When the major networks finally projected that Joe Biden had been elected the 46th President of the United States in the afternoon of November 7, 2020, after finally crossing the 270 electoral votes threshold with the winning of Pennsylvania, I had not been prepared for the massive celebrations that followed.
The customary projections declaring the winner of the U.S. presidential elections by the major networks following the call by the Associated Press (AP) had become quasi-official. After voting on November 3, Americans were glued to their TV sets waiting for any of the major networks to call it. I was watching CNN and gleaned there was a delay in declaring the winner for a variety of reasons, one being the coronavirus pandemic, which had killed 230,000 Americans by election day.
Consequently, for the safety of American voters, so they did not have to make a life or death decision to exercise their constitutional right to vote, absentee and mail-in ballots were dramatically expanded for use. Unfortunately, from news reports, the pandemic’s impact on voting style came to wear a political coloration, as Democrats encouraged their supporters to vote early and use mail-in ballots, while the Republican President apparently urged his supporters to vote in-person on election day.
The divide would be reflected in the reporting of the results as some state electoral rules of the decentralized elections governance would mandate the counting of in-person election day votes first. Then the mail-in, absentee and provisional ballots would be counted last. Thus, incumbent President Donald Trump seemed to have been taken by the “red mirage” as the initial reporting of the counts and exit-polling favored him. And then the tide turned when the mail-in and absentee ballots were counted. It was now all leaning heavily towards former Vice President Joe Biden.
The polls had projected this for weeks, and it made sense by election day, since about two-thirds of the votes had been cast already setting a record for total votes ever cast in a presidential election in America. In aggregate, over 150 million Americans voted to pick the 46th president. In the end, over 50 percent of the voters picked the Biden-Harris ticket to deny Donald Trump and Mike Pence a second term.
There had been indications that civil unrest would break out, but I felt safe in my condo since I worked remotely. I watched the furor of opposing camps as protesters grew around the polling centers sometimes demanding the counting stopped, and then sometimes confoundedly demanding that all votes were counted.
I had the backdrop of images from the angry riots that broke out four years ago, when Donald Trump had defied the pollsters to defeat Hillary Clinton unexpectedly, through the electoral college. There were violent riots in major cities in America because it had not been presumed that widespread voter apathy would preclude the inevitable win of Hillary Clinton. This time people came out to vote in record numbers.
I feared the divided vote would lead to another massive civil unrest no matter who won. However, what followed was unheralded after the Associated Press finally declared Joe Biden as President-elect. I saw it on CNN. I flicked the channels, but all I saw was dancing and throngs of massive crowds buzzing in unity with the elation of a shared victory. Although I do not pay much attention to politics, I felt greatly relieved with the presidential outcome.
As a woman, an immigrant, and person of multiracial heritage, I admit I was also quietly excited beyond mere relief at the election of Kamala Harris as America’s first female Vice President, the second highest office in America—the most powerful nation on earth. America, land of the free and land of equality. I release a heavy and complex sigh, because I felt some validation and impetus to hope since I had recently started questioning my own place as an immigrant in America—despite my successes and good fortune mixed with hard work. Indeed, my journey has been strewn with serendipity.
I thought of Kamala Harris’ late mother, and I got emotional that she was not alive to witness her daughter achieve this milestone. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was an immigrant student like me who had left her native country and family to pursue opportunities she knew were not available to women in her country of birth—just like me.
She must have had an accent just like me, and just like me she bagged a prized American degree that had “doctor” in its appellation. That meant because we still live in a patriarchal world with its settled biases and tropes, she too must have been written off many times, as she overcame barrier after barrier.
But I have been very lucky. I wonder if like me, she found mentors and Americans willing to give her a chance to prove herself, to show that she could roll up her sleeves, get her head down, and do the best job possible for her team, for her organization.
On my laptop screen, I touch the image of my beaming boyfriend, who is smiling like a Cheshire cat from ear to ear. Swiping across his face, pulling my index finger and thumb close together, I imagine I can make his grin less conspicuous, to hide the adulation. But I cannot. I do not mind that he shows his pride in me. I wish I could make his arm wrap around me completely. I cannot. His comforting arm is a symbol of his constant support.
