My Legacy is Female

By Jaclyn Jermyn

When I was growing up, my favorite family story was about my Great Grandmother, Christine. She came to America alone when she was in her teens. My only mental image of the small Italian town she left is from a postcard with my Nana’s handwriting across the bottom, noting the significance of the place. It shows a long dusty cobblestone street and a Shell gas station sign.

Christine arrived at Ellis Island with the promise of a man who would sponsor her and marry her. He didn’t show up, leaving her stranded for days—or weeks, I was never quite sure on the details—until my Great Grandfather Mauro showed up.

In my mind, Christine was a firecracker of a woman. She was small and stature and stubborn. She was the first woman in her Italian immigrant community in Lynn, Massachusetts to get her driver’s license, much to the awe and annoyance of her neighbors. She raised five children during the great depression. She would bury four of them in her lifetime.

In her later years, and I mean much later years, she fought off a knife-wielding intruder and pinned her attacker down in her front hallway until a friend could call the police.

When my father started bringing my mother to Wednesday-night family dinners, Christine welcomed this skinny, Irish girl in the signature Italian grandmother fashion: by feeding her copious amounts of pasta.

My mother is one of three girls born into an Irish working-class family straight out of Boston. My grandparents worked constantly to support themselves. My mother and my aunts found their way in the world largely on their own because of this. At 21, my mother got on a plane for the first time to go train as a Pan-Am stewardess. She wore a leather skirt to her interview and told the panel she looked really good in navy blue—the color of the uniforms at the time.

I am the eldest grandchild on both sides of my family. On my mother’s side, I am the only girl. On my father’s side, I am one of two. If this were anything about family legacy, maybe that would mean more. I have no family names. I am not named after anyone. I have spent much of my life thinking of our family as average because their accomplishments seemingly fit the bill of what immigrant families did.

Most people that I knew growing up were 4th or 3rd generation immigrant families. If you follow the pattern of fathers, everyone worked hard and provided for their families. They farmed and built houses, fought in wars, and drank when their shifts were over. They did good things and they did not so good things but lived their lives as best as they could.

If you follow the line of mothers, generation after generations, you see sheer willpower to do something different—to go one step further than their mothers did. To strike out on their own or marry outside of their ethnic group or wear leather skirts to important interviews. That’s legacy in itself. That’s a tradition I wouldn’t mind following for the sake of tradition. 

The Eastern European Mindset on Mental Health

By Rivka Yeker

Mental illness doesn’t exist to Eastern European immigrants, as they are stuck in their strict beliefs that everyone can pick themselves up from their bootstraps if they wanted to. There is something chilling and apathetic about that ideology, something that screams Ayn Rand and neoliberalism. Probably because that’s exactly what it is, and precisely why it’s harmful.

Growing up, my mind was perpetually wandering, I was always intrigued by the abnormal, by the uncomfortable. I was listening to albums that captured death and torment at nine years old, enamored by song lyrics that mentioned suicide. It was obvious that I started glorifying sadness from a young age, fascinated with its dark mysticism and the ambiguities of the way it exists. It never felt foreign, though, it always felt like a distant friend, something that I could always find comfort in.

As I got older, I started to understand that that my emotions and feelings were sporadic and sometimes even dangerous.  I experienced uncontrollable anxiety and bursts of overdramatic anger. I was worried. My parents were not, though. They reminded me that it was normal, my hormones were just all over the place, that it’ll pass. My parents never once decided that I was dealing with what was entirely out of my control, instead they were convinced that all of this craziness was easily tamed by learning how to breathe and exercise.

Those are two very helpful techniques to decrease anxiety and depression, but it will never get rid of them. This was a concept my parents simply couldn’t/cannot wrap their heads around, this was something that was ludicrous and out of the question. No matter how many times I begged for medication or a visit to a therapist, they refused, and I would be scolded if I were to have a panic attack in public.

Essentially, they believed that I was a spoiled little girl completely out of control. In some ways, they were right. But once they managed to kick the spoiled little girl out of me, with their cold Russian techniques, making sure I’d remind myself how hard they worked to get to where they are/where I am, I eventually became a more conscious and understanding person.

The depression and the anxiety didn’t go away, though. It fluctuated, sure, but it always remained somewhere in my fuzzy head.

Today, my mom asks me why my art always has to be so depressing.

