I don’t normally blog about politics, and this isn’t really going to be a political post, but with all that’s going on in our country right now, it sometimes seems absurd to be posting my cutesy anecdotes and not even mention the yuge elephant in the room.
I have a lot of issues with that elephant. I won’t go into all of them here. But one thing that continues to irk me about the “make America great again” slogan is its inherent hypocrisy: America is a country founded by immigrants and founded on the notion that people can come here for better opportunities. To me, there’s nothing more un-American than being anti-immigrant. Are we not The Great Melting Pot? Isn’t it our diversity that makes us great?
The other day, while I was reading the news, it occurred to me that the book I had been planning to write last winter would have been an appropriate book for these times.
I had been planning to write a narrative nonfiction account of a family I know with an incredible story. I started doing preliminary research and interviews, but the book fell through pretty quickly because the matriarch of the family was uncomfortable with the whole idea, and I didn’t want to do it without her blessing. I told her I’d check back with her in a few years to see if she’s changed her mind. And I still intend to do that.
In the meantime, though, I want to give a brief summary of her story here. I will change the names and locations and identifying details to protect the family’s privacy. I feel like this is something people need to hear, and now is a time they need to hear it. Because it is, to me, a story about what makes America so great.
(P.S. If, you happen to know who I’m writing about, please keep it to yourself.)
The story begins with Emily, a cute, smart girl growing up in the small town of Franklin, North Carolina. Shortly after being crowned Homecoming Queen of her high school, she finds out she’s pregnant and decides to have the baby. Her mother, angry about the pregnancy, kicks Emily out of the house.
For the rest of senior year Emily works part-time at the grocery store and lives in a run-down efficiency apartment, using the WIC federal assistance program to buy blocks of cheese and gallons of milk to feed herself, and the baby growing inside of her.
A year after the birth of her mixed-race son, Jack, Emily gets enough in scholarships and student loans to attend a nearby university, where she studies Spanish. She even spends a year abroad in Europe, taking Jack, now a toddler, with her.
Meanwhile, far away in an impoverished Latin American country, a twelve-year-old girl named Cristina is also leaving her hometown for the wider world. Cristina is the oldest of eight children, and her mother is dying. It is Cristina’s responsibility to provide for her family. But in her country, public school for girls only goes through elementary school, and Cristina has no good way of making money. So she packs a bag and travels towards Mexico City, hoping to find work.
Though the details are unclear to me, Cristina ends up crossing the U.S. border into Texas. She knows of a family friend in the town of Franklin, North Carolina, so she decides to make her way there.
Emily is now in Texas, too. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she and Jack have moved to Laredo, where Emily gets her Master’s. She graduates in December of 2008 and moves back home to Franklin so nine-year-old Jack can spend more time with his father.
On Christmas day of that year, Emily sits on the floor of her childhood bedroom, staring out the tiny window and watching a single, brown leaf make its slow, swirling decent to the ground. Having made amends with her mother, she is staying in her mother’s apartment until she can find a car, a job, and a place for her and Jack to live. She is in debt. She is jobless, homeless, and penniless. All she has is a brand-new degree and the lofty goal of starting her own business. She closes her eyes and prays. Please, just help me. I don’t know what to do.
A few days later, she gets a call that will change her life.
* * *
The call is from an old classmate named Dawn, now a social worker. Dawn tells Emily about a fourteen-year-old Latin American girl who has just given birth to a baby boy in the Franklin hospital.
“She’s apparently been living here illegally with an older man,” Dawn explains. “We need to get her into the foster care system. She needs to start attending school.”
“The girl doesn’t speak any English,” Dawn explains. “You’re fluent in Spanish, right? Would you consider becoming a foster parent for Cristina and her baby?”
“I don’t see how that could work,” Emily says. “I don’t have a job or a house right now…”
“Don’t worry about the logistics. We’ll work that out later. The question is, are you willing to do it?”
Emily looks into her heart and decides that she is. She is only twenty-eight years old.
* * *
Emily borrows $1000 from her mother and gets an advance from social services in order to pay the deposit and first month’s rent on a small house. Friends and acquaintances give her old furniture: a brown and orange 1970’s loveseat, a round dining room table, beds for Jack and Cristina. For now, Emily will have to sleep on the floor.
At first, the transition is difficult. Emily works multiple jobs, unable, for the time-being, to pursue her dream of having her own business. Ten-year-old Jack has to get used to sharing his life with teenage Cristina and baby Samuel. And while little Samuel goes to daycare, Cristina struggles to learn English at the very same high school where Emily was once crowned Homecoming Queen.
But the patchwork quilt family perseveres. Two years later, Cristina is a junior and can speak English fluently. Emily has started her business, and though she still has to work another part-time job to make ends meet, her client-base is growing. Jack, now in middle school, calls Samuel his little brother.
It is around this time that I go over to their house one morning for breakfast. Despite it being a school day, Emily scrambles a big pan of cheesy eggs while Jack toasts slices of bread, and we all sit down to eat at the table. Samuel babbles over his breakfast while Cristina eats quietly.
Afterwards, Emily loads everyone up in her new minivan. We drop off Jack and Cristina at school and Samuel at daycare. “I’m a regular soccer mom now,” Emily jokes, though it’s obvious she’s anything but regular.
That was several years ago. Now Emily’s business is thriving – she’s not rich by any means, but she doesn’t have to work any jobs other than the one she’s passionate about. Jack is in high school and on the football team. He recently got his driver’s license and is working part-time at a fast food restaurant. Cristina is now a legal resident, living in her own apartment with Samuel. She is taking classes at community college and wants to be a nurse… or maybe even a doctor. She works part-time as a waitress, sending as much money as she can back to her family. She hasn’t seen them since she left home nearly a decade ago.
As for Samuel, he is seven-years-old and an American citizen. His story is just beginning.
So that is the shortened version of the book I hope to one day write. I still get teary-eyed thinking about it. Emily, despite her own hardships, opened her heart and created a diverse and supportive family. With hard work and good spirit, she and her family found opportunity and acceptance in our melting pot of a country. That, in my mind, is what makes America great: open minds, welcoming arms, opportunity for all, and the willingness to make things work.