Like me, my boyfriend is an immigrant. But he immigrated with his whole nuclear family from South Korea when he was 6 years old. His parents have two children. Shyamala also had two children—Kamala and Maya—with her Jamaican husband whom she met at Berkeley, where they were both graduate students from opposite sides of the world. Two people from different cultures and different ethnic groups.
But at some point, they divorced. All their dreams and hopes together as a united family altered. The butterflies I felt in my stomach move higher and I feel the fear, as my heart skips a beat and I wonder how eerily my life seems to parallel Shyamala Golapan’s. I have imagined having two children and a home with my boyfriend. Will whatever drove Kamala’s parents to divorce cause us to break up the home we build if we marry, too?
I perish the thought and recall it was also love at first sight when I met him. We were both students at Emory University School of Law. Our anniversary was just a few days ago: on Halloween. He was dressed as a cow; I came dressed as Audrey Hepburn. I knew I liked him instantly, but because I was so focused and I did not want to waste his time, or fool around, I walked up to him and asked him if he had a girlfriend. And he answered in the negative. So we planned a date. And we have been together for the past four years.
Being an immigrant himself he understands my struggles, my experience, and the emotion I feel sometimes when I think about all the friends and my family that I left behind in Mexico. He knows I never get tired of his recounting of his parents’ immigrant success story; because it encourages me that I too can make it in America.
Their story resonates with me, in their sacrifices and desire to secure for their children, better opportunities than they had.
My parents supported me in law school, paying a huge portion of my tuition. University education is very expensive in America and increasingly appears to come at a price tag which only the well-off can afford. Thus, I was very fortunate to have secured partial scholarships to earn my juris doctor degree from a private American law school. My brother who is an engineer in Atlanta, also chipped in by providing me free housing. He also provided free food, and chef services as he cooked for me. He’d never cooked back home in Mexico, so I taught him and gradually encouraged him to cook more, so he would not have to rely on his future wife as a cook, as is often the case back home in patriarchal Mexico.
It was the combination of options available to me as a woman, to be liberated and reach the highest levels of professional life that made America attractive to me. And now Kamala Harris has shattered the highest glass ceiling as Vice President-elect. She is next in line to be President of the United States. The daughter of two immigrants, like me.
Because my entire family partnered with me to obtain my American education, I know that I owe them, although it is unstated. It is understood. The collective sacrifice and support of my family was the seed they planted for my success, I merely watered it with my own personal exertion, spending sleepless nights to peruse the complex language of law school, networking. I watered my parents’ seed with my ambition to grab a hold of the opportunities in America, because I knew as a woman I could have them nowhere else, and certainly not in the world that I came from.
My achievement as a licensed American-trained attorney in big law is the culmination of my family’s immigrant story, peppered with the vicissitudes of sweeping socioeconomic events beyond any individual family’s control. That story started in mainland China in the wake of nationalistic, revolutionary, and socioeconomic turmoil during the feuds, clashes and wars among the warlords, the Kuomintang (KMT) and Communist Party of China (CPC) in the first half of the 20th century.
My maternal grandfather, Siu KanChiu, was born into a Cantonese family in China in 1914. When civil war broke out between Chiang Kai-Shek who led the Kuomintang, and Mao Zedong’s communists, my grandfather and his brothers were forced to flee to Lima, Peru, by boat, after being dispossessed of their possessions, investments, and property. They had first traveled to Hong Kong, as the men in his family left the women behind. My grandfather arrived in Lima, Peru in 1930 unable to speak Spanish. He became a farmer, worked hard, and sent money back home to support the women in the family. Siu adapted his name to fit the Spanish grammar, dropping KanChiu for Guillermo to become Guillermo Siu—Guillermo being the Spanish version of William.
At the time he arrived, the outskirts of Lima were mainly farmland. As Lima modernized and erected new infrastructure, the farmlands which my grandfather had cultivated was taken over by the government in exchange for a small house, which remains there to this day in Peru. I stay in that house when I visit my relatives in Lima.
My grandfather sold the produce from his farm in the market. One day, he met my grandmother, and it was love at first sight. It was when she had gone to the farm to buy poultry. She had been orphaned at the age of 8 and had no education so she worked as a housemaid. However, by eavesdropping on the lessons of the children of her employer, who were tutored at home, she learned to teach herself to read and write. Although she could not afford it, she valued education highly. She married Siu, who was 47 years old, when she was 25. He already had 5 children and they had 5 more for a total of 10 children. While they were not religious, I think the Catholic Church influenced their family life significantly and was in part responsible for the many children they had, since contraceptives were frowned on by the Catholic Church.
