Jamaican Immigrant I Am, Resilience is my Name

‘Immigrant’ is becoming a dirty word. The word conjures either images of lazy outsiders who seek to use up the resources of hardworking Americans or large groups who seek refuge from battle-torn or disaster-ravaged regions, offering nothing in return. True stories, deeply personal stories are hidden behind scary statistics. So as American immigrants, we have lived in the shadows for generations, seeking to quickly integrate into American culture and not trigger the rejection that so often shifts the American Dream into the sometimes bitter reality of our American Nightmare. Its why parents who come to our shores with visions of freedom and speaking different languages quickly warn their children to hide their accents and native tongue for fear that speaking multiple languages or accents from certain countries are visible stains of being an outsider vs. a banner of diversity. As immigrants, we too operate on myths and pass these on to our children and the communities in which we live. It is critical that we each reframe our stories into their historical context and demystify our immigration journey. The face of immigration is far different than the myths commonly purported.

My immigration journey began on July 4, 1992. I arrived a fresh-faced 16-year-old who declared this day her Independence Day. The streets looked sparkly and the lights glittered as I drove to my new home in Brooklyn from JFK International Airport. As the car pulled up along the tree-lined brownstones, I just knew I was landing in an episode of an American TV sitcom. My friends in Jamaica believed I was the lucky one. My new classmates, however, were far less impressed and none of the TV shows I watched that created the fantasy of the American Dream could ever prepare me for the experience of life here. I soon faced the reality of structural inequalities, racial inequities and the benefits Affirmative Action with no knowledge of its sordid recent history. I was born in majority Black, English speaking Jamaica into a hardworking family and was a first generation city dweller. It was not until my adulthood that I understood the fact that a series of unfortunate macroeconomic events brought my grandmother from the Jamaican countryside to London, England when my mother was 12 years old and my mother from St. Catherine, Jamaica when I was 12 years old.

A series of systems failures had landed my grandmother in London (who I met when I was 18 years old) and my mother in America. My grandmother, grand aunts, and grand uncles moved to Britain as the agriculture that had sustained them for generations began to decline. According to the National Archives, “half a million people left their homes in the West Indies to live in Britain. They were all British citizens. Some were recruited because Britain was short of workers to run the transport system, postal service, and hospitals. Others were returning soldiers who fought for Britain during World War II.”[i] My mother and her siblings were split among grandparents and other relatives who remained in Jamaica. Those in London sent back money and whatever else they could provide to help families back home. “Despite their relative disadvantage in earnings, migrants play increasing economic roles in their countries of origin. One of the most enduring consequences of migration is the growing financial dependence of residents of the region on those living abroad.”[ii] Through the innocence of youth, my mom and her siblings promised themselves to never leave their Jamaican homeland or their children as my grandmother had to in the 1960s. But fate would ultimately land my mother at the very same crossroad when I was 12 years old. At least, that’s the family story outside the context of the historical framework. The fact is, it was no coincidence that my mom, sister and I ended up in New York City, as more than 50% of the 3 million people from the Caribbean who live in the United States reside in NYC.[iii] In the late 1980’s Jamaica experienced an economic slump and a devastating hurricane, which had a negative impact on infrastructure and tourism. At the same time, America was experiencing a severe nursing shortage and came to Jamaica to recruit. My mother, a Registered Nurse, was recruited and quickly rose to the ranks of a middle-income earner. Generations of matriarchs came to the crossroad of leaving their homeland for the good of their children. And they laid the groundwork for my passionate advocacy of women and girls. I am the Jamaican work ethic born out of a need to survive colonization.

Had I understood the context for millions of Caribbean families like mine, the pains of rejections as I navigated this new land would have stung a little less. My urgency to find fellow immigrant women who love their home country and embrace America, while still being critical of and working to make it more equitable would have accelerated. I now work with urgency with black justice centered mothers and their daughters to understand the truth of history through my work with the GrassROOTS Community Foundation. Immigration is synonymous with resiliency. I invite you to reopen the pages of your family story, but this time set it within its moment in history. What is your immigrant story?

 

By Lisa Maxwell, Vice President, Product Marketing, Mastercard
@MaxwellDreamer

 

 

 

[i] “Experiences of Immigration to the UK.” http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/bound-for-britain/

[ii] “Caribbean Migration.” http://www.inmotionaame.org/print.cfm?migration=10

[iii] “Caribbean Migration.” http://www.inmotionaame.org/print.cfm?migration=10