When my husband and I got engaged, I realized it was a possibility that we would end up living in the United States. But I didn’t believe we would really pack up and leave home. I didn’t imagine one day I would vote in a U.S. election and I certainly never thought one day I’d write a blog about becoming American and standing for democracy. But here we are, and this is my story.
A few years after becoming US permanent residents, we grew tired of traveling back and forth to Jamaica. We decided to migrate to the United States of America, destination Tamarac, Florida, where our in-laws lived. We moved in faith thinking that we would be able to find jobs. But it was November 2008, and we were in the middle of the worst recession this country had known for decades. People we knew were losing their jobs and their homes. Stores and restaurants were closing at a rapid pace. I was in the doldrums for weeks. I retreated to Jamaica for a few weeks to regroup.
I had our son a couple months after I returned. Things didn’t get better. They got worse. The recession wasn’t receding, and we hadn’t yet found viable jobs to sustain us and two children. There were no stimulus checks for us, we didn’t have health insurance, our son needed surgery at 12 weeks; everything felt like a mess. I contemplated throwing in the towel and leaving.
My father-in-law was like a stuck record. He said, ‘Wait five years. Don’t give up. Wait five years.’ That felt like an eternity to wait to get our lives back on track. Was this country all that it was cracked up to be? What would make me think differently after five years?
Over the next half a decade I watched Americans claw back from a recession, the likes of which most people had never seen before. I came to understand the grit that lies within them and their indomitable spirit. I experienced first-hand their belief that if you work hard and apply yourself you can reap success. I benefited from the kindness of many who had walked our path and who helped us settle in.
Over time I came to appreciate all the amenities that were not readily available in my homeland. Excellent facilities in our towns – well-maintained parks, free activities for children put on by the City, attractively priced extracurricular activities, bike lanes, fantastic public libraries with free activities, well-maintained public buildings and roads, solid infrastructure and reliable water, electricity supply and garbage collection.
My husband and I resumed our careers and we valued what America had to offer. We bought a home; the children were happy in school, we made friends and we were adjusting.
One day I stepped outside, and saw squirrels running up the Oak tree on our front lawn. ‘That should be a mongoose in the mango tree’ I thought to myself. I still wondered if I should truly make this country my home. In some ways, South Florida was perfect. It was a diverse melting pot, there was a lot that was familiar, and we were close enough to the Caribbean. I didn’t need to own the history and struggles of America.
In my fourth year, I flew to Washington D.C. on a business trip where I took advantage of the weekend to do some sightseeing with my cousin.
At the Lincoln memorial I internalized the Gettysburg address, then I soaked up the utterances of Martin Luther King before I moved on to the FDR memorial. Lastly, I pondered on the writings of Jefferson.
When I read the words of Martin Luther King Jr., ‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension it’s the presence of justice,” I wanted to stand for a just and orderly society where all are treated fairly.
When I read the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little” I wanted to fight for a country with a social conscience.
And when I read Thomas Jefferson’s words “Laws and Institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind…institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” I wanted to believe in an America that could reinvent itself in the best way possible.
During the week of meetings, a small group of us had the remarkable opportunity to take a private guided tour of the U.S. Capitol building, the seat of power.
I called my husband from my hotel room and said, ‘it is time’. I was ready to become an American citizen. I told him I had felt the weight of the Capital, I was part of something important and I wanted to have a say. Months later, I was selected to stand at the podium and lead the packed hall in reciting the pledge of allegiance at our swearing in ceremony.
I have since voted in two U.S. general elections. I take pride in exercising my franchise to determine how this country should be governed. Did things go the way I wanted each time? No, they didn’t.
On January 6, 2021, along with the rest of the world, I watched the Capitol under siege, in utter disbelief. It was a sobering day for me for many reasons that I’m still processing. My head literally hurt.
Today, I believe that we can rise from this. But we need to shift our attitude. Repeatedly, throughout history, democracy has proven itself to be a fragile privilege that can be taken away by Machiavellian despots and their sycophants. America is not insulated from this. We must learn to heed warning signs and remove from power those who are willing to sink to the depths of corruption in blind ambition.
We must reject anyone who encourages us to mistrust free and fair elections and asks us to seize power through violence.
If anything, I hope that Americans are now more convinced than ever that they must VOTE at every opportunity. We must know the names of our representatives and what they stand for. We must vote at municipal elections, vote at US general elections, vote at school board meetings, vote at shareholder meetings. Vote, vote, vote. And we must hold ALL elected leaders accountable. If we are willing to do this, then I believe that this great democracy, wracked as it currently is by inequity, inequality and racial injustice, can slowly right its wrongs.
Ultimately, I believe that becoming and being American means I have a say in determining our future. I cannot afford to squander it, and neither can you.
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© Arlene Amitirigala 2021. All Rights Reserved.