The Harsh Realities of Being First Generation
I read one of those instagram quotes somewhere that said “No one will ever realize the pressure to make your parents proud as much as a first generation American”. It was one of those quotes that stopped you right in your scrolling and struck a chord in your heart. The reality is, it’s true.
My name is Koa Mikaelah, my maternal lineage emigrated here from Venezuela in hopes of finding safety + job security, overall chasing the elusive American dream. My Abuela was a curandera + medium, she saw the approaching socialism that was to reign over Venezuela in one of her visions and in 1980 she moved 7 of her children to the US. She sacrificed motherhood for survival, staying behind in Venezuela to work and send money over so her family could survive in this new world. My mother was the youngest of the siblings, at a mere 7 years old she was faced with a new home, new language, new culture, and no parents to guide her, she was raised by her older sisters while my grandmother worked abroad.
My father’s family came here in the 1950’s from Cuba, similarly escaping the approaching communist reign of Fidel Castro. This time it was more tangible, Castro had begun his guerrilla warfare attacks against the Batista regime and the Cuban Revolution was beginning. My grandmother high-tailed it out of Cuba with two children strapped on her back + left behind her passion for nursing & salsa dancing to work in a toy factory in Miami for 12 hours a day.
These stories are common amongst first gens, a tale of your family leaving everything behind to start fresh and obtain the American Dream. So is it as dreamy as it seems?
When my mom arrived to the US she was enrolled in a local school in North Carolina, her and my tia are a year apart and were two of the only hispanic students in the entire school. I’ll never forget a story my mom told me about her classmates asking her “What are you? You’re not black, and you’re not white.” and asked her to “pick a side”. Luckily my mom has always had the strength of a thousand wildfires and she didn’t pick sides, she just kept it moving.
I was born in 1991, by the time I landed earth side my family had settled as much as they could into being US citizens. Both sides had made their home in Miami + had created a new life for themselves. My maternal grandmother had finally moved here to be with her family, still traveling to Venezuela quite a bit to make ends meet, more often than not we had 7-10 people living in one home across three generations. On my father’s side my grandmother had been working the factory during the day and taking english lessons at night, eventually graduating to being a receptionist at a doctor’s office, this was a big deal for her.
When I was born I was given the name “Emily Mikaelah Maria Fernandez” a name I never thought resonated or really made sense at all, however in my tradition you go by your middle name, so everyone called me Mikaelah. My grandmother Lourdes, the curandera, often received downloads from Spirit on the names of the children coming through in the family. When my mother was pregnant Spirit had told her I would be a girl + my name would be Mikaelah Maria. However in my mom’s effort to include my father into the naming decision she let him pick the first name, he chose Emily. I later learned that he had changed the Cuban spelling of Emely because he wanted me to fit in. This was the beginning of my assimilation.
My first language was Spanish, and by the time I started school I was bilingual. My parents never married and my mom raised me on her own with the help of my grandmother's watching over me as she worked long hours. As a child I saw her sacrifice every day. My mom worked nights and came home at dawn, just a few hours before I had to be in school. I used to hate waking her up to drop us off in the morning, she wanted me to go to a “good” school and there was no bus to my neighborhood. She’d drag her heavy body into the car and drive us 30 minutes away with eyes half open. I was late a lot and one time I even got suspended for “excessive tardiness in 1st period”, when I tried to explain the situation to my counselor my throat closed and my eyes watered and I didn’t know where to begin. I remember a flood of emotions paralyzing me as I was sent to a behavioral school for the day. They called my mom to pick me up because I wasn’t allowed in school for three days. Despite my newly attained suspension, I felt most guilty about my mom having to come back to school to pick me up. How could a kid explain to an adult that her mother was tired, that she was up all night working to provide for two children, that I myself was helping coparent my younger brother whenever I was out of school. I didn’t have much of a social life in high school, I would spend my time after school helping my mom around the house and looking after my younger brother. At lunch that day I sat next to a kid who had confessed he brought a knife to school and I quietly made up a story as to why I was there.
Despite the tardiness I had an eagerness to learn. I was an honor roll student my whole life, partly because I felt like I never fit in with a predominantly white school so I dug myself into books, and partly because I was disciplined toughly and pushed to always get good grades, or else. I remember in second grade being pulled from the class, despite my reputation for straight A’s the school found out I was hispanic and made me take a “special” test for children with non-American parents. I remember this was my first feeling of anger, having to read paragraph upon paragraph out loud to a counselor to prove I could keep up my pace as well as the white kids. I passed with flying colors and made my way back to my honors reading class confused and slightly defeated. That year in after school care we had to put on a Rugrats movie play. When it was time to have roles assigned my after school teacher told me I had to be Mya because I was the only person of color in the group.
In high school I sat through a statistics class one semester that spoke about immigration. The instructor spouted information about first generation women being most likely to end up in teen pregnancies, first generation children without a father being the most likely to end up in jail, first generation children being most likely to end up under the poverty line, and the list goes on and on. I felt personally targeted as if someone had decided to check off boxes of my life and predict a future for me that didn’t exist. This became a new fuel for me, in addition to making my mother proud I now had to prove all of these statistics wrong. Queue my punk phase. I ended up with a full paid scholarship to college, something I otherwise would have never been able to afford.
In college I explored psychology before eventually ending up in design. I took a class my first year on the psychology of crime and adolescence. This is where I found out the psychological term for what I would be considered is called “the resilient child”. Simultaneously in my first semester English class my professor had us write childhood essays. He chose mine to be read out loud to the class and I cried hysterically throughout the entire presentation. Despite my tears he asked me to continue reading, assuring me this would be cathartic and healing for me. Around the same time at my first internship a fellow white intern turned to me and said “wow your parents weren’t born here and you’re in college?” It took all of my strength to not backhand Becky with my resilient first gen hand.
I became the first person in my family to graduate with a college degree. The pride in my mother’s eyes made every single uphill battle worth it to see the smile on her face.
So what does any of this have to do with being first gen? Well, I can only speak for myself but here’s what I know to be real.
A first generation american understands the struggle your family had to go through to let go of everything they called their life and start fresh in a new country.
A first generation american knows the dual identities of trying to maintain your culture at home and somehow trying to completely release it at school.
A first generation american knows the criticism of not being american enough for your friends and being too american for your family abroad. (My cousins called me “White Girl” for years.)
A first generation american knows the feeling of speaking in English but counting in your first language.
A first generation american has been asked “where are you from?” more times than you can count, and knows the follow up question to that is “No, like where is your family from?” followed by “say something in Spanish”.
A first generation american has heard all of the racist, sexist, culturally insulting terms out there passed off as jokes in gross patriarchal form.
A first generation american has been that one person in the room that doesn’t know that reference, or karaoke song, or has never heard that word before.
But most of all, the most overwhelmingly deepest pressure of them all is the inner yearning to make your family proud. A first generation American feels the pressure to prove to their parents that every single late night, long day, criticism, and most of all sacrifice was worth it. The understand that everyone started somewhere, and that the custodian and the CEO deserve the same respect. I am still learning every day what it is to be a first generation American, but I know one thing to be true. I could not be more proud of where I come from, and I will never withhold that cultural knowledge from my children. I believe there is space for all of us, and that is my truth.