This is the story of Cynthia who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1994. During the process of the interview, I learned that each immigrant has his/her own unique story. The person I interviewed had very much to say, for which I had very much to respond because as an immigrant myself I could relate to some of the experiences, for example, the new public establishments that I needed to learn how to use. I am surprised that she knew how to speak English but wouldn’t speak it for her own personal reasons, because a lot of immigrants come to the U.S. without knowing the language and that puts an obstacle to achieving their own “American Dream.” Talking about the “American Dream,” I really liked the explanation she gave of it because it is really true; many immigrants have different reasons as to why they come to the country. I enjoyed hearing her saying that even though it was not her decision at first to stay in the U.S., she then decided to stay because she found her voice here and as in she said “here I was searching for independence, I wanted to be enough, just me,” and wanted things to be different, and they have been. Back in her country she didn’t have a husband and she was an independent woman; however, she was still seen as nothing because she is a female. Also, life changed completely for her in this country, she needed to learn how to do many things she did not know back home. It is inspirational how she found a way to solve all of her problems and manage to have a new unexpected life in the country; to bring and raise her kids here as a single mother must have been really hard for her: “because although [she] was like a child, absorbing and looking at new things, there was another part that made me feel kind of lost and it made me question my life because I didn’t know how to do anything”. What inspired me the most is that along the way of trying to be a better version of herself, she found that she could help others too. For example, when she went to do work and help pack supplies for the people in Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria, because these people needed extra help the Government was taking too long to give; or when she went to the March for Our Lives protest, because she feels that students should not feel scared when they go to school. My definition of “The American Dream” was not always clear; I thought that it was to come to the country and manage to have a stable life; however, my vision of this “dream” has changed a little bit, we all come here for different reasons economical, educational, etc. But at the same time, all immigrants want something similar, something different than back home.
MC: What year did you come to this country and how old were you? Did you come alone or with other family members and/or friends? Did you know anyone who lived in this country?
Cynthia: When I decided to stay, because I have been here before, for visiting, it was in 1994 and I was 28. Some of my relatives were living here already, but I came by myself.
MC: Which languages did you speak when you first came here?
C: Spanish. I knew English, but I didn’t want to speak it, the accent never goes away. I mean anyone could see immediately that I wasn’t born here.
MC: Do you feel as if knowing the language already made life easier for you as an immigrant?
C: It was hard, really hard. Because I knew how to write in English and I understood most of it, but I didn’t want to open my mouth, I didn’t want to talk. And I had to translate what was on my head before saying something. And I just felt so ridiculous and slow, I just wanted to say stuff the way I was thinking it. So I had a hard time with that. I would go to the stores, Macy’s let’s say, with a notebook and if someone talked to me I would write something on it. I just wanted it to be perfect.
MC: Why did you leave your home country?
C: My experience is different than I would say why most people that come here. I had a very comfortable life in the Dominican Republic, so I didn’t come here for economical reasons. I had an amazing job and a nice apartment. So I came here to visit and asked my job in the Dominican Republic if I could take 3 months, and they accepted. However, I made a really big mistake that changed my life completely. They always gave me permission to stay here for six months as a tourist. So they ask me how long I am going to stay here and I say that I am not sure, maybe a month. And I didn’t realize the paper said one month, exactly what I said. So when I was going to get my ticket to go back in the travel agency I learned that I had overstayed my stay and I almost went crazy. Some of my friends thought it was funny to joke about it and say that immigration would be after me and so I was so desperate thinking I would go to jail. I was told at the travel agency that I couldn’t go back, but I could have gone back, I just didn’t know, the thing is I was risking my visa, but why would I care at that moment, I just wanted to go back to the Dominican Republic! Somehow the lady at travel agency and my friend were in this together because they wanted me to stay longer. So that is when I decided to stay, to fix all of this, and it was a nightmare to fix it. So I was forced to stay, to fix my situation here, I lost my job back in D.R., my apartment, my kids were living there. It was a difficult year for me, I felt homeless. Before, when I was visiting, I spend over $300 on a shirt, but when I had to stay, I had to count every penny.
MC: Have you been back to your home country since you’ve moved here?
C: Two or three times a year I go back to visit D.R.
MC: What was your first impression of the U.S. after you arrived?
C: The first impression when I came just to visit New York City I was amazed, the lights, the tall buildings, it was a positive impression. Later on, things changed, when I decided to stay... [pauses] there are a lot of emotions thinking back. Because although I was like a child, absorbing and looking at new things, there was another part that made me feel kind of lost, and it made me question my life because I didn’t know how to do anything.
MC: What do you mean you didn’t know how to do anything?
C: I remember the first time I went to a laundromat and I was like “Jesus, everyone washes their clothes in the same machines, geez.” That was one thing, another thing was staring at the machine and saying “How do I do that?” And things like that, so I used to cry a lot. I realized that life was something else, but at the same time I wanted to grow and experience more things and give myself a chance to do something that really excited me a lot. I wanted to be a human being, not a woman.
MC: What is the difference between a woman and a human being?
C: Yes, let me elaborate on that. In the Dominican Republic back then and even now, men are valued the most and it doesn’t matter how much education you have, you have to be somebody’s wife. And here I thought it was going to be different, and it has been. Here I was searching for independence, I wanted to be enough, just me. And I knew that the price that I was paying here was a lot but it was the only way. I felt safe here.
MC: Was moving here an easy transition from the place you left?
C: No, it wasn’t. One was the language, although I have the advantage of being able to read and write in English, I didn’t want to speak. The transition wasn’t easy, it was not an easy life, I used to have everything done for me, I didn’t have responsibilities at home, it was just to pay bills, and here it was so different and overwhelming. I didn’t know how to cook, and paying for meals was very expensive. I was also homesick
MC: Can you tell me about some of the jobs you had or experiences related to jobs?
C: Well I was looking for a job and one day I saw a boutique, I went in there and they asked me for my papers, and then I went out of there crying because I didn’t have any at the time. My uncle told me I had to get a job, but I told him my situation, he told me it was fine because he has a friend that needs an assistant and he has a restaurant. So I started working there and he was paying me in cash. That restaurant was full of policemen everyday because there was a prison nearby. And every time I will see a policeman coming I will hide and the staff would say “What is wrong?!” and I would say “They want to take me!” Now I laugh at myself but back then I used to get scared, a guy would look at me and I’ll tell myself “they know, they know!” When everything was back in place and I had my papers, I went to classes for 6 months and got a certificate of medical billing and coding. In my first interview I was very lucky and I got the job and was super excited, I could not believe it.
MC: Looking back on your experience (and the experiences of other immigrants who you know), how would you define “The American Dream?” How easy or hard has it been to achieve that “dream?”
C: “The American Dream” to me is how you can do and be anything you want to be. Yes, there is racism, sexism, situations in which it might get really hard for you. But if you really, really want something, you can get it, because this is the land of opportunities. Most immigrants want a better job or want a business, but I want something different, something within me which has taken a lot of years and I am still working on it. I should also say while looking to better myself, I also learned to help others, for example I go to protests or campaigns. In here I learned to finally open my mouth and speak up for all the people.
MC '21 (BHSEC Queens)
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