the children of immigrants
BY LENELLE MOÏSE
When I am a toddler, a child, a tween, a teen, and a young adult, I am called an ancestral soul, a ti gran moun, a little old person.
Adults study me and decide that I am wise beyond my years, mature for my age, emotionally ripe. I am told it is unusual to meet a five-ten-fifteen-year-old girl who does not slouch or mumble or speak in monosyllables.
When I do the things that come naturally to me—when I hold my spine up erect, when I wait my turn to speak, when I speak having listened, carefully, when I enunciate, when I look grown-ups in the eye—I am told I must have “been here before.”
“How do you know?” one college professor asks me after she has seen a psychologically violent play I have written at age nineteen. “How do you already know?”
In high school, I charm my teachers. They encourage me to write speeches about feminism that I recite for International Women’s Day at City Hall or deliver as part of conference panels at local universities. “If you were older,” they tell me, “we would probably be friends.” One of them even flirts with me.
Among my peers I exist somewhere between amicably mysterious and irrevocably dorky. The popular kids greet me in the hallways, but they never invite me to their beer-drenched parties. I will never play Spin the Bottle. I will never play Seven Minutes in Heaven. My mother tells me she is protecting me from boys, but the truth is, after I do my homework, she wants me to type up another family friend’s résumé or resignation letter. At home, I am a bridge, a cultural interpreter, a spokesperson, a trusted ally, an American who is Haitian too, but also definitely American.
The children of immigrants don’t get to be children. We lose our innocence watching our parents’ backs bend, break. I am an old soul because when I am young, I watch my parents’ spirits get slaughtered.
In Haiti, they were middle class. Hopeful teachers. Home owners. They were black like their live-in servants. They donated clothes to the poor. They gave up everything they knew to inherit American dreams. And here, they join factory lines, wipe shit from mean old white men’s behinds, scrub five-star hotel toilets for dimes above minimum wage. Here, they shuck and jive and step and fetch and play chauffeur to people who aren’t as smart as they are, people who do not speak as many languages as they do. In the 1980s, they are barred from giving blood because newscasters and politicians say that AIDS comes from where they come from: Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a black magic island that spawns boat people and chaos, a place of illiterate zombies, orphan beggars and brazen political corruption.
When I am a child, my childhood is a luxury my family cannot afford. Their dignity is not spared, so my innocence is not spared. They are humiliated and traumatized daily, so I become a nurse to their trauma. I am told too much, so I know too much, so I am wise beyond my years.
When I am six, my mother tells me that when she found out she was pregnant with me at age nineteen, she “tried to kill the baby.” She says “the baby,” as if it isn’t me she’s talking about; as if I am not the expensive, scandalous daughter who forced my way into her world despite the abortion-inducing herbal teas she drank and her frantic leaps off of small buildings.
When I am sixteen, my father calls me on the phone to, inevitably, weep. He says, “Living in this country, I have learned not to hope for things. Only you are my hope. Only you.”
So—yes, I grow up fast.
Lenelle Moïse, “the children of immigrants” from Haiti Glass. Copyright © 2014 by Lenelle Moïse. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books, www.citylights.com.
Source: Haiti Glass (City Lights Books, 2014)