Honoring my Dominican Immigrant Mom for Women’s History Month

This Women’s History Month I am thinking about my mom more often than usual

Immigrant Dominican mom

Photo courtesy of Ashley Mercado

This Women’s History Month I am thinking about my mom more often than usual. Although I was raised by my eldest brother when I was around 14 years old due to my mother working intensive hours, my mom’s impact was deeply felt from when I was five through 13. Her feminine influence throughout these years serves as a fond memory as I remember being sprayed with a mixture of Victoria’s Secret perfumes and wiped down with lotion every day before school. My hair was always neatly done in two ponytails and my closet was a blend of pinks, yellows, and whites. She believed highly in always looking put together, and positively projected this onto me as her terms of endearment included words like, “Nina Linda”, “Bella”, or “Amor”. Moving in with my brother didn’t get in the way of me holding on to these sentiments, she would visit me on the weekends allowing our relationship to stay connected.

As someone who grew up with two brothers, and had a tight-knit friend group of mostly boys throughout my childhood, her femininity kept mine intact. To little me, her beauty was admirable, but her story as the first person in her family to immigrate from the Dominican Republic to New York made me feel like I was being raised by a superhero.

immigrant Dominican mom

My mother (right) and some of my family members in the Dominican Republic

I don’t think I give my mother enough credit for what is now being called, “gentle parenting.” In our culture, instilling fear in your child is a common tactic used to demand respect, and putting your hands on your children is associated with a formidable way of disciplining them. I believe the reason why I was such a calm child had to do with being dealt with in a nurturing manner by my mother. It was why I felt safe asking her a million and one questions (which I often did) after her 12-hour shifts at work without her telling me to stop once. I could fully be myself with her, a luxury that not many children receive until they move out of their parent’s house.

Although she was a nurturing figure to me when I was a young girl, my mom’s upbringing was quite the opposite. She was the third eldest of six children from an impoverished family. During high school, my mom was known to often get into fights with the teachers and she asked her father if she could instead attend private school. Her father laughed in her face and said she’d be better off dropping out, so she did. That was one thing about my mom, she never stayed in places where she was unhappy. She was completely uncontrollable, doing whatever she believed in no matter how the rest of the world would receive it.

My mother at 20 years old

Her uncontrollable and stubborn nature had also made her a bit of a wild card. My mom had always spoken her mind, making her the realest person that I knew. She never let anyone — and I mean anyone — take advantage of her, even the guy on the corner who tried to up-sell her on a bowl of fruit. She was the type of person who would curse you out and then take the bowl of fruit, giving you what she initially paid for two weeks ago. I would plead with her saying, “you’re overreacting” and she would follow it up with something like, “well it’s MY money that he’s playing with.”

I now understand that being an immigrant means you have to fight for everything you have, so if you sense someone taking something from you even if it’s as small as a few dollars, your fight or flight gets activated immediately. I hated that she was so brutally honest and reactive but that was just who she was and at times, it came in handy when it came to defending me. In adulthood, I have come to understand that people in New York City have a way of making you that way. NYC is a rough place to live in especially when you are poor.

Being on my own in the city has put me in many situations where I have had to react like my mother did when I was younger to save myself from being tricked. Riding the subway trains, and constantly being surrounded by people means you have to be on high alert for your safety. I can’t imagine what it was like being my mom in her mid-20s navigating this city with not one family member or friend to warn her about all the dangers that come with being a woman in a big city.

My mother decided she wanted to start a new life in NYC shortly after having my brothers when she was 21 and 23.  A decision that would ultimately break apart her marriage due to her husband wanting to continue to live in the Dominican Republic. However, as always she put what she felt was best for her first, even if that meant becoming a single mother of two with no higher education, in one of the biggest cities in the world. To this day, despite her faults, I become amazed every time I reminisce about the little that I know about her past life. Even with the little that I know, so much strength is embedded into every chapter, a trait that immigrants are so familiar with.

My mother with my eldest brother, Christian

As a child, I barely saw my mom throughout the weekdays as she worked from 7 a.m to 11 p.m. Opting to do so much overtime had caused her to hire my neighbor to watch me, feed me and take me to school. She was a sweet older lady, who was as overprotective over me as my own mother. I remember telling my white therapist about my mom working so much when I was a child as she widened her eyes in both amazement and pity. She asked me, “Did she love working more than she loved being a mother?”

The question had irked me for obvious reasons but I brushed it off as I asked myself, “well, what else can you expect from an American white lady who has grown up in a New Jersey suburb for most of her life?” Privilege is a funny concept sometimes when you think about how there’s a huge population of the world that believes that people have a choice in where they have to work or how long they have to work. Especially when a huge population works solely for survival.

The usual questions that come after I disclose this information are, “Well how did that make you feel? Do you hold any resentment toward your mom?” These are understandable to a certain extent, but somehow as a kid I just understood. Why would you resent your mom for doing something that ultimately benefits you the most? The concept of having to work hard to provide for your family was easy to understand, and having a mom who worked so hard made me prideful.

In adulthood, I have come to understand my mother’s grind more than ever and as an American whose hurdles look quite different from an immigrant, the respect that I have for her has grown tenfold. As the daughter of immigrants, proving myself has had to be my biggest challenge. Proving that my parent’s struggles were worth every penny they put into me receiving a higher education is hard when they did so much with so little.

You begin to adopt traits like people pleasing at the expense of not looking like you’re not capable. When you were raised by a woman who worked six days out of the week with not one complaint or not one day where she dared to call off, what excuse can you have to not add one more task to your plate? Of course, thinking this way is toxic to your mental health but children of immigrants grow up knowing that they rightfully owe their parents for all of their sacrifices. You dream about being able to hand them thousands of dollars every month, buy them a new house, and take them on vacation so you can finally see them relaxed. At 23 years old, it is a goal I aim to accomplish before 30. I need to see my mom in a life where she isn’t preparing for retirement, where she’s looking forward to trips abroad rather than her next paycheck. It is the least that I can do.

As I grew older and familial conflict began to arise, our relationship had grown apart. The other burden that is bestowed upon you when you are a child of an immigrant is that your parents are much more likely to want to live vicariously through you. Through your experiences, through your privileges, through even your hardships. You are living their dreams and they fought so that you could achieve those dreams much easier than they could have ever been able to.

It is tricky having to set the boundary that although you are grateful, you are still your own person.  Although I highly believe children owe their immigrant parents something for their sacrifices,  I do not believe that you owe them your livelihood. As the youngest and only daughter, my mom always made it clear that she lived for me and that all she had was mine. It was why I felt so pressured to be a high achiever, to break generational curses and be a huge success story amongst my family members. It was like I was her last chance.

Ultimately the amount of pressure amongst other things, made it clear that distance between loved ones is sometimes best to preserve the love that you already have for someone. And although we are distant, I continue to see her in myself everyday. The way my facial expressions have morphed into hers, the way I dress, the way I shout out random Spanish phrases when I’m excited or angry, my stubbornness and most importantly my strength. My strength is one of the most important ways I am reminded of her. It’s the reason for why I am still alive, and why I continue to have hope.

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