She stepped off the plane, into the tumult and unforgiving movement of Kennedy’s International Arrivals Hall.
She scanned the faces, at first unsure, then grateful - but reserved - as her parents came forward to welcome her to America.
She walked toward them, her little sister’s hand digging into her palm. The two sisters hadn’t seen them in two years.
She was 10 and the hot, humid air of the Philippines was forever gone. The life she had known was gone. It was all gone. Board a plane, fly, land and look out the little window. Everything was over. Everything was just beginning.
We are a nation of immigrants, though we often forget it. Sometimes we seek to re-define it on our own terms with an eye toward closing the door behind us. But it’s all a convenient lie.
It takes amazing courage and belief to bet your life on a dream, but that’s exactly what happened that morning at Kennedy. And into this new world she walked.
Welcome to America. Welcome to New York. All settled? Good. Time to sink or swim, kid.
She tells the story today the way she tells all her stories - in hindsight, downplaying the hard part, as if she doesn’t want to admit even to herself how scared she was - that somehow the wonder of her first snowfall could overcome the indifference of a New York winter.
Didn’t know her at 10. I wasn’t there. I know the journey through the stories told, safely in my arms and deep under a blanket. Brooklyn to Staten Island, to the Bronx and back to Staten Island. It’s a New York Story. Public schools, a new language, a scholarship to college.
Unimaginable wonders. Growing up. Stumbles and falls. Boys and first kisses.
Immigration and the issues surrounding it became a passion for her. She dragged me to movies and documentaries, put articles in front of me to read. Tried to explain the fear she had of being caught here, of being sent back. Of the wait and families being separated.
I listened and contributed when I could. But truly, I couldn’t relate. My clan’s immigration journey was long since told; my arrival via birth taken as a natural course of things.
We met when she was 22. A woman now. Drop dead gorgeous, with a crooked smile and a cynical, razor sharp mind. We connected almost immediately on an intellectual level based on curiosity about the world around us. About our work, lives, loves – really anything. We relished those moments, when it was just the two of us, free to discuss and debate anything.
When she was 28, during one of these times, in a Second Avenue bar, the conversation and the back and forth exploded in a kiss that neither of us will ever forget. And from that night on, we just kept kissing.
The more I learned of her the more in awe I was. Sure, I was completely gonzo for her (shit, any guy would be), but the resonance of her story, the sheer courage of it all - from her parents having to come here first and leave their daughters behind, to transitioning from speaking Tagalog to English in the blink of an airplane ride - left me wondering if I could have done the same. If I had the right stuff.
No chance, I realized.
We take so much for granted, those of us whose group has been here a while, that we sometimes forget that her story plays out every day, right in front of us. It’s a richer story than any election (or executive order) has allowed to be told.
It’s a human story. Most importantly it’s our story – all of ours – and we shouldn’t let anyone define it for us, or reduce it to a wall, a slogan or even a bill.
Lying in bed the night before her swearing in ceremony. My present wrapped and ready to go - a Pandora charm bracelet, with an American flag, shamrock and Westie. Our little unit.
Do you mind driving tomorrow?, she asked, again downplaying the magnitude of what was about to happen.
Babe, are you kidding me!? Of course I’m going to drive, I said, content that I had gotten it right, that somehow I knew.
But I really hadn’t. We drove to White Plains on a beautiful summer morning. She was dressed to the nines, with a short white skirt and purple top. I was in flip flips and shorts. Never felts as stupid as when we walked into the hall together and saw the crisp suits and ties, the beautiful dresses, the tears, the joy.
I was the ugly American. I had forgotten.
She filled out all the forms, charming the officials with her crooked smile and stunning brown legs and waited patiently until asked to stand. The smile grew broader and she raised her right hand and became an American.
I have never been more in love and more moved at the same time
She had done it. She had fought the fight. She had finished the race and now that same right hand cast her very first ballot this past election.
And in one simple movement, that vote was more powerful, more earned, more meaningful, than anything I’ve ever known.
Her story. Our story. An American story.