It was 1985 when my mama left the small island of Jamaica and landed in New York City to build a new life. As she embraced all the opportunities that America offered, she also became a wife, a mother of three, and a special education teacher. I'm so proud of who she was and who she is, a living lesson of a person who contributes goodness to this country and to this world. A woman who was once a stranger to these lands, now an advocate to its children. A woman who, like many immigrants, has declared her pledge to this country, despite neither a promise nor guarantee of a warm welcome back.
[My mother's] patois accent, thick on the tongue like molasses, kept her almost mute during her first three months here.
My mother's relationship with this country has been slow and steady. Her patois accent, thick on the tongue like molasses, kept her almost mute during her first three months here, as she was skeptical of the English vernacular and of also being misunderstood. She learned things like how to push a shopping cart, which was something unfamiliar to her and a small victory learned here. I, however, grew up comfortably integrated in American culture, only subject to minuscule embarrassment on Bring In a National Dish Day at school when nobody dared try my curry goat and jerk chicken. Food that my mom selflessly cooked for hours, carefully packaging it for me to share, only to return it three-fourths full, even after discarding a portion as not to offend her. This is a moment that I reflect on often — feeling out of place, too young to embrace the pride of diversity. In my life, I will only share a small fraction of the adversities that my mama faced. But the hardships that she's had to overcome were not in vain, because they're proof of where determination and valor can take you.
She's superwoman in my eyes, finding a harmony between jobs, school, and the role of a doting family woman. Humble, like many immigrant parents, she worked the unadorned jobs. She's swept the floors of Taco Bell, various clothing stores, and Kids "R" Us. During all of which she was also in school, which brought new challenges, from heaps of classwork to learning American English. Red ink stained the pages of her work, corrections of her use of British dialect and spelling pending Jamaica's colonization. Refusing to be discouraged, and instead promising herself that she would never use a red pen to embarrass her future students once she became a teacher, she prevailed to obtain multiple degrees. She received her associate's while mostly only taking one class a semester as she was busy with work and children. Her bachelor diploma followed, and she received her master's in only a year and a half when she decided to go full-time.
The importance of tolerance and patience were always exemplified in my house, especially with a mixed-race family (my mom is black and my dad is white). Living in a nation where racial prejudices still exist, it definitely didn't favor my mama to also be an immigrant. I recall a story my dad told me where he and my mom were standing in a long line at a gas station, waiting to fill up their tank in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. They were standing together, side by side, when a distraught woman approached them and politely pleaded to quickly get gas for her family's broken-down car that she walked from alone, miles down the road. They couldn't say no and let the woman go ahead of them. Upon this action, an angry white man started yelling derogatory "go back home" slurs, directed at my mother, even going as far as calling her a n**ger. She met his words with silence, refusing to respond. I remember a sharp pain sliding down my throat when hearing of the man's tone. I imagined the discomfort and anger that she must have felt in front of all those people witnessing this hate. The rage she met, as an American citizen in modern times, being openly targeted and disrespected. I wanted to transport to that moment to squeeze my mom's hand in hopes of taking away any indignation that she perceived.
It's important that immigrants who struggled and fought to be treated as equal citizens know that they're heard and protected.
This story sadly is not an isolated incident in the lives of many people of color, many of whom are also immigrants. As they're often seen as second-class citizens, the normalcy of defamatory exclaims is often just resolved by "turning the other cheek" and pretending like they didn't hear it. The resilience of these individuals, like my mama, to take the high road leaves me conflicted. While I admire the kindness that beats pure in their hearts — a kindness that surpasses hate — I sometimes feel disenchanted at how frequently these instances still occur at the hands of fellow Americans. From race to religion, bigotry is wielding its ugly head and must not be met with inferiority. It's important that immigrants who struggled and fought to be treated as equal citizens know that they're heard and protected.
I want to thank you, Mom, for your vigor. I was watching you; I was watching you when you came home exhausted after hours of labor with still enough energy to drown me in hugs and smiles. I was watching you when you read your school study notes aloud in the mirror, perfecting your English inflection. I was watching you float across the stage clutching your diploma. I was watching you when a president became elected, noticing the concern in your eyes. I watched you lay the groundwork for what is to come — a future with more love, hard work, grit, and humanity than we live in now.
And I want to remind the aliens of this country, both the newcomers and the seasoned migrants, that your dreams and determination are worthy and valid. At a time when the stakes seem high, when the bandaged wound of racial injustices that were perhaps never fully healed are peeled back, it's important to keep vocal for what is right. It's right for people who seek the freedoms and opportunities of our country to be accepted with open arms. To the mothers, the bearers of the future, your sacrifices are not unnoticed. To the dreamers, families of immigrants, neighbors, and friends, remember to keep love in your heart and in your country. My mama does, and I do, too.