June is Immigrant Heritage Month. I am sharing my story along with many others. Follow the hashtag #IHMStories for more. En español: Mi Viaje a America.
When I was 4, I boarded a plane. I recall not wanting to go. Leaving mamá, papá and the girls was not something I wanted to do. Los padres de crianza. How do you even explain that in English? There’s no translation. Nothing to equal it other than to say “my second set of parents”.
I was traveling to the U.S. to live with a man I’d never lived with before. Papi left the Dominican Republic before I was born. Heartbroken by the loss of their first child, my dad ran from sorrow under the guise of caring for his family. He wasn’t wrong for doing so. His nephew, many years his senior, passed away a few months prior to my brother dying and left his family of 9 in the care of my dad, in his early 20’s.
Fast forward to February 16th, 1980. My dad had worked hard to get us to the States. And I had to leave my island behind.
There were tears. Always tears during the drive to the airport. This tradition continued every year I went back home for the summers. Tears that would’ve very easily mixed with the clear blue water of el malecón to my right during my drive.
I arrived at night. I fell asleep on the plane but I have dark memories of being assaulted by cold as we made our way off the plane. I must have slept all the way to Washington Heights.
The next morning, I woke up confused. I was used to waking up in Mami’s arms or nestled in between mamá y papá. But that morning it was just me. In a strange bed. I silently walked out to a strange hallway.
I wanted to go look out of the front door like I did every other morning. Watching people on their way to the market or little kids carrying water back home.
Except…there was no door. Just ventanas in front of me and I wasn’t on the first floor! I looked out to barren trees and felt the cold window under my little hands, disoriented still.
I’d never felt so lonely as those minutes spent alone in this new home, in this new city, in this new country. I missed the sun on my toes. Picking herbs for tea from the garden by the front door. I missed the smell of my island.
But here I was. And when the house finally rose, I stood in front of a man that I only knew from pictures and stories. A man I’d seen only a handful of times for short periods. My father. Papi.
That was 37 years ago. Who would’ve pictured life today? That little girl never imagined this big house, this beautiful child, this life, these words. A different language wrapped into the same heart. I couldn’t foresee Mami being gone and me standing in a room without her to fill my space.
My parents wanted to come to America for a better life. Did they get that? I’d like to think so. My dad who never went past the 6th grade, my mom who never finished high school. They were able to transcend in the spirit of all of those that came before them and that come here still. They gave their kids an opportunity to catapult to the heights they dreamed possible. We stood on their backs to make the leap. We stand on their backs still.
And for that, I am forever grateful.