Labor Day Observance Miles Away from Home

Over the last few days, our social media feeds have been saturated with #TacoTrucksOnEveryCorner. The trending social media hashtag and countless posts in solidarity from amigos intrigued me. When I came across this, I was stunned. I listened intently. I paused the interview. Rewound at certain sections. Re-played. Again and again.

I leaned closer to the screen when a New York State Senator and 2016 U.S. Representative candidate disclosed his status upon his arrival to our nation as a young boy: 

“...would have deported me...I wouldn’t be here to tell you my story...are we a country of dreams and aspirations?…The Hispanic culture has a saying...a very prominent saying: ‘Mi casa, tu casa’ ‘My house, your house’ It is a tolerant culture, it is one that welcomes neighbors in...it is one that shares their culture, their music, their folklore...America is about giving opportunities, being flexible with different groups...that want to move forward”

Listening to his words, I realized the shared similarities between he and my father. Both men have the same complexion and speak accented English. The senator is just two years younger than my dad. They arrived to the United States around the same age and time in history. Both grew up in New York City.  

I imagine that the senator’s parents had the same dreams for their son as my grandparents had for my dad and his brothers and sisters. No doubt that the education both men received at home only complimented the education they received at school. One notable difference, however is their place of origin. The senator was born in the Dominican Republic and my dad is from Puerto Rico. Two neighboring islands in the Caribbean with distinct historical ties to the United States.

For as long as I can remember, my father told me no one could ever take my education away. He taught me never to compromise my integrity. Many times, he stood over me, as well as sat alongside me, lecturing on countless world issues and school subjects. My father had high expectations of my siblings and I. He demonstrated through his daily actions that there were no shortcuts in life. Ever.

He seldom missed a day of work and took great pride in problem solving and trying to fix things around the house. Strong-willed and determined, my father retired from public service close to eight years ago; however, his work around the house is ongoing. That’s just who he is.  

As children raised in a traditional Puerto Rican home, my siblings and I understood our primary responsibility was to excel in school. Education was the only way out of our East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn, an area of high poverty, low education and employment, and high crime. As the eldest child and a girl, I was expected to keep a clean room, help my mom by washing the dishes, scrubbing the bathroom, ironing my clothes, and looking after my siblings.

My mother, on the other hand, was primarily a homemaker. Every day, she took us to back to pre-gentrified Williamsburg, where the schools were better and where our extended family remained after we left our apartment for home ownership in East New York. My mother’s role in my upbringing cannot be denied. She taught me how to read before I entered kindergarten and attended every parent-teacher conference and school event from my elementary years through high school.

At P.S. 16, where I completed second through sixth grades, caring teachers and the school librarian took me under their wings and gave me direction to soar. Ms. Feldshuh, in particular, was the first person to tell me I was a writer. She created a safe space for brown children in her library. I enjoyed many stickers and fruity-scented markers and have fond memories of participating in her Young Writers Club. Ms. Feldshuh helped me “publish” my first book and has served as a life-long friend and mentor to me.

My parents dimmed their lights so we could shine. For every heartbreak, every lesson they taught, their stern disciplinary tactics, I am most grateful. As teens, my siblings and I walked down dangerous streets, our backpacks loaded down by books and shame, to take hour-long train rides, each way, to attend high schools in Manhattan.

Depending on our course load and schedules, we left before the sun rose and didn’t return until it set. As a college student, I kept my eyes on the prize from the moment I boarded the 3 train at New Lots and got off the 4 train at Bedford Park Boulevard during the 90-minute commute to Lehman from which I graduated. 

We survived a stressful upbringing but are stronger for it and now have the necessary tools to confront any obstacle that comes our way. Because of our parents’ unapologetic tough love, my siblings and I have bachelor’s degrees from the City University of New York, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, and Temple University; a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins; and, a medical degree from UPenn.  

As a first-generation college graduate and professional in my family whose life is strikingly different from the generations before me, I cannot deny the advantages and privileges I enjoy today. I cherish sacred memories of my childhood, spending noche buena and other holidays at my paternal grandparents’ crowded apartment. My faith and unflinching pride are attributed to them.

However, I also recall the unpleasant memories and struggle of my family. For instance, when my maternal grandmother, who should have enjoyed retirement in her 60s, battled diabetes and rummaged through trash receptacles scouring for bottles and cans for five-cent redemption. Her collections were for basic necessities such as food.

To give you an idea, 70 cans she collected fed several of her grandchildren. My cousins and I enjoyed fried rice and chicken wings, at a cost of $3.50, because of my grandmother’s labor. Family, friends, and neighbors who visited her tiny one bedroom apartment enjoyed cafe con leche during their stay and left with full hearts.

This Labor Day, I am celebrating the courage and faith of my grandparents as well as my parents’ own dreams and sacrifices. Without a doubt, the generations before me paved the way and prepared me well for the real world. I think nostalgically of my past and long for a piragua stand or a carrito de helado de coco, cherry, y piña in my suburban ‘hood.

Let’s continue working hard together to dispel myths. Ignorant perspectives only create divisiveness and perpetuate blatant disrespect and fear of our fellow mankind. Eat your heart out, America. Enjoy the tasty food sold by entrepreneurial immigrants: arepas, chimichurri, curry stew, empanadas, falafels, halal, kabob, jerk chicken, lemongrass, pho, pupusas, sushi, tacos and more. Support a food truck near you―no passport needed!

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