My mom is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
She is the strongest woman I have ever known. She grew up dirt poor, with an abusive stepfather. She had to drop out of school in the 8th grade to take care of her brother, a school she said, where students made fun of her because she was so poor.
My grandmother Julia and my great aunt, Tina, saved money to come to NYC to work in the factories, leaving my mom, then a young woman, to care for the four young children left behind.
But my mom was a dreamer, like me. She dreamed of someday following her mother and aunt to New York, a place where she could work. She wanted a job so badly.
About a year later my grandmother sent for my mom and her brother.
My mom worked in a factory. She made pocketbooks and went to beauty school at night.
She became a beautician and one evening, while working in a beauty parlor in Spanish Harlem, my father walked in to pick up his mother who was getting her hair done. The beauty parlor had several Jamaican clients, since the owner, a Cuban woman, was married to a Jamaican man. My dad was a soft-spoken, first generation Jamaican, who was born in Harlem. He fell for my mom who spoke no English. My dad spoke no Spanish.
They got married and my mom learned English by talking to my sister and I, and reading the newspaper.
My first language was English as a second language.
I remember my mom holding my hand, squeezing it at we stood on long lines for her to vote. My dad would write down who she should vote for. She was so nervous, sometimes her hand would shake, but she wouldn’t give up.
I remember my mom getting robbed on her way back from the supermarket. I was about 7. The mugger slapped her so hard when she came home the imprint of his hand was on her cheek. When she walked in the door, she hugged my sister and I. She was crying. The next week she went shopping to the supermarket again. I thought my sister and I would go with her, but she said no. She said she was not afraid. I thought the mugger would hurt her again and she wanted to protect us. I wanted to go with her and protect her, but she wouldn’t let me.
I remember growing up in a very colorful house. The rooms were painted in very bright colors like you see in the Dominican Republic, my mother talked to us in Spanish and her mixed up version of English. My mom loved to dance with us to disco and hip-hop, but her moves always resembled the merengue no matter how hard she tried.
I am working on this project for her and for all the beautiful memories I have of growing up with an immigrant mother who believed in me, worked really hard to put me through school, and pushed me to excel. She wanted me to continue her American dream…a dream that became my own. I want to show my students the face and the complexity of immigration. I know there is a problem. I am not blind. I know that illegal immigration takes a financial toll on this country and needs to be dealt with. But not all Latinos are illegal, yet because of the way my mother looks, acts and speaks, she could easily be identified as an illegal immigrant.
The ideas that have taken root in Arizona are spreading.
I want to show my students the issues surrounding the law and the people. The interesting thing about SB 1070 is that it does not just attack illegal immigrants, it feels like an attack on all Latinos. It says because you look a certain way you have to carry identification on you at all times that says you belong…how painful.
I am also very interested in the issues surrounding the community that believes this is necessary. The numbers are very high and I do not believe these are evil people who all hate. There is a lot of nuance in their stories and it is important to understand in order to effectively report on the issue. I also want to keep my bias in check. I want to be as objective as I possibly can be. I am not from Arizona and I want to understand the why of this law.
So I start this project with my mom in my heart and my students on my mind. I will take my students to the ground zero of the immigration debate and look at it as objectively as possible, My students will tell stories that the mainstream media have overlooked. I hope this is a life-changing project for them. I hope it makes them better, more informed journalists.