Empty-Headed Immigrant

I remember being small and sitting at the kitchen table with the women of my family. At least, those who were here in the States. My skinny little legs swinging back and forth from my chair as I looked from face to face as they chatted, listening to my mother, sister, and aunt talk about home.


“Home?” I would say, “We’re at home, Mama.”

“No,” she would reply, “The Philippines.”


I would sit there confused. Wasn’t the house we were sitting in our home? Why did we call it home if it wasn’t? But my five-year-old musings were not of importance so I kept my mouth shut.


Whenever we talk of the Philippines, it’s referred to as “back home”…where my mother’s brothers and sisters are. It’s where the coconut trees stretch toward the heavens and the sea kisses your feet; Where the humidity wraps you in a light sheen of mangoes and the mouthwatering stench of lechon as you run in the dirt streets.


Home /hōm/ noun: Where she struggled to make ends meet. Where she worked for less than a dollar a day. Where she first learned to pray. Where she laughed and cried along with her siblings as they passed time under the leaves of the trees, nature being their provider – and them being it’s friend and lover. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have been friends with my mother when she was a child. Did she have dreams? What did she want to be when she grew up? She could not possibly have envisioned having the life she has now.


Life has not been kind to my mother. The years have worn her down, her work bringing her to her knees to scrub floors and clean tiles for people who earn more in a day than she could ever spend in a year. I remember nights in middle and high school when I would curl up with my mother on her bed, and talk for hours about everything.


“What do you wanna be, Mama?”
She would shrug her shoulders in an affable way and make a funny face at me. I’d snuggle closer to her,

“Don’t you have dreams? Do you want to be a housekeeper for the rest of your life?”


Sometimes she’d say that perhaps she could be a chef. Most of the time, she would have no answer other than that keeping a house in order was what she had been doing her whole life, and how else could she earn money to sustain us, in addition to sending money back home, to her family? On numerous occasions however, I got an answer I have come to despise; one that brought tears to my eyes.


“Your Mama is stupid, she isn’t smart. That’s why I’m a housekeeper.”


I always cried whenever she said that. I could never persuade her that she wasn’t stupid. I could never convince her of her own intelligence. She would always say it in such a cavalier way…always thinking that people were looking down on her; always thinking that she wasn’t intelligent. Too old, too wrinkly, too fat, too dark skinned to be smart. That was, and is, the belief that my mother holds.


She gave up her dreams at such an early age so that she could help feed her family and to this day, it hasn’t stopped. She is still working. She is still sacrificing. This is, as is in many foreign countries, the greatest misfortune. Can you imagine the number of people who have given up the entirety of their lives to support their loved ones? Can you imagine how many unfulfilled people there are in the world – people who never got the opportunity to pursue their dreams? These are people who could have been inventors, Olympic athletes, scientists, and more.


My mother is greeting her sixth decade of being on this earth in a few short weeks. I’m in college now, and I’ve begun to ask her again,

“What do you want to be, Mama?”


And still she replies that she is too unintelligent to do anything other than what she has done for the majority of her life. It is not the sacrifice that my mother has made that is the greatest misfortune. No…it’s the refusal to dream again. It’s the refusal to believe in oneself as capable and competent. I love my mother so much, but it’s hard to see her watch her dreams gather dust in the corner of the closet were she dons the dress of a martyr daily.


This is for anyone who has found themselves sacrificing their dreams at the altar of sustenance for one’s family. This is for the immigrants who believe they can find a better life in the United States, only to resign to being of the mindset that they are less than those born on American soil. This is for the student who never got good grades, and thinks that they’ll never amount to anything. This is for the working mother; the single dad; the parents who never got to go to school because they were too busy changing diapers and gluing projects to even think about themselves:


What you are is clever, innovative, and talented. What you have is an entire life of struggles and trials and you are all the more stronger for it. You are perfect and perfectly in a position to pursue what you’ve been dreaming of. It’s good – amazing, even – that you’ve sacrificed so much. But now, direct your thoughts to yourself. Take that night class. Learn another language. Be the five star chef you’ve wanted to be since you were twelve years old. You are not dumb. You are not stupid. You are not incapable of achieving everything you’ve ever hoped for. You are not too old. You are not too dark skinned. You are not too uneducated. You are exactly who you need to be to follow your passions.


Our true home is in heaven, where God awaits us. But for now, we make our home here, on earth. Some places feel more like home than others…but perhaps if we put more into chasing our dreams, the home we have here on earth would be a little happier; a more fulfilled, purposeful home that allows us to take a reprieve from the world and nourishes us enough to take on the next day so as to continue on the trail that leads us to our true home.


I want that trail for my mother. I want her to learn all the things she yearned to study when she had to give her education up for her family. I want her to smile without the weight of work bearing upon her subconscious. I want her to learn how to take care of her own happiness. I want her to wake up in the morning and make decisions for herself, not for anyone else. I want her to be happy; to be in awe of her own intellect; to be unapologetically herself. I want her to be wholly fulfilled – in marriage, and in vocation. And though none of us can ever be fulfilled here on earth, we do receive fulfillment in Christ when we come home, to God. So I guess what I’ve been trying to say, with little success, is that I want for her all the things she never had the time to even think of. I want her to enter into her home in heaven, having been prepared and uplifted through her home here on earth.


Mama…this is for you.

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Jane Doe

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