“If I had a chance to go back I’d hug my mom who I have not seen for twenty years.”
I came from Jamaica when I was twelve years old on February 21, 1995. I didn’t have a choice. My dad and aunt decided that it was better for me to be here. School was free here and they were tired of paying for me to go to school in Jamaica and me not doing very well. They decided that I should come to the US and live with her in New York. I came in the plane by myself. I didn’t start school until mid March because they needed information and papers to make sure my mom was okay with my being here. She finally got me in school but it took a lot of work. While I was going to school I was teased and picked on. I was different. I was quiet and I had an accent and didn’t talk like the rest of the kids. When it was almost time for graduation, everyone was filling out what school they want to go to. I was asked where’s your social; I asked my aunt about it and she brushed it off, said you don’t need that. I was not aware that my visa had expired after six months. I had a visitor’s visa and I had overstayed. My aunt could have renewed it or got me permanent residency, but she didn’t. I was sixteen and I got pregnant and dropped out of high school. I knew I couldn’t go to college and I had no hope. I had no social security number so I couldn’t get financial aid. My aunt didn’t renew my visa, she said she didn’t have the money, but really she chose not to. She was trying to punish me for getting pregnant I think. So she messed up my life.
My son was born when I was seventeen and I was thrown out of my aunt’s house at nineteen. So I moved to Philadelphia. I thought the Lord would make a way for me. I met a guy and his mom and grandma are helping me more than my family ever did.
I applied for DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] in 2012, but first I had to get my GED. I started doing my GED in 2011 at Temple, and I passed in 2013. I was approved for DACA in 2014. It’s a long process. With that I applied for a work permit and got it in February 2014. I pay taxes and filed my first income tax. I’ve been here 18 years without a permit. The last two years, a lot has happened. Some people don’t understand how hard it is. The first time I went to get a work permit, I didn’t know the process. I needed a sponsor. So much you learn as you go on. That was really rough. In 2016 I will have to renew my permit and pay for it again. I hope someday there will be a pathway to citizenship. This country is founded on immigrants.
I try to give thanks anyway. I didn’t have bad experience crossing the border, but how I found out I was not legal was pretty bad. In 7th grade, I was given an extra year. In 8th grade I was suspended for fighting because people were teasing me. But I was still in the dark about my situation. But when I found out, I just gave up. I didn’t care about school because I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t even get a summer job with no social security number.
I grew up with my dad and grandma in Jamaica. My mom signed over her parental rights. But now, I talk with her more than my dad. She wanted to come visit me. But I didn’t recommend her staying in this country with no job and no home. You have no rights if you are illegal.
I tell my son that education is something that no one can take away from you. You need a diploma, a college degree. Hopefully he sees my struggle and will learn from my experience. I go to rallies to help support immigrants rights. I want him to see it’s not just his mom. The next generation has to vote. I’m the only one to support him. No father, no aunties or uncles.
The day I left I was excited to get on a plane and nervous and scared. We used to go to the airport to watch the planes. When I got here it was cold and I saw snow for the first time. I though it was soap powder. It seemed like the Jetsons here. That imagining of the situation went south real fast. I’ve never been back. You can leave but you can’t come back. If I went there—I’d have to wait ten years to apply. That doesn’t work with kids. I’ve been here twenty years, it is all I know now. I’d like to become a citizen.
My grandmother always had me in church when I was little, and I try to instill that in my kids. Even though I didn’t go much as a teenager, now as a parent every Sunday I go to church. That is very important to me. When I was working I didn’t have any family time to spend with my children. I don’t want us to be separated. Everything I do is about them. I care more about how they feel, I try to encourage them as much as possible. Stuff I didn’t have growing up, I try to be better at. I don’t want them to feel less than, or like they are not good enough, that’s how I always felt growing up. That kind of thing starts sticking to you.
I cook food from Jamaica. Ackee and salt fish. Salted codfish, boil it, season it up, with boiled dumplings and green bananas, that is the national dish. My son likes curry chicken and asked me to make that for his class for international day. And I made and jerk chicken and jerk shrimp. I like to do it for them—they don’t get to go there and eat the food I grew up with. The Korean store sells our kind of food.
If I had a chance to go back I’d hug my mom who I have not seen for twenty years. But I am closer to her now. As we get older, me and her talk. She said she wishes she was here to give me hugs and help. It’s sure hard on her too, to have a child out there that you can’t help.
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.