My Immigrant Heart Vs. My American Privilege
by Lela Casey
I am a first generation American.
My mother crossed the sea to this country from Israel, where her parents had fled after being expelled from Libya.
As a baby, I slept in a tiny room in a barn with leaky ceilings, because my parents could afford nothing more. Sometimes we had no running water, and often no electricity, but it was OK because my dad had a guitar and my mom would sing along in her broken English to “You’ve Got a Friend,” by James Taylor and make me sandwiches out of canned sardines and hot sauce and I knew that I was safe and loved.
As a child, my classmates commented on the mocha skin of my mother, said she was ugly, said I was ugly, said I killed Jesus, threw pennies at my feet, burned my hair on the bus.
I filled out all the forms my teachers sent in from school, because my mom’s English wasn’t good enough to do it herself. I said funny things like “my belly is choking” and “wait for me in the corner” because those were the expressions my mother used.
I was mocked for my silly words, but more for my lack of words because it wasn’t just my words they didn’t get, it was my soul, my immigrant soul that was out of place in this town that marked its corners with bars and churches.
As a young adult, I sought out others like myself…people on the fringe…black kids who grew up in white neighborhoods, Hispanic kids who had been adopted into Caucasian families, spiritual seekers who had converted to Islam, from Islam; to Judaism, from Judaism…. All of us between worlds.
I found a home in this world between worlds. A place where my language mistakes were quirky and my freckled skin was whimsical and my love of books was shared.
I am a sixth generation American. My skin is light in the winter. So light that I can’t wear white or my cheeks blend into my collar until all you can see are my dark eyes and my ever-present freckles.
My great great great grandfather came to America from Wales, or maybe it was Germany… or perhaps there was one of each, the stories all get confused in the telling.
I live in a middle-class suburb with my Irish/Italian husband, 3 kids, and a dog.
My husband makes a good living. Our kids go to good schools. My house has 5 bedrooms.
No one tells me I killed Jesus anymore. They don’t burn my hair either. Instead they smile and ask me what karate class my kids take and if I want to go to Starbucks and when I’m finally going to join them in a yoga class.
I don’t join them. Not ever. Because, despite my light skin and my American father, it’s the immigrant blood that flows strongest in my body. It’s that sense of otherness that still pulls me away from the center of my mostly white Christian town to the cities, where I see other people like me. People whose skin may be white or brown or black but whose eyes tell stories of lands left behind, of travel between worlds.
It’s my immigrant blood that’s crying out right now. That wants to pull off this 6th generation skin and reveal my broken first generation heart. That wants to shout out, “Yes! It was me! I killed Jesus! I am ugly! I am the same person that you are sending back on that plane to starve in a refugee camp. My grandfather came from the same country whose people you call your enemy. My children are of the same people you think are conspiring to rule the world.”
Send me back to Libya, or Israel or wherever you think I belong, because I no longer feel at home in this country that demonizes my people. Because they are my people. And they’re yours too.
Because whether you are first generation American, or 10th, there was a time when your ancestors came to this country feeling between worlds, hoping to plant their roots in this soil and make a home for themselves.
And when we turn away these people, our people, because of misguided fears, we stomp on that immigrant heart that we all possess.
I am a first generation American.
I am a sixth generation American.
I am American.
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