Intersections – Refuge on borrowed landNicki Salcedo
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
– Langston Hughes
By Nicki Salcedo
My cousin Errol and I were born in different countries. He’s a self-proclaimed Englishman. That’s the land of his birth. I was born across the ocean on a tiny island. When I met my cousin, I felt all kinds of emotions. Since I have only sisters, it was like finding a long-lost brother. A brother who was a stranger I met at 40 years old.
I’m an immigrant. It’s not the same as being a refugee. My parents had a choice. We didn’t have to leave. I always wonder what I would’ve been like if we stayed.
My grandmother died when my mom was 10 years old. That was the defining moment in my mom’s life. That was the moment when her family became splintered. Her sister left Jamaica on a boat for England. I say I have a vivid imagination, but I can’t imagine leaving my family, my home, at the age of 15.
That’s the world we live in. Moving from country to country is not a unique or modern thing. How many of our ancestors had to make a choice to leave home? It wasn’t a choice made lightly. It isn’t something most Americans would consider, but we aren’t the whole world.
I moved to America when I was a baby. That was the defining moment in my life. I was 18 months old. I went back to Jamaica for the first time when I was 17 years old. But I spent 17 years of my life having people tell me that I wasn’t American. I wasn’t Southern. I couldn’t claim Georgia. It made other people more comfortable to label me “not American.” At 17, I began to take back my history with all the labels and without.
I guess I am borrowing this land. I come from a long line of people who moved from places like Ireland, Germany, France, and England. I come from a long line of people who were taken from Africa. I don’t know why I claim any one place. Pieces of those ancestors are still in me. It reminds me that I don’t belong anywhere.
The families of Kerr, Clarke, Lambert, Dussard, Norman, and Harris are in me. They might not have imagined what seeds were sown in the travels and loves and heartaches of generations. I look up at the sky and say, “Here I am. I hope I am worthy of you.”
I cannot utter the names of the families whose names were forgotten from the lineage, because someone deemed them worthless. I still think of them. They traveled from all corners of the world. They survived so I might try to do the same.
I know the worth of my ancestors who have no name. I imagine their journeys from cold dark water to the blue transparent Caribbean Sea. They must have missed home whether they left by choice or force. They must have made a new home in foreign lands. Learned new languages, ate new food, found someone to love.
We feel like we own the ground even though we are borrowing the land and the air and the sea. Some people must possess everything. We must belong to a specific place. We must own something. We have to define and conquer the afterlife. For now, you own a house and a car and a way of life. It is “this land is my land” without the “this land is your land” response.
The world isn’t fair. We all aren’t equal no matter how much we fight for it. Some will have more and others less. Some will experience so much tragedy and continue to bury it. Others will germinate hate and disseminate it like a bomb. They try to put fear in the air like dust. Like dust, it clings to our skin.
I don’t want to redistribute all the things in the world equally, but I’d like people to remember that we are borrowing this land and this life. No matter your faith, we will all give it back one day. The streets you drive on aren’t yours. The clothes you wear are borrowed. I don’t have to be first or have the most. I turn off the TV and silence the media. I pray. I smile. I cry. I smile again.
I don’t know how this country, the land can ever truly be mine alone. I’m borrowing it.
I think about my cousin who I loved upon first meeting. He was so assured in his “I’m an Englishman.” Is it because I’m a woman that I am unsure? Is it because I am American? Is it because we want to close the shores, and I imagine myself on the other side locked out? I imagine not being worthy of any of these things. Just because I question, does not reduce my pride in my country. Or my compassion for others.
There are so many people who have given their life that I might live. That guy who liked wine. Those people on boats listing in the storm. I imagine my mom and her sister saying goodbye 65 years ago. Now they meet each week by video conference across the continents.
I try to figure out this world. What things need to change? What things I must wait for? Like the tide. Like heartache.
“Intersections,” the book, is a collection of columns from Decaturish.com and beyond. It is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.