Growing up, I was used to things coming in twos. Two languages, two cultures, half the time it felt like I was leading two lives. As a child, I loved my home culture. In elementary school, when my teacher asked what our favorite food was, I said “diri” because that’s what I knew it as. When my white teacher gave me a puzzled look, one of my classmates said from the side of his mouth, “she means rice.” I gladly accepted his translation, though rice was not a part of my vocabulary at the time, it soon fell under my frequently used terms. The longer I was in school, the more I could feel the tension rising between my two cultures.
If it weren’t for my grandmother, I would never have had that experience to laugh at. She first immigrated to the United States from Haiti, along with my grandfather, in 1980. I love sitting down with her for breakfast or dinner as she recounts the story of how she and her fellow passengers got to Miami by boat and were welcomed into this country with a towel and buffets of food. They flew to New York to begin their citizenship process and she has no issue emphasizing that Jimmy Carter is and forever will be her favorite American president. (Obama is a close second though.)
Soon after finding their footing in a new country, the real work began. And by real work, I mean field work. The US was begging for immigrants in the 80s. Who else would be able to keep up with this farm work for such little pay? How else could they get people in the marsh and swamps to make sure their children had fresh fruits and veggies for lunch? But isn’t that how the cycle goes.
Picture this: The US needs people who are willing to work for loose change and they need a whole lot of them. They go to Mexico and the Caribbean to find workers. They promise the immigrants a good life, American money, and residency. The immigrants come in, the work gets done, and then they have to figure out a way to discard the very people they begged to come in.
Thankfully, my grandparents found their way back to Florida before New York got any wilder. They found themselves in South Florida in 1987 and haven’t left since (outside of visits to the homeland.) Growing up, my Haitian heritage was always important to me, but I didn’t always have the understanding of why. As I’ve grown, that why has come to be the fact that we didn’t just build our country as the first free black republic. Haitians, along with Cubans, Mexicans, the Irish, Venezualans, Nigerians, and every other immigrant have helped build the United States into the world recognized nation it is today. For better, or for worse.
Looking back on my kindergarten experience, I said what I said. Rice and diri bring two different images to my mind. My culture has always been an inseparable part of my life. I could not have one without the other and I’m thankful for that fact. I’m thankful that my grandparents chose to leave everything they knew behind in hopes of providing a better life for their future grandchildren.