In 1926 Langston Hughes published a poem entitled, “I, Too.” It begins like this, “I, too, sing America.”
I was six when I migrated from Brazil to the great America.
The words repeated from their mouths, “come over.” The two little blonde sisters who lived behind my house wanted to play. The things that separated us were a short chain-link-fence and that I didn’t know English. After school, I would sit on the steps of my back door and watch them play. Occasionally, they would run up to the fence and shout, “come over.” After a few weeks those words began to haunt me as I continuously repeated them to myself.
The only English-speaking member of our family was my father’s youngest brother Marcos who we lived with. However, he worked late. One night, I lay awake fighting sleep while waiting for him to get home. When I heard the cracking of the front door, I jumped out of bed and tiptoed as fast I could to greet him. “Rafaella, ja é mais de meia noite. Vai dormi.” In a whisper, I begged,
“But uncle Marcos, you must tell me what “come over” means?
The next day I rushed home from school and zipped straight through the house and out into the back door wishing hard to see the two little blonde girls at play. There they were and before they got the chance to utter the words that I waited all day to hear I shouted from the top of my six-year- old lungs, “SIM” and jumped the short chain-link-fence and quickly began to swing away.
“Come over,” those were my first two English words.
“Ready, Rafaella? Ok, go.”
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
My mother paused the tape recorder.
“Your grandmother is going to love hearing you speak English.” She was sending the tape to Brazil along with her first letter to her mother after having arrived in America.
My mother was smiling; she looked happy and proud of me even though my pledge was utterly foreign to her. We were new immigrants and she did not yet have an understanding of the English language, neither of us did. I memorized the pledge in my first grade classroom. Mrs. Johnson would have us kids stand-up straight, face the flag with our right hands over our hearts and recite the pledge every morning before class began. Combined with the words “come over,” the pledge and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” mark the beginning of my “becoming” an American.
The Pledge of Allegiance, however, would grow more foreign to my mother as she began to develop an understanding of the language, because ‘indivisible’, “liberty” and “Justice for all,” didn’t include us immigrants. The division was prominent, liberty was limited, and living in the shadows meant that the invisible immigrant had little access to courts of justice.
“Now sing the song, Rafaella.”
The tape recorder started back up again as she proudly pressed play, “My country, ‘tis of thee,/ sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;/ Land where my fathers died,/ Land of the pilgrims’ pride, / From every mountainside let freedom ring!”
One day in second grade while sitting on the front seat of the school bus, I looked up to catch
a glimpse of my reflection in the driver’s rear-view mirror when a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes who was sitting behind me also looking in the mirror said,
I replied, “I know.”
For most of my childhood growing up in America our home was a haven for newly arrived
Brazilian immigrants. Immanuel was among the first immigrant we took in. He was a professional runner, a gold mentalist who moved to America to train in hopes of making it to the Olympics. Dionisio was a Theology professor who was studying at Yale for the year. His knowledge was both fascinating and motivating for me as a young girl. Carlos was a magician who spent his days practicing tricks while he awaited his moment to be called for the big stage. Enrique was an animated flamboyant gay man who fell in love with my brother Michel and was asked to leave immediately after my stepfather found out. Nelson was a farmer who moved to America to pursue his dream in becoming a chef. Angela was a former model who would spend her mornings teaching me how to apply makeup and Mauricio was a pharmacist and also Angela’s husband who had moved to America because Angela insisted fame awaited her here.
Some still live in America today and have become citizens either living their dreams or still chasing it. While other’s, returned home taking with them their American dream that they never had a chance to realize. The many pieces of me are mirrored off these incredible beings I spent my primitive years with. They are and always will be my family.
For Thanksgiving, my mother always cooks rice, beans and chicken.
Shirley was the fastest girl in school. The annual Turkey Trot was just a week away and everyone knew that Shirley would be bringing home the first place prize, a big, fat, frozen turkey. Shirley had legs that looked like stilts; one of her strides was equal to five of mine. In the morning before school I asked my mom.
“Mom, if I win a turkey at school will you cook it this year for Thanksgiving?” “How will you win a turkey at school, Rafaella?”
“By beating Shirley in the Turkey Trot.”
The day had come. My whole sixth grade class was lined up at the starting line. We had to run one lap around the school and then it was a straight shot to the finish line. Shirley was to my right. The big, fat, frozen turkey sat on a picnic table to my left. I eyeballed the turkey good and hard for a moment before I took the runner’s stance.
“ON YOUR MARKS.”
I remember now how at that moment I could feel the sweat building around my hairline as the rush of adrenalin filled my legs.
My heart was then beating uncontrollably fast while the image of a golden roasted turkey faded into the distance.
I threw my body forward with all the strength I could muster and within a few steps I had taken the lead over the whole class. But as expected, I felt the sleeve of Shirley’s tee-shirt rub against
my arm as she moved in on me. We were neck to neck, but I still had the lead by a hair and there was no way I was letting her pass me. I made my way around the last corner of the school building and now it was a straight shot to finish line. The whole school was watching. The one strap from my polka dotted jean over-all had come undone and was flapping freely in the wind. Shirley was still breathing her hot breath down my neck and then it happened... I crossed the finish line.
I placed the big, fat, frozen turkey on my lap during the school bus ride home. As the bus approached the apartment complex a rush of contentment came over me. Full of pride I carried the cold turkey to our second floor apartment, and by now my hands were just as frozen and had gone numb; they burned as I knocked on our door. My mother answered, we both looked at each other for a moment before her eyes swelled up with tears, then, she smiled.
“I told you I would win the turkey, mom!”
That year for Thanksgiving and every other that followed, we had rice, beans and turkey.
When I was nine in my mother’s American living room, amongst the hodgepodge assortment of furniture collected off the streets hung the only piece of art, a mirror. Etched in the center of the mirror in black ink was an eagle with open wings, and above and below the eagle in circular letters read,
“America, Love It or Leave It.”
Freedom finally rang, but not until twenty years after I arrived.
Standing on my right was my mother. The room was filled with fifty other immigrates from
an assortment of nationalities waiting to take the Oath of Allegiance. As I looked at all the faces in the courtroom they all told the same story integration. We were finally a part of the ‘indivisible,’ ‘liberty’ had finally arrived as we were about to remove ourselves from the shadows and ‘justice for all’ was now our promise too. We were prompted by the judge to recite the pledge together. It had been years since I last did and as I placed my right hand over my heart the words filled my mouth but this time with great understanding. I felt the weight of my journey lift off my back.
I was now, an American.
“No, I am not!”
Along with Langston Hughes, I can say that, I, too sing America... “Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –
I, too, am America.”