My parents have always been aware of my strange tastes, whether it was in music, film, or literature; they have always questioned the value. They trained me to be an elitist, insisting that I appreciate high art, to essentially become a pretentious snob. They’ve accomplished that in some ways. Yet, they didn’t realize that by encouraging me to pursue a higher education, I’d actually bypass them intellectually and realize how wrong they are about most things. For one, there is no such thing as “real art” as my parents claim, and trying to be apart of a high-brow society when you aren’t filthy rich or American (if you live in America) seems ridiculous in itself.

My parents have a misconception of art today, even though they are huge appreciators of it. They have taken me to museums and plays since I’ve been a little kid, always exposing me to the beautiful and the eerie. I am forever grateful for that, but I sometimes worry about their mindsets during those trips. Which paintings were they intrigued by?

They aren’t artists. They read, even write sometimes, but they aren’t artists. Their friends are other Russian immigrants their age along with their Rabbi’s community of more Russian Jews. The majority of their friends are Russian people living in America, perpetuating the same viewpoints. They aren’t escaping their bubble, and they are very content with where they are.

So, when my mother asks me why depression seems to be popular amongst my friends, I begin to feel nauseous. When she asks me why I surround myself with people that claim themselves to be mentally ill, I feel sicker. When she says that she’s concerned, that she thinks they have a negative influence on me, I feel speechless, filled with anger.

I have explained to my parents countless amounts of times that I can’t simply turn my brain off. They have done everything in their power to make me work as hard as I do, by telling me that it’s all my personality and that I am “overemotional," refusing to claim any of my instabilities as a “disorder,” but I am seeing a therapist, and I am analyzing my actions and emotions. I am trying to find confirmation in something that has been invalidated my entire life. I am doing something they never did; I am making the crucial decision to work on my mental health and am taking the right steps to where I need to be.

I am trying to explain to my mother that my friends are my friends because they understand me more than any of my other friends ever have. I am trying to explain that the art community is filled with mentally ill people because art allows expression of the mind, something that every mentally ill person needs to survive. I am trying to explain that I have never been comfortable around anyone ever, that I always feel isolated regardless of who I am with, and that the people that I hang out with are the only ones that will ever make me feel safe in my identity.

But she still doesn’t get it. She thinks I need to explore different friend groups, probably find someone that likes tasting wine at vineyards and going to noncontroversial plays. Somehow I will find comfort in these people, she thinks. If she thinks that I make too much depressing art, that my poetry is never happy, that I am incapable of being optimistic, I want to show her how my day-to-day life is art, and that I am trying so hard to make it the kind of art she wants it to be.

Every day I get out of bed, go to class where I study media and film theory/analysis, creative writing, and public relations/advertising. I run an arts & culture magazine. I work as a barista bookseller at a book cafe, I freelance write, I am always searching for internships, and throwing events and hosting readings. I am always looking for new projects and writing essays on theories I am hoping to expand upon. I struggle with chronic headaches and migraines, and have been sick with an infection that has completely debilitated my life for the entirety of 2016, yet somehow, she is still convinced that I am losing a battle, that my optimism is somehow sunken and nowhere to be seen.

So when I make art that reflects depressive thoughts, or poetry that is drenched with negative emotional energy, I am not sorry. This is my therapy, the kind that has been deprived from me my entire life.

I do not blame my parents for being who they are; that is not their fault. They aren’t bad people, in fact, they are wonderful people. But, they have ideologies that have been ingrained in them since the Soviet Union, things that they grew up with, and things they thought they’d instill in me. They raised me to be unbelievably strong and determined, and I will cherish that for as long as I live, but I cannot defeat something that is apart of me; that would be like destroying myself entirely.

My Roots Say “Fuck the American Dream”

My roots are an immigrant’s struggle, specifically that of my parents. My roots grow from bloody hands, from sweat-drenched clothing, aching muscles, pinched nerves, sunburnt skin, and relentless hearts. The following words are deeply rooted in mi papa and mi mama. All of my knowledge, I owe to them

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My dad pulls the bill of his cap down over his eyes, leans his head back on the edge of the couch, and tells me, “no es justo mija” (it is not fair, my daughter).

I know he’s on the verge of crying; his voice is shaking and he won’t make eye contact. It’s a Sunday evening and he can’t enjoy his only day off. The word “debt’ is too heavy, too scary, too debilitating.

My aunt and I are sitting on the couch with him trying to reassure him that it’ll be okay. But he’s $10,000 dollars in debt. I tell him that it’s not so bad, that there are people who owe way more, and for stupid reasons. He tells me that it’s not about the amount, that it’s about the injustice. And I understand, or I think I do.

