November 7, 2016



My father came to America undocumented, working two jobs--one was building pools, the other was as a taxi driver--none with benefits. He tried to get work in accounting, but was told that since his credentials were received in Jamaica, he had to start all over again. When he first wrote home to tell us he was alright, we pictured him in the America we saw on television, where everyone had a lawn with a white picket fence. But when I arrived at my father's home, he had neither lawn nor backyard. His tall apartment building was right next door to a strip mall that housed convenience stores, a laundromat, a liquor store, a beauty supply shop, and a Chinese restaurant. Though it might have appeared grim, with brown bricks and small windows crowded with window-guards arranged like burglar bars, the colorfulness of the neighbors--their languages (Spanish, Haitian creole, Jamaican patois), their music, the fragrance of the aromatic spices in their foods--made the building feel like a haven for difference.

It was an America I did not expect. It was an America where different languages were spoken in one building, one neighborhood. And it was from this neighborhood, and neighborhoods like this one, where people like my father would rise to internal clocks on just two-hours of sleep before the break of dawn to go to work. They all knew that the second generation would eventually thrive off their hard work, so they got up to scrub floors, mother other people's children, clean toilets, lay bricks without helmets or health insurance, help build towers, cook in restaurant kitchens, deliver food on bicycles through pouring rain and blizzards, drive taxis, and sweep train stations.

All of these so-called "Criminal Aliens" were driven by ambition, a secret prize that incited them to leave the financial and social constrictions of their home countries with absolute certainty that their children would survive, would do better than them. So, while the rest of America slept, these people shuffled to jobs that regarded them as disposable. But to give up would have been an embarrassment, and a greater cost--a child's tuition back home, an ailing mother's funeral arrangement, a brother's hospital bill--so they kept on working.

I once resented my father for working so many hours. I used to wish that he was more like Bill Cosby's character, Cliff Huxtable, in The Cosby Show (which I watched religiously back in Jamaica)--the type of father who was present though he worked; the type of father who didn't fall asleep every minute he got to himself; the type of father who would've probably taught me how to drive; the type of father who would've inquired about college applications; and certainly the type of father who would've attended all my graduations from schools he worked hard to pay for. Though he was proud of me when I got into Cornell to study medicine, I still nursed the void of his absence. Finally, he said to me before I left for school in Ithaca, determined not to return to Hempstead, Long Island--My name will mean something, someday. Wid you, ah know dat it will.

It took me years to realize the nature of his sacrifice, the courage in coming to a new country to start over for the sake of his family. Because of him, America was easier to navigate. Because of him, I got my citizenship, two Master's degrees, and the ability to vote for America's first Black president. Because of him, I have the luxury of calling myself a writer. Now, an established author. These days I watch second-generation teenagers hop inside cars, music on blast, to blur out their parents' accented warnings, Be careful! Like a younger me, those teenagers probably resent these people they think have no clout in the America we see on television; Trump's America, devoid of people of color and other cultures. "Make America great again!" He chants over the bowed heads of people who have taken on lives of servitude, fading out of their children's lives. I would later understand that these hard-working people help to build America, and appreciate that though I am more privileged because of them, I am one of them. If only Trump and his followers knew how much these people sacrificed. If only he acknowledged that their cheap labor helps fuel the American economy.

Posted by at November 7, 2016 4:38 PM