Paola & Mateo

  • Paola & Mateo New York, NY

“My mom came to the United States out of necessity. She was a single mom who spoke no English, had only a high school education, had two young children, ages seven and three. No family, no money to speak of, and she was completely and totally alone. To add to that she was very young, she was 24. I always know that if my mother was able to make magic out of nothing everyday for 30+ years, then I can do it too. So if there is an idea of what the American dream is, if people believe in that, I would say that my mom is it.”

Paola’s story:

My family is from Colombia. I came to the States when I was two years old with my mom and older brother. We were going to be reunited with my father, but when we arrived here, a couple months after we got here my father abandoned the family. It became just my mom, my brother, and myself.

The first thing that pops into my head about my first American experience is about my mom. She has a very strong accent, and I was probably eight or nine when a friend from school came over to my house, and I don’t know how the conversation came up but I said, “Yeah, my mom’s American.” And she said “No she’s not.” I said “What do you mean?” And she’s like, “Your mom was not born here, she’s not from here, listen to how she talks.” I remember her laughing at me, and I was so confused because I had never heard my mom’s accent, I just thought that’s how my mom spoke. And also the concept that my mom wasn’t American never crossed my mind. I never realized that we were not considered from here. I would go back to Colombia, so I knew we had another country and another life, but up until that moment I didn’t realize that we weren’t part of everyone’s America. That is when I realized there was an America that some people didn’t want us to belong to.

My mom came to the United States out of necessity which is, I think, how most immigrants home to the U.S. She didn’t have anything in her home country, but she she had hopes and dreams and ideas. It was really, really hard. My mom was a single mom who spoke no English, had only a high school education, had two young children, ages seven and three. No family, no money to speak of, and she was completely and totally alone. My mom’s time in the States was beyond difficult. And to add to that she was very young, she was 24. She faced the impossible everyday, literally, whether it was where we were going to find food that day or where we were going to sleep that night. There were times that we didn’t have a house and we slept in a park. Through it all my mom somehow, someway managed to get a job, learn English, and put her children through school. My brother and I each have our master’s degree, so she instilled the value of education in us. If there is an idea of what the American dream is, if people believe in that, I would say that my mom is it. She came from absolutely nothing, had nothing in this country, and now has a life, a family with grandchildren, and a future.

My mom has taught me so much. She has been the defender of my life for so long. I am a filmmaker and so being a filmmaker can get hard. When it does get hard, I always have my history to fall back on. I always know that if my mother was able to make magic out of nothing everyday for 30+ years then I can do it too. I don’t have any excuses. The idea of “I can’t” doesn’t exist in my vocabulary because I don’t have that luxury. I think I live a very different life than how I grew up, and I think my son is going to live a very different life too. I think about that a lot, how I didn’t have privilege as a child, I didn’t even know what privilege looked like until I got to college. My boyfriend Michael and I talk about maintaining that humility and that groundedness all the time. For my boyfriend it is a choice and for me, it is where I come from.

My mom has taught me ingenuity and creativity, she’s taught me about how to love a child without needing a lot of physical things, external things, in order to provide for him. I guess it’s safe to say my mom taught me to never forget where I came from and how to take that and pass it down to my child.

My boyfriend is 75% Russian and 25% Polish. His grandparents came here through Ellis Island and Mateo will be a fifth generation New Yorker. I always joke with him and say that he was the first Jewish person I ever met. There are Jews in Colombia, but there are not many of them, only about 5,000. So there are definitely cultural clashes. For example, it drives Michael crazy if I’m drinking a cup of juice and I don’t finish it so I put the cup with the juice back in the refrigerator for later. It annoys him so much, but I would never throw it out. Back in Colombia you don’t throw out foods that are edible and drinkable, you just don’t do it because poverty is on a whole different level there. Sometimes it’s the exchanging of cultures and traditions that have been passed down, talking about what things mean for me and what things mean for him. Michael’s family celebrates Passover, I’d never done this before, but now we do Passover every year. I’d like my son to continue that tradition throughout his life. When we go to Colombia we celebrate Christmas on the 24th, and Michael has been with us every Christmas. Mateo is growing up in a bilingual, bicultural household, and he will hopefully be able to love and experience both sides of our cultures. I think that because he is in the United States he will feel more American than anything.

For me to speak Spanish as well as I do, to know my culture as well as I do, to be connected to my country as much as I am, is a very conscience choice. It is a decision that I wake up and make everyday. I go to the news, I read what is happening in Colombia. It is important to me. I am proud of being Colombian, I love Colombia. My family has been in Colombia for hundreds and hundreds of years. Our breath is there, our blood is there, our lives are part of that land. So I feel at home there. I am very lucky that I have two homes in the world; most people don’t have that. I can live in two different countries and feel at home in both. We always want to return home, it is where we feel best. I feel best in Colombia and I feel best in New York.

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