My dad hates America, and I do too. He’s always been able to put it into words, way long before I started getting into social justice. He would tell me “in this country, the poor and uneducated have to work like mules for the rich and privileged. I’m sick of it, I’m a human, I’m not a farm animal.”

He came to the US when he was a young teenage boy; he labored in California’s farmland for about ten years, living in Chicago briefly, and returning to Mexico a few times a year to visit us. He was gone for the first few years of my life, until my mom demanded that he take my older brothers and I back to the United States with him.

His 15 hour shifts picking artichoke, strawberries, broccoli, spinach, etc. paid for the rent of our home - a tiny blue trailer home a few miles from Salinas - and kept our stomachs full. Coming from our previous home in rural Mexico, where we wouldn’t have much to eat if we couldn’t sell a cow, pig, chicken, etc. for money, our first few months in the US were a dramatic improvement.

We stayed in California for about half a year, until I was six. But then my older brother Ezequiel started hanging out with gang members in Castroville. My parents feared he would become a criminal and end up in jail, so we moved to rural Illinois. My father traded in his connection to the land to work in a meat-packing factory, where he would insert rectal cleansers inside of dead pigs. My mother, who had previously not worked, had to join him in order to make ends meet. She worked third shift, dipping her gloved hands into the hot blood gathered inside of pig skulls in order to scoop out every pig brain that passed by her on the assembly line. They worked like this for 10 years, succumbing to long hours, strict rules, strong punishments and discrimination at Farmland Foods.

Looking back, I’m not sure what kept my parents going. I can’t imagine what would drive 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week, inside of such an awful workplace. Perhaps it was putting my brothers and I through school that kept them going. Ultimately, I think it was all part of the American Dream; the false belief that if you work yourself almost to death, you will one day be economically stable and happy. I think they worked for a day in the future where they wouldn’t have to use credit cards or borrowed money to pay for all of our food, our health expenses, our books for school, our clothing, our basic needs.

When the opportunity to break free from Farmland came, it was because my dad got fired for taking a dollar bill that he found sticking out of a vending machine, even though he had planned to turn it in. Luckily, my brother Ezequiel had moved to Houston where he worked as a logistics agent at an international logistics company and managed to get my dad a job there.

Houston was supposed to be a breakthrough for my parents; life in the suburbs, a new job where my cousin’s husband was the manager, where the workers were treated well, given monthly lunches, no pig carcasses in sight, just some boxes and forklifts.

But we are here, four years later.

After talking to my aunt and I for a while, I can tell my dad can’t keep the tears in any longer. He has to be up at 4am the next morning so he says goodnight and goes into his bedroom. As I sit on the couch listening to the sniffles coming from his bedroom, I think about our conversation, about my family’s constant struggle to just make ends meet, to be “successful”, to live the “American Dream”, and I am suddenly overwhelmed by the fact that shame is what is making my father so sad. He feels defeated by the system, and he feels like he’s failed his family.  

I sit and wonder what he’s thinking; I’m sure his past is on his mind, or rather, his proximity to the past he’s tried to leave so long ago. His intelligence and awareness of injustices are far greater than mine, because he’s lived them his entire life. Though he might not have the social justice language for it, he is falling asleep in tears because he feels the weight and pain and abuse of living in a racist, sexist, capitalist society that tells men that if they can’t provide for their families, they’re worthless.

All of this rushes through me as my dad’s sniffles get louder, so I go into his bedroom and hug him, I tell him that I love him. He tells me, “I’m not a bad person. I’m going to pay. I just need time. But they (debt collectors/third party groups/the legal system) won’t give me time.” I tell him that we’re in this as a family, and that I understand. I understand that they don’t care. Bank of America doesn’t give a shit about me or my family, or anyone’s family, they just plaster children’s faces on their advertisements to appeal to good ol’ Americans who are wealthy and privileged enough to believe in corporations, or in this country really.

As I hug my dad, I realize that more than anything, he is starting to understand that no matter how many steps you take in the right direction, no matter how much you play by the rules, you are most likely going to end up losing. I think that he is, or maybe I am, or perhaps both of us are simultaneously understanding that you can go to jail for trying to live the American dream. You can run away from bad decisions, have good morals, a family, but you still run the risk of being criminalized, for being poor and racking up too much debt to keep your family well fed and well educated; for being Mexican immigrants who are doing everything in their power to get ahead given their limited circumstances. No matter what, it is not enough for American banks, for the law, for corporations. No matter what good my family has done, it still falls short in the eyes of this corrupt system.

