Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Unlabeled Immigrant


On the morning of February 16, 1992, my mother locked the front door to our house in Montevideo, Uruguay for the very last time in her life and mine. In tow were my two younger brothers and I, and a set of handmade suitcases the size of bloated water tanks, which we affectionately referred to as Los Chanchos. Our house was the modest space above my father’s hardware store, which now stood dark and empty, all items liquidated in its final sale a month ago. On the sidewalk in front of the store, the green graffiti that my boyfriend had painted in honor of my sixteenth birthday two months prior still shone bright. Of course, he was the most handsome boy in my class (Note: I have since learned that I have questionable taste in men, so he may or may not have been the most handsome boy in my class).
As a sixteen-year old, I expected some agency in the matters of my life. But no one asked me whether I wanted to leave behind a rather pleasant life in Uruguay in pursuit of this mythical America-The-Land-of-Opportunity. My father beamed every time he spoke of America and ever more so once the papers had come through. I had no choice.
When we arrived in Brooklyn, New York, my father showed us to our new rental apartment- unit 1 of a multi-unit brick row house in Brighton Beach, which perpetually smelled of burned chili con carne. The day was cold and dark, the elevated subway rumbled behind our apartment every ten minutes, and I was trying to find ground. In between noticing the cockroaches climbing the kitchen counter and unpacking my inadequate belongings (Note: no warm hat, scarf, gloves or down jacket for February in New York), it began to dawn on me that I had lost it all: my boyfriend, my friends, my school of ten years, my grandmother, my aunt, my cousins, dulce de leche, my identity and my sense of belonging.
Most teenagers (Note: humans) want to feel they belong- I was no different. I had read that New York City was the melting pot of the world so I expected only a normal level of difficulty in making new friends. Not that I had ever had to make new friends - I had attended the same homogeneous and insular Jewish Day School in Uruguay since I was five years old.
I started by speaking in Spanish to the Hispanic girls in my Spanish for Native Speakers class, but they told me I was “whiter than Snow White.” Then, I spoke in English to the white girls in my AP Calculus class, but they struggled with my nascent English As a Second Language (Note: English was my third language as I had also learned Hebrew for ten years prior). The Russians only spoke Russian to each other and they loved pickles; I very much disliked pickles. Quickly, it became apparent that society had program us to seek sameness and detect differences. Well, I detected that New York City wasn’t really the melting pot it claimed to be; instead, New York City was more like my little brother’s divided dinner plate in which the carrots stayed in the carrots compartment, separated by a plastic ridge that would never allow them to touch the chicken or the rice. And, in the United States, I was neither carrots, nor chicken nor rice. I was the rarity that meant being a Caucasian Hispanic Jew from Uruguay who disliked pickles; so where was my compartment on this plate? (Note: The boys had no problem talking to me).
At that early time, however, I checked my lust for belonging and its entire carousel of emotional baggage into cavernous storage deep within myself. I neither had the capacity nor the time to deal with feelings; I was very busy. I had to study (hard), work (a lot), cook (stuffed chicken for my working parents, and sleep (when the subway was not screeching past my bedroom). I thought I could do without belonging. After all, I was fine with books, work, and stuffed chickens. And, I belonged to my family. Wasn’t that enough? Plus, once I saved enough money from my slew of part-time jobs, I would get to return to Uruguay on vacation. Then, I could fill my bucket of belonging all at once. I would feel the warm embrace of my surroundings and connect with people who understood my past.
Over the next year, I continued knitting my safety net of American Dream accomplishments one stitch at a time - good grades, admission to a decent college, applying and getting every scholarship I could possibly find, a couple of part-time jobs. I also started dating a Russian Jew who loved pickles. And slowly, I saved enough money to buy a ticket back to visit my homeland, Uruguay.
At the Airport in Uruguay, I immediately went to the eerily short passport line for locals. I arranged to visit my grandmother and aunt, and meet with old friends. But as my old friends surrounded me, I noticed that the feeling of belonging I came to Uruguay to get kept eluding me.
“You sound like you are from Ecuador,now” said one of my friends. For the record, Ecuador is not Uruguay. His honest remark, however, was pointing to a new reality: In the midst of trying to find my place in the world, the change itself had changed me.
I went for a walk on the boardwalk by Pocitos Beach and started thinking that maybe I would be just okay never belonging anywhere again, and I should just make peace with that instead of spending my short life’s savings on an airplane ticket to chase belonging. Done with that. I still craved to belong but I didn’t belong - not in the United States, not in Uruguay anymore. Not anywhere. Fine.
But no, a part deep in me shouted.
That is when it hit me that I was clinging to labels to find belonging; the labels of “ Caucasian Hispanic Jew from Uruguay” were ones I had chosen for myself in the United States of America. Did I need these labels? Did they really tell about who I was or wanted to become? What if I could instead define myself as none of that. I could define myself as a “woman.” Better yet, I could define myself as “human.” Unlabeled.
When I unlabeled myself, I discovered I could better connect to the parts we all share: That I feel things so deeply or not at all. That I avoid pain and seek comfort. That I am getting to know myself - slowly and haphazardly, like a life long love affair. That the intolerance in this world hurts my heart, brain and soul. As an unlabeled human, I can see the truth: I belong everywhere, among any and all humans on this planet, just like every other human trying to find meaning and happiness in this life.
In the face of present chaos in the world, most of it based on the labels the human race has chosen as cling wrap, hasn’t the time come for us to drop these labels and begin to see the basic humanity that connects us all? How could we cling to these labels (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) when there is blood in our hands?
All humans deserve a chance at a peaceful life. Dropping the labels we use to separate us is our life’s work as a human race. Let’s get to it.
This piece also appears in The Huffington Post