Helen Mercedes: A Chapel of Poetry, Politics, and Family

On October 20th, 2016, Helen Mercedes delivered the following Chapel Speech, touching on the important social issue of stigmatization of immigrants. Her story was personal, powerful, and poetic, and she managed to discuss the current political environment and how it all ties in to her life in such a way as to keep the audience bolted to their seats with emotion. The Oracle caught up with Helen afterwards with a video interview seen here, but we encourage everyone to read every word of her speech- it will leave you speechless.

I wish I had a name like my mother’s: Maribel. A name that rolls off the tongue and makes you feel something. But nah, my name is just Helen. It’s kind of funny–you look at my family’s names and you have Francisco Antonio Mercedes, Maribel Matos, Cynthia Raquel Mercedes, and then there’s Helen Mercedes. A name easily washed down by milk. I’ve always learned a lot more about other people’s names, more than from names like my own. I realized my first name didn’t match my background before I knew what cultural assimilation was. My parents aren’t from this country. They come from a country in the Caribbean that is known for it’s Bachata and the countless amazing baseball players that are bred there. The Dominican Republic: you say those words and my heart skips a beat.  You say those words and I start wishing I was back home.

Growing up, I had a general awareness that, just because I had been born in this country, it didn’t mean I was “in”.” Like most from the Dominican Republic, the first language I ever spoke was Spanish. My parent’s tongue was the gift I quickly rejected after I realized my peers didn’t understand it. None of my friends’ parents were, as many people say, “fresh off the boat”. They didn’t really get why it was so hard for me to differentiate certain words, or why until this day my accent slips through certain English words.  That’s why, when I was younger, I initially loved how “not hispanic” my name was. Helen in Spanish is Elena, and that’s what my dad often calls me, but to everyone else, I was just Helen.  My name helped me distance myself from who I really was. Honestly, I just wanted to be as American as possible. The more American and less Latina I could make myself seem the happier I was. I just wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to bring attention to the fact that my dad grew up in another country, I didn’t want people to hear my mom’s broken English because as proud of me as she has always been, I preferred not hearing her say  [“oh I’m Helen’s mother, she is so amazing, she is so esmart”]  I was embarrassed by my mother’s attempts at speaking English. I felt like I had to silence her. Sometimes I’d make fun of her in order to lessen my humiliation.

When I think back, it’s really sad how little I appreciated  my ethnic background. I wanted my hair to always be straight so I could  look like Barbie. I actually begged  to go to the hair salon every other week in an attempt to be someone I’m not. I was trying  to forget my roots.

And it was so easy to forget my roots considering that I was living in two different worlds. It’s always been a little weird living in an immigrant household. There’s just this feeling that I had to keep the Dominican Republic at home and away from school. When I returned home, I’d drop America off at the threshold before I walked into my family’s  apartment. My life, I now realize, has been a struggle negotiating two cultures. It was only recently that I realized I’m constantly choosing between them. This is the experience of immigrant families in the United States. More generally, this is the experience of people who don’t look like “normal” Americans.

“Normal” Americans, of course, are white, which I’m not. This is a strange reality, since America is fundamentally a country comprised of immigrants. But whiteness is nevertheless the cultural norm. When I realized people weren’t always going to view me as American,  I started to look  into my parent’s background, my own background. This led me to a newfound respect for where my family comes from and who we are. You look at me now and I doubt you’ll find anyone more proud to be Dominican. I don’t care when my mom talks anymore because I’ve realized that she waited too long, and worked too hard, for her voice not to be heard.  Now I let her hold that accent like a trophy. I have no problem talking about my dad not being from America I take so much pride in my background. My parents’ immigrant story is a part of me.

This doesn’t mean I don’t still struggle with my, and my family’s, identity as immigrants, though. Just this past year, in fact,, when immigration became such a hot topic in American politics, I started to struggle a lot internally with the confidence that took so long to build. There was a specific moment over this past summer where I just felt so uncomfortable and conflicted.

Let me set the stage for you. I was waiting for the 1 train on 23rd street in New York City, where my family has lived since they arrived in America.   Next to me there there were these two people talking about the presidential election. I’m minding my own business, but I can’t help but listen in.  Initially in my head I was thinking, “whatever, I’m so tired of this conversation, I don’t understand how some people could just talk about it until the cows come home.”  All of a sudden, though, I hear one of them say, “Yeah, but all immigrants are lazy and all they want is to take advantage of the system”…

What?! Like honestly, what?! So I kinda just laughed to myself and brushed it off… at least I tried to. I mean, if I had brushed it off, I wouldn’t be talking about it right now, but I did my best in the moment. When the train arrived I got on the same cart as the talking men.  As I was observing them, I started to think of how these men know nothing about the story of an immigrant in this country. You simply can’t know the story of an immigrant in this country if you feel that way about them. They didn’t realize, the same way that many other people just don’t realize, that people do not pick up and leave everything they know, the comfort of their homes, just to go to another country where they know no one, do not speak the language, are unfamiliar with the culture, face insurmountable odds at making a life for themselves and their family, and just sit around and be lazy. That doesn’t even remotely make sense. I know this, because it is who my family is; it’s who I am.

