Words For Feelings: Immigrant Daughters And Sons

There are many of us who remain close to the origins of our American story. We need witnesses.

Being a hyphenated American has always been an inextricable part of my identity.

My grandmother raised me, and I suspect that this, and the fact that I was sent to live in Haiti at the age of six, are the reasons I feel so connected to the island.

Looking back, I realize that I experienced two kinds of culture shock:

The first culture shock was leaving the only home I had ever known in Brooklyn to live and go to school in Port-au-Prince; and the second was moving back to Brooklyn two or three  years later.

Growing up in Brooklyn, we spoke both Kreyól and English at home.

My childhood was this labyrinth of cultures. Vacillating between them was a confusing and endless source of anxiety. I wasn’t American enough at school, not street enough in my neighborhood and in danger of being “too American” at home.

The uneasiness I felt but could not find words for was crystallized one day while watching television with my grandmother. We had just watched a commercial that she thought was especially amusing, and she said “Moun Ameriken!” with a chuckle.

 “Moun Ameriken!” literally means “American People.”

I understood what she was seeing, and agreed wholeheartedly. Her laughter turned from the T.V., to me.

She said, “Aren’t you American?” to which I replied, “I’m Haitian!” with much pride.

Her laughter was the kind that might be inspired by a toddler doing something adorable. 

Then she said it ― the thing I couldn’t articulate.

“If they send us all back, you would stay here.”

There it was, the first of many reminders. I was too American to be Haitian and too Haitian to be American.

While immigrants have been a constant in American history, many find themselves so far removed from the first in their lineage to immigrate to the states that they’re unable to deploy empathy or compassion for immigrants today.

The word itself, “immigrants,” is thrown around so much it threatens to lose meaning and is almost completely devoid of humanity.

Many of these people are simply looking to sleep through the night without the threat of kidnapping, rape and murder. They come here lured by America’s promise.

Despite being raised on American soil, there are many of us children of immigrants who remain close to the origins of our American story.  We carry a profound sense of gratitude for the sacrifices made for us to have a better life, and we never neglect to tell you we are hyphenated Americans.

Recently, I started to wonder about the voices of children of immigrants. Where are they in the conversation? We are witnesses. While survival, acclimating or just appearing “normal” may have silenced us as children, we can’t afford to be quiet anymore.

So, with the intention to tell our own stories and not allow the narrative to be controlled by xenophobes, some friends and I got together for a filmed conversation, sharing our experiences.

I hope it will serve as a smoke signal to other hyphenated Americans, and that more witnesses will share their stories too.