Native Girl, White Skin

When I was a little girl, I told people that there was a war going on inside me.

My father is full-blooded Native American. His skin is dark. A dreamcatcher is tattooed on his arm. He’s tall, stoic, and his voice is deep. He speaks in a rhythm that I’ve only ever heard on the reservation. He calls me every time he sees an eagle.

My mother is Scottish, Argentine, the kind of Spanish with pale, pale skin. She grew up in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born. If you asked her, she’d ignore everything else and tell you that she’s British. She’s not wrong. Her accent is strong and musical, even after 25+ years in America. She has a Union Jack flag on her car and her friends send her copies of British tabloids.

As a child, I knew that in the war that made America, my mom would have fought for the redcoats, and my dad would have fought with the revolutionaries. The colonists. The Americans. The fighting was inside me now, deep in my heart or somewhere in my DNA. I didn’t think it was a sad thing, back then. I thought it was cool.

In kindergarten, I played the role of the Friendly Indian in our Thanksgiving skit. I wore a brown fabric “buckskin” dress, a feathered headdress made of construction paper, and smeared two red lines of warpaint under my eyes. I was so very proud, but my skin was still white, and I didn’t really look anything like Pocahontas or Sacagawea. The pride floated around above me, nebulous, conceptual in the way that five-year-old me had no way to explain, even to myself.

My roots are in my father’s experiences. My roots are in my mother’s experiences. My roots extend beyond the place I was born, beyond the mountains my tribe is from, beyond the Spanish mountains my mother is from. My roots are stretched and twisted and extended beyond what I can keep track of, or understand. You ask me, where am I from. Who am I. You ask me, what does my cultural identity mean to me.

I have no answer for you. I’m removed from my Spanish roots, my Scottish roots. They mean something to me, but I don’t know what yet.

Because I grew up near my tribe, I have more lived experiences as a Native than as anything else. But even then, it’s not really the Native experience. I’m mixed. My skin is white. I have no answer, really, when you ask me what my cultural identity means to me. I can’t explain these things.

But I can try to show you.

The casino. The slot machines ding and trill in the background while I show you the Culture Corridor, a tiny hallway with museum-esque displays of beadwork, baskets, and photographs of my tribe’s history. We get stopped once or twice by someone with a nose like mine who tells me that they know my dad, or they knew my grandfather, and that I should say hello to my dad, and have fun at school. The people with noses like mine are usually wearing the maroon shirt of a casino employee.

The next place I would bring you to is Friday night bingo. The bingo hall is a one story building positioned right next to the casino, with the aesthetic of a cafeteria, all metal chairs and folding tables and white-speckled-with-gray linoleum tile. You can smoke at some of the tables, but we sit far away from that. A woman with a pleasant, monotonous voice calls off numbers from the front of the room, pausing while they flash on the screens set up near the ceiling. “B-9,” the bingo caller says. “O-57.” “I-22.” We daub our numbered sheets.

You see even more noses that look like mine. You don’t win anything, and I don’t either. In the bingo hall, there’s a tiny place called Frybread Heaven. It looks like the place the middle school lunch ladies put the hot food--hot pans with a sneeze guard, a metal shelf to slide your plastic tray down once you pile it with food.

I buy frybread, and I ask them to put cinnamon sugar and butter on it. Most of the time, frybread is eaten as an “Indian taco,” which is just a taco on our culture’s particular flour creation instead of another’s. But I don’t eat meat, so my frybread is more like a funnel cake from the fair. My dad always says that “vegetarian” is the Indian word for “bad hunter.” I tell you that this is the only traditional Native cuisine I can show you, because nothing else remains. Frybread is a staple of our culture because it is cheap and filling. It is not an age old recipe passed down from the days before the white invaders. It’s something that we made up out of necessity. For survival.

And here is a truth I have only learned very recently, and I’ve been living it all my life. When your people die, your culture dies too. The valiant attempts made to preserve our life and our ways have only been able to preserve slivers--bits and pieces. What we have saved, as rich and beautiful as it is, is just a fraction of what we’ve lost.

The genocide of the past, the genocide of America’s beginning, has not ended. Native women were forcibly sterilized well into the 70s. Alcoholism plagues us. Our children are dying in droves. Native children are three times more likely to commit suicide than any other ethnic group. In certain tribes, they’re ten times as likely.

Scholars have begun talking about intergenerational, historical trauma, or the idea that Natives born today are born cursed with the fear, pain, and trauma of their ancestors. It’s weaved into our DNA. Every dead native child is a direct result of colonization, colonization that continues to this day.

