Our Legacy of Immigration & the American Dream
Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month
Last week, Alina had her first “Show and Tell” experience at school. The kids were instructed to bring in an item that starts with the letter L, and after some discussion, we decided to honor Hispanic Heritage Month and our familiy legacy by bringing in a treasured family photo of Alina (at 3 months old) and my grandfather, Papi.
Papi died a few hours after this picture was taken, on my brother’s wedding day, hours after holding his first and only great-granddaughter for the first time. It was one of the most difficult losses of my life, but Papi’s legacy remains an influential aspect of our parenting. Papi’s legacy, in part, is of immigration, the American dream and an entrepreneurial spirit that made him the most successful person I have ever known.
My Papi and Mami came to the United States in the early 1960’s as political refugees from Cuba, as did my paternal grandparents, with their young children. My brother and I were the first generation born in the States, and my grandparents never let us forget it.
For many years, although they spoke Spanish, I fought tooth and nail to be accepted as a Cuban American. According to Papi, I was American only – a birth right that no one could take away from. Cuba had become a part of his identity that only expressed pain, anger and rejection. But I loved being Cuban. Also, claiming to be Cuban allowed me to explain my heritage in my very white American life; back then, in Southern California, if you were Latino, you were Mexican. Most people had no idea where Cuba was. The confusion of national identity versus cultural reality reeked havoc on my self esteem. Papi didn’t care though – he wanted my American birth right to overshadow our family legacy of immigration. He wanted to protect me, I understand that now.
My family legacy of immigration is a legal one. My grandparents, and everyone in my extended family, came to the United States legally as political refugees and eventually followed a path to citizenship. My grandfather voted every chance he got. He paid taxes faithfully. He owned businesses and property, both residential and commercial. He invested in the stock market. He supported his children, and then his children’s children. He was the most proud American I know, probably because he wasn’t born one.
So I can’t help but wonder why the rhetoric on immigration in America is so ugly. Why do so many Americans hate immigration and refuse to reform the broken system that we currently have (which is not really one at all)? My grandfather endured undue struggle because he was an immigrant; even if legally. Immigrants are real people, many who love this country and pay their dues. Not all are illegal. Not one of them are aliens.
My family legacy of immigration is one that is evident in my parenting today because it consists of American pride and a work ethic that takes nothing for granted. My immigrant parents, and their immigrant parents, taught me that. And while I am a proud American citizen, raising a second generation of American citizens, we will not forget the values that immigration taught us.