Kaya Ortega with her father, Francisco, at StoryCorps in Los Angeles.
As a child, Francisco Ortega lived in rural Tijuana, Mexico, 100 miles south of where he lives with his family now.
"We were so poor, but I used to say my mother kept the best dirt floors ever," he told his 16-year-old daughter, Kaya during a recent visit to StoryCorps. "They were the cleanest dirt floors in the planet.
"My parents came here first working at horrible jobs just to send money to us," he continued, recounting the timeline for his family's migration the the states. "And they left us with an aunt. I didn't see my parents for about three and a half years. And I was just such a, like a, wild little crazy kid. You know, literally they would have to chase me around to bathe me. And a lot of that is because I would sit at night crying for my mother."
But did he understand that his mother left because "she loved you more than she loved herself?" Kaya asked.
"I didn't know that then, Kaya," Francisco explained. "I was just a kid who missed his mother."
Francisco is 47 now but was nine when he came to the states, and he remembers clearly the night a car came for him.
"My auntie — I didn't even fight her — but she gave me a beautiful, warm bath," he said. "She had a white, crisp shirt she ironed for me with a little clip-on tie, a black one. And when she said goodbye to me, she touched the window of the car, blew me a kiss, and she said, 'Go change the world.' "
Nowadays, Francisco works for the city building relationships between the LAPD and the communities it serves. But his proudest moment is still one from his college years.
"...A professor of mine says 'Hey, I have these guys that are struggling.' So they gave me kids to tutor and this kid calls me to have a beer," Francisco recalled. "He says, 'Hey, I wanna meet you down at this bar.' So I go down. This guy grabs my arm and he says to me, 'I want to thank you for helping me, I couldn't have done it without you.' "
As he walked back to campus Francisco said he was flooded with emotion.
"And I'm like, 'why am I feeling this way?,' and I realize I came to this country as a poor non-English speaking immigrant kid and I was teaching how to write," he said. "And for the first time in my life I felt like I belonged here."
Kaya finds her father's experience hard to relate to because she grew up with so much opportunity, but she doesn't want to be closed off in a bubble.
"You've opened that bubble up for me," she said. "I want to thank you for that. I act like I'm too cool for you or whatever, but I'm so proud."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Liyna Anwar.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.