This is what we all have in common, I suppose, besides our wide noses. That trauma. That pain. That is what my roots are firmly dug into.

I can walk freely in the casino, in the bingo hall, around the Pow-Wow and the tribal council meetings, because my ID says that my blood qualifies me as a Native. But my skin doesn’t. I am free to enjoy the rest of the world because of what my mother gave me--white skin. Colonization, the very reason for my intergenerational trauma, is also the reason that my skin affords me so many opportunities and freedoms. Maybe most importantly, it’s what gives me a measure of safety in the world.

How do I reconcile these things? How do I live as a contradiction, a human being pulled in all these different directions, rooted in so many places?

I don’t know. That’s all I can say.

On Experiencing ‘Tough Love’ as an Asian-American Immigrant

By Saru Bhaksar 

Parental love in South /East Asian cultures is often portrayed as cold and distant. The parent-figures are typically emotionless authoritarian types that reply “But why didn’t you get a 100%?” when their child tells them they got a 95% on an exam. It is a cliché and stereotype but one I experienced first-hand.  My experience is one based on a fundamentally different set of cultural beliefs than the majority of people around me. For the intents and purposes of this piece, I will refer to this style of parenting as the tough-love mindset. As millennials, we are mocked and referred to as the coddled generation.  I don’t want to be coddled; I want to be respected.

Webster’s dictionary definition of tough love is “a disciplinary technique, as for a young person or loved one, in which a seemingly harsh or unfeeling course of action is chosen deliberately over one demonstrating tenderness or forbearance instinctively felt.”  Bill Milliken, a Christian minister who worked with at-risk youth in NYC, coined the phrase “tough love” in the ‘60s with his book of the same title.  Since then, he has acknowledged that the term is often used to justify harsh and abusive disciplinary programs. Tough love is a symptom of hyper-individualism and bootstraps mentality, which are strong Western ideals. Tough love enforces the idea that people can be whipped into shape, which may be true — but that doesn’t mean that it is healthy or the most effective.

Supposedly, tough love is difficult to do for parents (hence the name). The underlying philosophy behind tough love is that pain produces growth. However, there are many other ways to foster growth and success, and tough love should be used as a last-resort only in extreme situations — not as an everyday way of parenting. Beating people down so they will rise to the occasion may produce results, but it will also cause long-lasting resentment and anger. In this sense, the tough love myth is similar to the tortured-artist myth. It sounds poetic and effective but only leaves us feeling empty and alone.

I remember having to formally ask my dad not to call me “stupid.” I was nineteen and at my parents’ home, visiting from college. He had called me that name many times before that day—sometimes joking, sometimes serious. On that day he didn’t say it in a joking manner. It was full of anger and stung me harder than the other times he had said it. I waited until we were alone outside later in the day and confronted him —“Dad, it makes me feel really bad when you call me stupid –- or any other insulting word, even if you mean it as a joke. It rings in my head days after you say it so please choose your words more carefully.” He laughed it off and agreed to cool it. It wasn’t even the worst thing he has called me. It didn’t really stop for good, and I continue asking for tenderness because it’s all I can do.

Of course, I still try and rationalize how and why my parents used the tough love approach in raising me. Western society places heavy emphasis on the individual while the Eastern mindset is more concerned with the family unit. So perhaps the tough love approach comes from wanting to control and better the family unit as a whole. Maybe my parents see me as direct extensions of themselves, meaning they can speak and treat me however they choose (which to an extent may be true, but like autonomy). Maybe tough love is the only way they knew because it is how they (and everyone around them) were raised. Additionally, the dense population in India and China makes for a hyper-competitive atmosphere. Striving for perfection is directly related to this. The stakes are high when there are a billion other people who could do whatever job you’re doing so it is important to be the best. A 95% on an exam won’t do when there are many others getting 100%.

I am still learning to love and forgive my parents for their imperfections — just as I am learning to love and forgive my own imperfections. I know they are not hateful people at their core. They want me to flourish and live the life that they dreamt of when we immigrated here. They don’t use the tough love approach all the time, either. Sometimes they are genuine and soft — especially now that I’m an adult and ask consciously for what I need. As I navigate post-grad life and the anxiety of finding full time (and meaningful) work, I need my parents to be cheerleaders more than ever. I quite literally tell my parents in words that I need them to be nicer or gentler with whatever message they are trying to convey. I directly ask them for empathy.  I don’t need tough love — the world is tough enough.