A Letter #ToImmigrantsWithLove
For the Inspired Lessons, Stories, and Voice You Gave to Me as A First-Generation American
My mother immigrated to the United States for many reasons, but one of her main motivations was to provide herself and her future children with greater opportunities. Over the years my mom would share stories — and sometimes I would see with my own eyes — how hurtful and infuriating it was to have people infantilize, eroticize, and marginalize her simply because she was black and female and an immigrant. As if her background or accent gave others the right to render her mute, to appropriate her story and culture for their own gain, to suppress her sense of agency or hijack her narrative in service of their own political agenda. But this happens to her and millions of immigrants in the United States everyday.
Vilifying and attempting to force immigrants into the shadows of American life is not some strange aberration of our current political landscape. It is firmly embedded in our very institutions through unexamined patriarchy and prejudice.
Over the course of an almost two-year election cycle, I watched as the Right used immigrants as the scapegoat for an enraged white working underclass that felt overlooked by the nation’s political elite. But I also watched deeply frustrated as the Left used immigrants and newly minted-American citizens as part of their political theater with the same vigor. Suddenly there was a parade of coverage around naturalization ceremonies so political types could voice their enlightened views around community, diversity, and Americanness using immigrants as their platform. The irony of the former is polling clear shows that the populist outrage directed at elected officials is a view held by a majority of Americans, regardless of race, religion, political party, or country of origin. The paradox of the latter is that Left-leaning politicians and surrogates were often equally as guilty as the Right of using immigrants as political pawns while claiming to stand for equality. Regardless of where Americans fall on the political spectrum there tends to be little room for actual immigrant voices or representations that give immigrants full agency in our mainstream public discourse.
All too often in our country, immigrants are reduced to anecdotes within someone else’s political narrative. But we as immigrants, and the children of immigrants, have our own stories.
Stories of sacrifice. Stories of struggle. Stories of adapting and perseverance. Stories of heartbreak. Stories of great joy and beauty. Stories of connection and distance and estrangement. These are the complex stories of complex people we rarely see in the news when public policy and politics turn to immigration. These are the stories we as immigrant communities often don’t even share among our friends or acquaintances if they are not part of our community. Our stories and we ourselves are increasingly, for the sake of our own protection, becoming more silent and more isolated.
For me it is heartbreaking to attend family gathering and hear loved ones swap stories and opinions on the current state of affairs in our country. The stories we share with each other — as we break bread over curry chicken, rice and peas, roast pork, or green bananas — make many who immigrated decades earlier begin to question whether they made the right decision to leave family, friends, and country to start an new life in the United States all those years ago. Not because they do not love this country, but because of the rhetoric they hear and the racism and xenophobia they encounter, which only seems to be intensifying, shows them that their country does not love them back. No matter that they immigrated legally, they pay their taxes, they serve in their churches and in their communities, and some have even served this country — faithfully. As a child of an immigrant and a U.S.-born American, I sit and listen to these stories. And as I listen, it is not lost upon me that in this hypothetical world my family, millions of immigrant families, and millions of American families are now imagining — where hostility to immigrants wins over what once seemed core to the American spirit — I do not exist. Because I would never be born.
I only exist in an America that opens it arms to those that come seeking opportunity. I only exist in an America, where immigrants and U.S. born citizens still have hope in some version of the American Dream.
So today, as with everyday, I am thankful to my parents for the love and the example they gifted me. I am a child reared as my much by the ways and values of the deep American South as the West Indies. And the truth is I discovered there were always more similarities in those two traditions than there were differences. For the most part, my siblings and I had an amazing opportunity to bask in the diverse beauty of both worlds. Yet even as I think back on my childhood, I cannot romanticize the sacrifices my mother made for me. Not as a recognize there are only select stories she shared with me over the years; others she choose to omit or felt it best to censor. This is because much of her immigrant story is filled of happiness, hurt, fears, and sacrifice gathered over a lifetime of giving me a life void of the same concerns. Even as I stand with her, there are parts of her story for which I can empathize but will never be able to fully embody.
I will never forget being eighteen years old and already a very civically-active political science major at Howard University when for the first time my mother told me her dream at my age was to support her country as an emerging independent nation. She had desperately wanted to go into politics before her mother, likely fearing for her daughter’s safety, convinced her moving to the States would be better for her economic future. For more than two decades my mother held that story. I could hear the pain of longing and loss of a different life laced in my mother’s voice when she recounted it. A young, bright girl who dreamed of dedicating her life to changing her home and her world, lived a reality that involved serving in the U.S. military and then serving her growing family. She poured all her heart and hope and energy into her children. My mother never saw her political dreams come true but she manifested a life where they were not only possible for me but they were only the beginning.
Until that day I never fully understood all the ways in which my life was the realization of my mother’s unspoken dreams. And this is the story familiar to many first-generation Americans.
My family’s story is filled with men and women who have moved here and built lives in the United States. They have loved and lost children in this country. They are American. Yet the last few months I have been reminded that although I was born in the United States in some ways my mother’s story and my own are not so different. Despite the fact that I have earned multiple degrees and developed years of professional expertise — everything my parents strived so diligently to provide me the opportunity to acquire — these trappings do not make me immune to the same treatment she experienced. To be infantilize, eroticize, and marginalize simply because I am black and female and an American in a time where the political climate makes it acceptable to mark us as “disruptors” if we ask that America stand up for the values on which it claims our nation was founded.
But the difference between my mother and I, is she often had to silently suffer through these indignities because she had mouths to feed and bodies to clothe. While I don’t always find it ideal, there is something to be said for being the person in the room with nothing to loose. As an first-generation American this is where I fit into my family’s immigrant story.
From my mother, I inherited a beautiful legacy wrapped in her immigrant story.
For my family, for my mother and my future children in particular, there is no lengths I will not go to tell our story.
I will always stand up for what my mother taught me was right. To be kind and gracious and generous in spirit.
To speak up for myself, and to realize that it is not my job to speak for others, but to give them a platform to speak for themselves.
To my mother, and my Joy, for teaching me this lesson, I say thank you from the bottom of my heart. Love always, Jaclyn
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