with deadly waves to get there. A river she battled seven times just to get back to her children.

Oh, and why does my mom get two cakes for her birthday? Her mother Rosantina Reyes couldn’t remember whether her birthday was July 30 or July 31. There are actual Mexican documents to prove that.

As Norma reflects on being a daughter in Mexico, she remembers the biggest gift her mother gave her when she was younger.

“She taught me how to be courageous,” she said. “When times were tough, I had the courage to know I didn’t need a man, and I could survive on my own.”

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