At first she just served me coffee.
Sometimes she was at the register and sometimes at the drive-thru window. Then later in the day, I brought my groceries to the checkout lane and she was there.
She was everywhere! Or she seemed to be.
One day we exchanged a greeting. She learned I was a pastor and writer and I learned she was squeezing community college in between two jobs. She wondered if I would help her with a writing assignment.
We met in the local library and I learned more. Her name is Valrie, Val for short. She left Jamaica for the United States in 2004. Not yet a citizen she is hard scrabbling her way to the American Dream.
You’ve probably read the words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
The words are not in any legislation but are engraved on a bronze plaque that is mounted inside the lower level of the Statue of Liberty. They capture the spirit of our history.
Val is one of the masses, yearning to breath. Her path to citizenship has been slow and twisty but she keeps her eyes on the prize.
Nowadays immigration is a political word. It conjures up politicians who fan the flames of fear and incite stereotypes.
“They’re criminals and drug-runners”
“They’re taking American jobs”
“Build a wall!”
This is not the America I grew up in. There are legitimate concerns and questions about our borders and those entering through them, but when politics replaces people in the conversation, we cease to be a great nation.
How did we get here?
Although I was a child of the 60’s we still had a sense of history and a national identity. We started the day with prayer, pledged our allegiance to the flag and sang “America the Beautiful.” We breathed chalk dust from blackboards and opened our metal lunch boxes at noon.
“That’s a great story, Grandpa.”
It was pretty great. But then came…
The Watts riots
The British Invasion
The assassination of JFK
The assassination of RFK
The assassination of MLK
The final issue of the Saturday Evening Post
In between we touched the moon, founded Medicare and the Internet.
But the decade of the sixties had changed who we were and how we thought. Five years into a new decade, we saw Watergate, Roe v. Wade and the end of public school prayer.
I grew up reading about the “Melting Pot,” the mix of cultures and peoples that formed our national identity. At some point that pot boiled over. These days we talk about terrorism, immigration and building a wall to keep us safe.
“And Mexico will pay for it.”
The big picture talk has drowned out the voices of Americans who struggle to live their lives but still believe in the American Dream.
Back to Val’s story.
Call her “undocumented” or “illegal” but her plight helped me move beyond the labels.
She fled Jamaica as a young lady in search of those dreams. “People laughed at me when I talked about my dreams, so I tended not to share my thoughts and my dreams.”
In Malden, St. James, Jamaica, her dreams were smothered by her mother’s abandonment and her father’s indifference. “When I was one my mother gave me to my grandmother. Mom would party for a weekend and never come to see me. My dad was in town and would send groceries, but that was not what I needed. I needed parenting and guidance.”
Raised by her grandmother (“We had a great sense of humor together. We laughed until we cried!”) she found stability and escaped from the world. “I never had a boyfriend. My grandmother sheltered me a lot. I learned about sex from my classes at school. When I talked with her about it she was upset! I realized that it was the culture, very private.”
Her escape was short-lived.
After her grandmother died of cancer Val graduated from high school and moved in with her uncle. “It was not a good atmosphere. There was always fighting. I wanted to get away. I resented my family very much, especially my uncle who cheated me out of my grandmother’s money she had set aside for me.”
At 18 she became pregnant with a son, Jerwayne. “It was not a relationship. He went to high school with me and was light-skinned, an Indian. He considered a black woman a prize.”
Jerwayne was still a baby when Val started to work as a chambermaid. Her opportunity to get away came when a recruiter for hotels in the US approached her and asked if she would be interested in moving to the United States. He promised her that he would make sure her papers got through.
In order to immigrate she had to sign full custody for Jerwayne over to his father. It was a decision she would later regret and would cause her much heartache, but at the time she didn’t know what else to do.
“I collected my papers and gave them to George, the man who recruited me. He told me there was going to be a big interview. When I came there were so many people. There were thousands of Jamaicans like me wanting to get away. There were 113 people ahead of me!”
“It was 4 o’clock in the morning sixteen miles from my home. I was wearing a sky blue dress and was talking to somebody. I heard George say, ‘Will the girl in the blue dress turn around toward me.’ When I did, he said, ‘Oh, it’s Val!’”
That was beginning.
It felt good to be recognized and to believe that, finally, she would be free. (to be continued)
At first she just served me coffee.