Dania Ramirez: "There's No Better Place to Be Poor, Rich or Anything in Between Than America"

Dania Ramirez is an actress and one of the stars of Lifetime's Devious Maids.

When I was asked to write my immigration story, I first thought: What is an immigration story anyway? Does it start out like my life story does or only when I first entered the US? This great country of ours. That makes sense, I guess, but then again, if I were to use history as my guide, wouldn't we all be considered immigrants of some kind? This assignment had become more thought provoking than I had originally anticipated. I found myself driven to write my first mini autobiography of sorts. So, I decided to push on, or travel back I guess you could say.

The first memory of my immigrant story was actually in the small town of Cotui, Dominican Republic. Graciana Los Angeles, or as I knew her mamá was preparing hot chocolate for my sister Danilda and me as she did every morning. Yet this particular morning seems to be etched into my memory like something carved in stone from the Sumerian age. My sister and I knew this morning was completely different than any of the ones that had transpired before it. We were leaving her. For good.

I don't think at the time my grandmother realized how permanent everything was, or would come to be. So many family members came back to the island after immigrating to the US, my own mother included. Danilda and I were so excited to finally join our parents and our American sister, Denise, in the so called "promised land," America. We were singing the only song we knew that had English in it, "pollito, chicken, gallina, hen, lápiz, pencil y pluma, pen" over and over. Looking back, my grandmother might have actually wanted us to leave at this point; my sister and I together were quite the pair to deal with.

Speaking of my sister, she probably deserves her own autobiographer but since she wasn't asked to write her story and I was, she is just going to have to play the incredible sidekick role for my immigrant story because this is where everything got a little scary. When I first came into the United States with my sister, her visa allowed her to do so. Mine did not. Danilda was granted a five-year visa to travel anywhere in the US, but I, unfortunately, was only granted a three-month visa to travel to Puerto Rico.

I still to this day cannot tell you why that happened. I think it had to do with the fact that our skin color is so different. She is much lighter than I am, and they might have thought that we weren't even related. Whatever the case, when finding out the news she was left with two options. Stay in the Dominican Republic with me and wait for my visa situation to clear up or leave me and go to America to reunite with our birth-family. I am so happy to say she chose neither.

I can remember my aunt Juana breaking the news to my parents in America like it was yesterday. Their pain was palpable over the phone. Danilda grabbed my arm and pulled me into an empty room. To my delight, she told me that there was no way in hell she would ever leave me, but she wasn't staying another day away from our birth-family or in DR either. I never had felt so afraid before truly not knowing what would become of me. "What do we do, Dani?" I cried. In a moment of pure strength or stupidity my sister went back into the room with my aunt, took the phone and told my parents we were getting on the plane whether I had the proper documentation or not.

My aunt Juana thought it was crazy. My parents said they could never put us in that kind of situation in good conscience. She begged them to at least let us try, she said, "Por favor, papi. Nosotras tenemos una idea. Dejenos al menos tratar. ¡Yo sé que va a funcionar! ¡Por favor!" and by the grace of God or desperation, they agreed.

My heart felt like it was in my stomach waiting in the security line that day; my hands were shaking like a leaf. My sister calmly pulled me closer to her and smiled.

"We will be with mom and dad soon, I promise."

"What if they catch me and send me away?" I whispered in her ear.

"They won't, you are too cute to stop. Just smile, bat your eyelashes, and say Thank you sir, in English."

I began to laugh; that was her brilliant plan? I thought, if this is true, we should've tried to reunite with mom and dad years ago! As he asked for our visas, Danilda handed them both to him. I started smiling and batting my eyelashes uncontrollably; now that I think about it, the officer might have thought I had something in my eye. "Are you OK?" he asked. I responded of course "Thank you, sir," and he laughed. After taking a moment to peruse our documentation, the officer looked up at Danilda and said, "Make sure to take care of your little sister when you land in New York, OK?" We both turned to one another in sheer bliss. We had done it! We were officially on our way to America, the land where all dreams could come true.

The entire plane ride Danilda and I were going back and forth about how big our new rooms were going to be, or what kind of presents mom and dad would have waiting for us at our new home. The normal expectations of youth I suppose. It wasn't until we reached my "new home" in Washington Heights that I realized, there would be no presents waiting for us. In fact, there would be no rooms either, just a room for all of us inside a small apartment. You read that correctly, one bedroom for five people. To make matters even better, we were sharing the apartment with another family. My sister and I looked at each other in utter horror. How could this be? Our parents had lived in America for over ten years, they were rich for Christsakes!

I think that must've been the most difficult thing for me to come to grips with. My family's financial inequality from that of those I felt worked less and benefited more was mind boggling to me. My father worked multiple jobs and my mother also worked full time in a factory, while my sister and I were immediately put in charge of caring for Denise. Our life wasn't going to get easier just because we were in a different place or time zone. We were still poor, or at least destitute of the almighty dollar.

The thing I am most proud of when remembering my parents and how they raised me after I came to this country was their incomprehensible and sometimes irrational desire to see all three of their children graduate from college.

At sixteen years old, I had finished high school early just because I wanted to pursue a career in acting, even though everyone knew my parents would never agree. Even more amazing is that I stayed in college and in fact graduated early, after my parents kicked me out for coming home after midnight while working as an extra on Spike Lee's Subway Stories: Tales From the Underground. Or when my sister had a child at seventeen and was forced to raise him alone yet attained a masters degree. This is where I think my immigrant story comes to light.

An immigrant by definition is "a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence; or a plant or animal that becomes established in an area where it was previously unknown," but mankind not God define our borders. Despite what country you are from or where you decide to plant the roots of your story or life, I think we should all consider ourselves quite lucky when we reflect upon the journey that brought us to this place, wherever that may be. My immigrant story is one that took me from the Dominican Republic to America, but my journey is forever evolving, and I truly cannot tell you where it might end.

However, being an immigrant who considers herself "Dominican-American" now, I can say that there is no better place to be downtrodden, poor, rich or anything in between. America has given me the undying feeling of hope in tomorrow, and my parents' passion for education and commitment to working hard in order to achieve your dreams in life gave me power. I hope to be able to teach these same things to my children one day despite them not being considered "immigrants" or having that kind of story to tell. Yet . . .

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