We eventually reached 50th street on the train and I kind of started hating myself because I was getting so angry. Just the fact that one sentence, overheard on the New York City subway, could make me feel so self-conscious, made me upset. As I watched people get on and off the train, going about their days, I felt so confined to this train it seemed like in that moment I had no other choice than to face my thoughts, to face my anger and the reality — my reality — that they confirmed.  Sitting there, watching the streets go by — 59th, 66th, 72nd street — I realized that it really scares me that people sincerely feel this way. Do people really believe that all immigrants are lazy, and that they come here to suck up whatever the system has to offer?

I obviously can’t understand that mindset; it’s different from my reality.  As I’ve said, both of my parents are immigrants; they are Latin American immigrants. It saddens me to think that people believe the worst of them, though.  And not because they’re Maribel and Frank — ‘cause let’s be real, Maribel and Frank, my parents, are #thebomb, but because of the sole fact that they are immigrants.  People actually believe that my parents are lazy just because of their status as immigrants . And not being able to see beyond their status as immigrants, people miss a lot. They miss, for example, that my mom had to force herself out of her comfort zone and vouch for two daughters while speaking a language she has never been familiar with.  It has never been  easy for her to know that she left a successful career in accounting to give her family a better future in a new country. Something else people don’t see is that there were times during the week where I’d only see my dad for a few minutes a day because he was getting home late working countless hours in order to pay our family’s way, and never once in my life have I ever heard him complain about it. People don’t see, in other words, how my parents are the opposite of lazy.

So I’m sorry but I HATE it when people say, “Oh don’t take it personally, it’s not personal, it’s not about you,” when they air their opinions about immigration, opinions like “all immigrants are lazy.” I’m here to say this morning, it is personal, it’s very personal.  When people say things like that they’re talking about me, my family, my community. Immigrants are people, and it’s time we start recognizing that.

You know, I have my own political ideas and my own feeling about xenophobia, or fear of other cultures, but this speech, this chapel, this isn’t about that. This chapel is about the fact that we often use anger and hate to further our own personal agendas. We, as a country continue to believe that it is okay to label groups of people in broad categories. We then pretend that suffices for understanding their plight. Just like the men in the subway that day, we often think we can get away with a “one size fits all” approach to understanding complex issues like immigration. And we need to do better. We have to do better. When we catch ourselves stereotyping and generalizing and dehumanizing and demonizing a group of people, we must stop ourselves. Maybe we should also take the next step and ask, Why am I doing this? Am I afraid of the people I’m stereotyping? Why? I think we all want America to be great. I think we can agree that a great America is one stands united, even despite our differences. Let’s just do better and celebrate our diversity.

I know my history, and although it may not always be the happiest story, it’s one I take pride in because it makes me who I am. So when I lose sight of that , I let the words from my home bring me back down to remind me, remind me that I come from the Tainos of the river, the Spanish with their estates looking for gold and the Yoruba Africans that, with their hands, built a world never imagined. I know I come from stolen gold, from cocoa beans, from sugar cane. The child of slaves and slave masters, I am of beautifully tragic mixtures. I am a sancocho of erased history, something ignored but refused to be forgotten. My hips skip to the beat of flamenco and palo and create the rhythm of cumbia, merengue, and salsa. It’s in the sway of my song, the landscape of my skirt, the azucar beneath my tongue. I am the unforeseen child born out of cultural wedlock. Hair too kinky for Spain, too wavy for dreadlocks. So my tongue tells the story of many lands. Read my lifeline borne  of intertwined moon beings and starshine. I am every ocean crossed, every north star navigated. My body has been the bridge between two worlds and different cultures. I am the daughter of the destiny of my people — black, brown, beautiful. And I often wonder if my ancestors hunting through the jungles of a beautiful caribbean island would have ever imagined I’d look like this and I wonder if my ancestors, ripped away from their fellow tribe members and turned to slaves, would have ever imagined I’d look like this, and i wonder if my ancestors, sitting on their thrones in the Iberian peninsula, would have ever imagined that I would look like this.

(Copyright 2016 Helen Mercedes)