In the late 1980s, my mother came to the United States with a couple of bucks in her pocket. She planned on bringing more, but on the day she was to leave she woke to the news that the government, at the time a military dictatorship, had frozen the banks. She still tells me stories of how she went neighbor to neighbor asking for whatever cash they had, promising to pay it back. Many of these neighbors did actually give her money despite the fact that they didn’t know how long the banks would be frozen for.
Mom didn’t speak English and didn’t know what life in the US would hold for her. She had a sister who had been living in the US for about a year but otherwise didn’t know anyone.
I grew up being constantly reminded of the struggles of my mother as an immigrant to the United States. Today my mom is a US citizen, but she spent many years here undocumented. Until this day, my mother does not shy away from hard work, working int he food services industry, well, my whole life. Mother’s Days were always spent in restaurants, almost always as a mother-daughter team waitressing and bussing tables together for other families that were enjoying the holiday.
I remember hearing about how my mom and her sister shared a room with 5 other women with one mattress for a while. You didn’t put food in the fridge because it disappeared and people alternated sleeping shifts on the mattress. I remember her telling stories of being a bus girl at one of the fanciest restaurants in Boston. She had been in the US for such little time that she hadn’t really pieced any english together at that point. A couple of months ago she got to have dinner at the same restaurant paid for by her current job- talk about things coming full circle.
Remember, my mom moved to this country at a time before cell phones, internet, and Facetime. You bought calling cards to call home and that was done by coordinating via snail mail because there was only one phone for the whole block. My mom sent a lot of money home and eventually paid for her youngest sister to go off to college; my aunt was the first in her family to receive any form of formal education.
Looking back, I can see how my mom’s experiences growing up shaped the way she came to raise my sister and me. My mom really believed typing was a skill that would separate people, so I spent many a weeknight during elementary school seated at a type writer with a towel over my hands while she said things and I had to type them. Now, I sit here and write this on my type writer without having to look at the screen eternally grateful that I can not only type but also type much faster than most people I know. My mom could not have predicted the way computers would shape my career or the workforce today, but she knew I needed to learn to type.
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In the least #humblebrag-y way possible, I’d like to remind you of the accomplishments of my sister and me. At not-yet 25, I have graduated from Princeton University, consistently ranked the #1 college in the United States by U.S. News and World Report, have earned an MBA, completed a prestigious fellowship in Venture for America, have a stable modestly high income that allows me to make progress on the financial goals I’m interested in, am engaged to the love of my life, and co-own a house with my fiancee. My younger sister graduated in just three years from the University of Miami, consistently ranked a Top 100 school, completed a research project at a phenomenal clinical research medical program at one of the best hospitals in New Jersey, is a volunteer EMT at one of the most densely populated areas in the state, and is working hard to be able to attend medical school in her near future, fulfilling her dream of being a doctor.
My mother came to the US some 25 years ago with nothing. She’s created a life for herself, with a home she owns, and set two intelligent daughters up for success in the process.
When I hear some people say things like “shithole countries” or am reminded about the terrible stereotypes of Latin immigrants, I get angry. When I watch the news and hear the store of one criminal lead to some pundit say we shouldn’t allow any “dangerous” immigrants into the United States, I get angry! I cannot imagine a person more deserving of the opportunity to make something of herself than my mother, her sister, and the community of immigrants that surrounded me as I grew up.
Long before I was a Venture for America Fellow, I have been living by the credo “I will create opportunity for myself and others.” I could never have imagined life any differently because I have been watching my mother create opportunities for herself and others my whole life. She has given me and my sister tons of opportunities. She has created opportunities for her sisters and her mother. She has also created tons of opportunities for other immigrants like her, hiring them when she could, giving when needed, and sharing when there was to share. We were not by any means wealthy, quite the opposite in fact, but mom never failed to remind us just how much we did have.
When you hear an immigration story on the news this week- and it’s very probable you will- this is the story I want you to remember. I was born in the United States, but the difference between me and many of those affected by DACA is just that- the location where we were born. When I think of the United States as the land of opportunity, I think of my mother. I think of the opportunities she’s created for herself, for my sister and me, and for many others. My mother is living The American Dream.
Emilie is an Army Wife, Data Engineer, and CrossFitter with a love for working through her thoughts in this space on the internet. She lives with her husband Casey and their pup Bo in Savannah, GA.