There are many other ways in which the Catholic Church negatively influenced the indigenous people of Peru. For instance, it literally promoted the stigmatization of indigenous people, discouraging them from practicing their culture, and associating their lifestyle to vestiges of polytheism which the Catholic Church condemned. At the same time, the exploitation of indigenous people as slave labor to facilitate the wholesale carting off of gold and other resources belonging to the indigenous people of Peru to Europe was propagated to the people as being the will of a Christian God, that demonized the indigenous people. This psychology became entrenched in Latin America for a long time.
My grandmother, who married the Chinese man, Guillermo Siu, was an indigenous Peruvian. Together, indigenous people and the immigrant Asians occupied the lowest rung of society. The lighter your skin, the closer to a European appearance you had, the higher you were positioned in Peruvian society. Colorism—or racism, really—is a pervasive problem in Latin America.
Unfortunately, because most of Latin America did not have anti-miscegenation laws, we often take a pollyannaish view that our society is racism free. If it were, why is it that you will only find indigenous women, who are brown skinned working as cleaning women in Peru?
My grandmother wanted a better life for my mother, who although had just one pair of shoes as a teenager, was able to get a university education, graduating with an engineering degree. My mother was an exceptional student and won a scholarship for a graduate degree in Mexico. But just before she left for Mexico, my parents met and started dating. They had been colleagues at work, and were both engineers. However, my father came from a more privileged background than my mother.
Although not wealthy, coming from a military family meant my father had some privilege, authority, and access. They had only known each other for four months, when my mom proposed that he move with her to Mexico. Yes, we have strong assertive women in my family! So when I met my boyfriend for the first time in law school on Halloween night four years ago, and I walked up to him and asked him pointedly if he had a girlfriend, I was merely following in the footsteps of the matriarchs in my family.
My parents got married and both moved to Mexico where they both earned masters’ degrees. Immigrating to Mexico was not difficult, and they immediately regularized their residency status and secured good jobs. They forged bonds with the engineering community, as professionals in Mexico City, and were able to foster an extended family with the Peruvian émigré community there.
In the ‘80s, there was growing insecurity as Peruvians lived in a constant state of fear due to the terrorist activities of a group called Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), as they planted bombs that exploded in public places, on buses, and in the market, killing innocent people. Thus, my parents decided to stay permanently in Mexico where my brother and I were born. We grew up living middle class lives, enriched by Mexican camaraderie and hospitality. Outside we were Mexicans, and at home we were Peruvians, as my parents retained their Peruvian traditions at home.
There were benefits to being a Mexican citizen, such as the free university education I enjoyed because every citizen of Mexico was entitled to free education up to the university level. Consequently, I graduated from the oldest university in Mexico, National Autonomous University of Mexico, paying a token fee of just 20 cents a year.
However, upon graduation with my Bachelor of Laws degree, I would learn to my disappointment that the field of law was an elite field reserved for elite families with deep roots and networks in Mexico. Coming from a middle-class family of first-generation Peruvian immigrants who were only connected to their engineering and Peruvian communities, I was disconnected from such upper-class Mexican families and roots.
I saw my dreams of becoming a lawyer dashed, and after six months as an exchange student in France, I decided to take a detour and become a diplomat, to expose myself to more travel, and network with people I had never known, growing up in my Peruvian community in Mexico. I secured employment in the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a legal assistant. Although being a lawyer, I was overqualified for the position, but I saw the glass half-full because of the exposure I got to review and work on international agreements and treaties with international organizations.
I worked hard, but I was fortunate that I had the support of my parents whom I still lived with, since my monthly salary of 6,000 pesos (roughly 300 US dollars) was not even sufficient to pay for rent, which was about 10,000 pesos a month! However, I enjoyed the work I did until one day, a friend at work told me to look into an opportunity that had been posted internally for government employees. It was in the General Consulate of Mexico of Atlanta the United States.
Almost nonchalantly, I applied for the position. I received a call for an interview, which was conducted over the phone. And then I learned of the salary—2,000 US dollars a month! For me, that was like winning the lottery, and I was now eager to get the job. Serendipitously, I got the job.
