My Immigrant Story
My grandfather, dad’s dad, was a very debonair man, tall, charming, and always rocking a Don Draper-like fedora. Yet my story begins like many stories of children from immigrants with a man in a fedora and a one suitcase arriving to the US in search for a better life. No matter his charm, his command of Spanish or his intelligence, arriving to a country as an afro-Latino man in the 1960s was nothing short of intimidating. Well, I assume because you would never know just by looking at him.
My grandmother, mom’s mom, had a similar story. She arrived in 1962 by herself, with only an aunt-in-law to house her as she worked in factory after factory while her kids, in the Dominican Republic, fell asleep to the far-away sounds of the ocean. I heard she also used to run numbers, an activity while not 100% legal, gave her some extra cash to be able to make long distance calls. My mother told me in the 60’s everyone who called from New York sounded like they might as well have been on the moon. When my grandmother got older she suffered from Alzheimer’s and moved back to live in her home by the ocean. When I would call her no matter how much I reminded her “mama it’s the 90s you don’t have to yell anymore” she would forget every time. Until she finally forgot my name. But that’s another story.
After some years both sets of grandparents brought their kids, my parents, to NYC where they met, married and had two children. They eventually divorced and my dad had another daughter. As we grew up in Queens and went to school, watched TV, read books, had conversations with kids from other backgrounds I started to realize how different my upbringing was.
The world around me was a result of the diaspora that we were placed in, far away from that ocean. From the palm trees and the heat and cabs with no floors. People walking around steaming on an island that was just a distant memory to my family and barely a memory for me.
The only island I ever knew was Manhattan.
Those thoughts shaped who I was. As I got older, went to college, and started working in the corporate world - even though I was born and raised here and spoke fluent English, there is always a bit of a distance between those that have been here for generations. Where they might not know where their ethnicity lies.
When I was in 6th grade my mother packed my lunch in my Jem lunchbox. For a drink she poured malta in my thermos, a lightly carbonated malt beverage, brewed from barley, hops, and water that was sweet with a strong taste. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malta_(soft_drink)I dropped my lunch box and the malta spilled everywhere. All the kids in school who weren’t Latinx smelled it in disgust and said my Coke had gone bad. I was too embarrassed to admit it was not Coke it was a soft drink the same caramel color as the people who brewed it.
As I have gotten older my confidence in my Dominican-American identity has gotten to be a more comfortable duality. I know that the reason my voice is unique and the experiences I have had so far in my life are a result of how proud my family are with being a part of a community that is so full of color, laughter and culture. I drink a malta with my burger. I wear my grandfather’s fedora when I walk to brunch holding both parts of me in my heart.
Written by Maddy Cuello
Madelyn was born and raised in NYC where she still lives. She started her career in fashion, after attending the Fashion Institute of Technology, but soon realized creative writing was her true calling. She is a story teller, cat-enthusiast and lover of TV.