By Lindsay Esparrago

When I think about who I am and where I came from, my mind instantly goes to a distant memory – one I thought was insignificant at the time.

It’s another day of gathering around our teacher, sitting in what we called “criss-cross applesauce,” eagerly waiting for the teacher to begin reading to us.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day – a day I don’t think we quite fully understood the concept of as naïve first-graders. When our teacher asked the bright-eyed students the meaning of the day, a couple of hands shot up. Two fellow classmates then pointed at me and said, “We appreciate people like Lindsay.”

I knew I wasn’t African American, but I also knew that I stood out from my classmates. As one of the only ones in the small group with a darker complexion and what my family considers a “Filipino nose,” I was aware.

I ran home that day and fired questions at my parents – my dad, black hair and almond-shaped eyes, and my mom, blonde with piercing, blue eyes.

I’m half Filipino and half Caucasian, with some Swedish, English and a little bit of Native American sprinkled in.

The fair skin, blonde hair and piercing blue eyes originated from my mom’s Swedish ancestry. My grandparents and mom know very little about their family’s journey to America, as it was in the late 1800s when their ancestors first arrived.

John Odom, who would become my great-great-great-grandfather, left Sweden in 1880 alone at age 22. He arrived in Chicago, where he met the love of his life – Elizabeth – another immigrant from Sweden.

My grandpa, Darrell Odom, said he believes John came to America for the job opportunities. John took initiative and worked with any position available for engineers in Illinois.

Although details are blurry for my mom’s side, she’s certain work ethic and appreciation for the simple things were passed down within the family.

Finding the “better life”

My dad never really talked about his parents’ history and their journey to America, as if it wasn’t something to be proud of. I don’t know why. I think about my grandparents – their hard work, their determination and their selflessness – and I couldn’t be prouder.

I grew up calling my dad’s parents “Lola and Lolo.” At first, I just thought these were my grandparents’ names. I soon learned that it was part of the Philippine kinship. “Lola” meant “grandma” and “Lolo” meant “grandpa.” Both born in 1940, Lolo, Francisco “Frank” Reyes Esparrago Jr., was from Bacon Sorsogon in the Philippines. Lola, Linda Mendoza, was from Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

The University of Santo Tomas in Manila held great sentiment for my grandparents. That is where they met and fell in love before marrying at 21 years old in 1961. That is where Lola decided to end her time studying to be an attorney to instead dedicate her time to being a mother. That is where Lolo’s dream of becoming a doctor and surgeon blossomed.

Lola gave birth to two of my uncles, Peter and Tony, in the Philippines before Lolo graduated from the College of Medicine in 1963. While Lola was pretty well off compared to many Filipinos, they decided to come to America for “the better life” they always heard about but had yet to experience.

“The better life” required leaving their two sons in Manila with Lola’s mother and a nanny. Peter was two; Tony was only one. This was the first of many sacrifices.

Francisco Reyes Esparrago performing surgery in Monett, Missouri, in 2004.

Francisco Reyes Esparrago performing surgery in Monett, Missouri. / Courtesy photo

My grandparents were fortunate enough to already know how to communicate once they arrived in America. Their classes required that they learn two languages – English and Tagalog. This eliminated a lot of the hardships that could have weighed down Lolo as he finished his internship, surgical residency and fellowship with a hospital in Detroit, Michigan – where they first immigrated.

Lolo didn’t have the luxury of choosing from a handful of places to settle. Detroit was where he was accepted; Detroit was where they would be.

Just a year after each other, Lola gave birth to three more children in Detroit. The last of the Detroit children came into the world in 1969 – my father, Jeffrey Esparrago.

In 1970, the people of Monett established Lolo’s title of the selfless server to the community. Because in this year, he passed the American Board of Surgery and started his career as a dedicated doctor and surgeon in Monett, Missouri, for many years. Meanwhile, Lola gave birth to her last child.

The balance between work and family was one they learned to master.

The city of Monett is where my Uncle Peter and Uncle Tony returned to my grandparents. At age eight and nine, they were finally getting the opportunity to get to know their own parents because until then, they were basically strangers.

I still can’t imagine that transition. But if anyone could do it, it was the Esparragos.

Working hard toward leisure

Six kids and a full-time position saving lives wasn’t enough for my grandparents. They bought a farm, too.

My dad’s passion for working hard may have started at the farm, but it never ceased. Holidays are the times the Esparrago families packed into the Monett house – the same one all of the Esparragos grew up in. Something always breaks in the house and needs to be fixed. Still to this day, I can hear family members yelling, “Jeff! Can you fix this?” And he did.

Maybe it was my dad’s engineer mindset, but I like to think it’s his advice passed down from Lolo: “Take pride in what you do and always leave it better than what it was.”

My grandparents fully embraced the classic, “work hard, play hard” lifestyle. Both worked hard as successful parents. Lolo would drop anything at any point of the day if someone’s health depended on him. Turns out they were also proud of their work because in return, they treated themselves to traveling all over the world.

One of their favorite places was Las Vegas – maybe because they liked to take chances. It paid off in 1999 when Lola won the jackpot of $1.8 million in Vegas on the “Wheel of Fortune” slot machine.

Some would say that was pure luck, myself included. But Lola would tell you differently. She would probably tell you it was hard work and practice. Something they were accustomed to since leaving the Philippines.

Regardless, I could argue that they won the jackpot not in Vegas but in the Monett home where they made memories of “the better life” in.

And maybe I’m the one who got lucky.

I’m lucky to be born into a family who never said “no” to any opportunity. I’m lucky to have had an unforgettable relationship with Lolo before he died in 2011, after fighting with every bone in his body against mesotheliomia cancer.

“In memory of” followed with “Francisco Reyes Esparrago” used to be a phrase that discouraged me. But after learning more and reflecting on how my family came to America, “in memory of” brings me to those brighter days of Lolo’s dedication to his profession and family.

Being an Esparrago means more than sharing the last name that means “asparagus” in Spanish – still an ongoing family joke.

Being an Esparrago means being a Filipino in America. It means giving your all and taking a risk to get what you want. And it means having fun along the way.

I couldn’t be prouder.