As I enthusiastically ventured off to Atlanta with just 2 handbags and the clothes I wore, my mom reminded me not to change who I was. She did not have to worry about that because working with indigent undocumented Mexican immigrants who had crossed the border, grounded me in my Mexican and Hispanic tradition—more so than my sheltered middle class life in Mexico had afforded me. My parents had managed to accumulate modest wealth in Mexico, and because my mother had struggled out of poverty, she worked hard to shield me from it. We had a car, so we never used public transportation in Mexico; meaning we did not get exposed to the poor in Mexico.
Mexico City is like a bubble for middle class folks, where they get to enjoy Mexican art, galleries, and a European lifestyle. We do not even wear “Mexican” attire which is scorned as inferior or the dress of lower-class people. Instead, we dress as a Westernized culture in Mexico City.
My job at the Mexican consulate in America was to help terminally ill undocumented Mexicans travel back to Mexico, and locate their families so they could die peacefully back home. I flew back to Mexico with 13 of such people. Only one of these people was a woman. It reminded me of my Chinese grandfather who had emigrated to Peru with only the men in his family, to work and send money to the women back home in Hong Kong.
But these young Mexican men who crossed the border to escape the poverty of Mexico were often alienated and severed from their families back home. Many had lost all contact with their people in Mexico. I studied the characteristics of these cases, and realized the demographics were consistently made up of indigenous Mexicans—the brown skinned ones who still constituted the lowest rung of society in Mexico, as it is in Peru. They often came to America as teenagers under dangerous and life threatening conditions, as sometimes they were shot at by border patrol, and became maimed in the crossing. Without medical attention, they nursed their injuries and went to work, until they developed some more debilitating life-threatening illness that prevented them from working.
I was moved to the core of my bones by the case of Juan. He had crossed the border from Mexico to America at the age of 15. At the time I met him he was confined to a wheelchair and had worked his fingers to the bone, to send money back home to support his parents. But I was told that he had contracted a virus that affected his neurological system. His fingers were now permanently bunched up in a fist. He could not talk but convulsed constantly. He looked far older than 25 because of his frail condition. He was only two years younger than me. I was humbled, knowing the privilege and advantage I had unfairly enjoyed over him.
Traveling back with Juan to Mexico via plane made me feel helpless. Typically, I get them what they want. But Juan just screamed throughout the flight, foaming from the mouth. He had been kept in a psychiatric institution since his infirmity. When we arrived at his parents’ home in Mexico, his mother could not recognize him. She could not believe that the invalid in the wheelchair was her healthy son, whom she had last seen about a decade ago. She kept screaming at me, asking what I did to her son.
I knew I had to go to law school in America. I had to arm myself with American law. The dehumanization I came to know that undocumented Mexican immigrants went through took a toll on me. I became interested in learning more about undocumented immigrants from my native Mexico, who had indigenous heritage like me, who fled to America in search of hope for a better life—just like me, albeit a different route.
I read of cases of migrant workers suing for unpaid wages, who had been made to work in diapers in poultry farms in Georgia because they worked 12 hour shifts without taking restroom breaks. I truly was humbled by these stories.
I grab my pillow and hold it tight to my chest, expecting it will keep me warm and comfort me as I purse my eyes tightly shut, expecting to blank out the image of a suffering young man convulsing uncontrollably in a wheelchair. I flick the remote to change TV channels. But it is all the same thing showing on TV: ecstatic crowds celebrating the electoral defeat of President Donald Trump, who had come to power four years ago, slandering Mexicans as rapists and criminals. He could not see a shred of humanity in the young Mexicans who risked their lives to work in America at meager wages, under deplorable conditions to send money home to Mexico to support their indigent mothers and sisters.
I muse on the steps Vice President-elect Kamala Harris—the daughter of brown and dark-skinned immigrants—will take once she is sworn into office on January 20, 2021, to ameliorate the conditions of undocumented immigrants in detention centers.
I hope she will not forget who she is. I hope she will restore the humanity deracinated from undocumented Mexican immigrants in the border crossing. Her election as the first woman of color, first daughter of immigrants to become Vice President of the most powerful nation in the world—leader of the free world—means more to me than the shattering of a glass ceiling. It is about what she can do to restore the stolen humanity of brown and dark-skinned people.
Olustories © 2020 All Rights Reserved
**Olurotimi Osha contributed to this story.