Jackie, 34, was born in Managua, Nicaragua, the fifth of six children. Her family came to the United States in 1982 when there was a revolution in Nicaragua.
Today she lives in Miami, and teaches high school English at a charter school for low-income families. Jackie was kind enough to tell me about immigrating to the US, as well as her life in Miami, and I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did!
What brought you to America?
My father was afraid that my brothers would be recruited by the Sandinistas to fight, and so we were desperate to get out of the country.
My father was an American citizen. His father had been a Navy/CIA officer from Nashville, Tennessee. While on a mission in Nicaragua, he met my grandmother. They married and had two sons and two daughters, then left Nicaragua to move to the United States.
Later, my grandparents divorced, and my grandmother felt that on her own, she couldn’t take care of her four children. So she sent her two sons back to Nicaragua and stayed in the U.S. with her daughters.
My father and uncle grew up in Nicaragua, raised by one of my grandmother’s brothers. They never saw my grandparents again. When we moved to Arizona, it was the first time my father had seen his sister in about 40 years.
After spending a year in Arizona, we moved west to California. We lived in L.A. from the time I was six years old until I was eleven. My family felt homesick and wanted to live somewhere where there was a Nicaraguan community, and that’s how we wound up in Miami, where I’ve lived most of my life.
Wow. Do you remember what the reunion was like between your father and your aunt? If I were your father, I imagine I’d have a lot of resentment toward a sibling who got to stay in the US.
I’m not sure how he felt. I was too young to reflect on complex feelings like resentment. He passed away when I was 14, and I’d give anything to be able to talk to him about these things.
I’ve always found his family history so fascinating. What I do remember is that he had a lot of resentment toward his parents. He hated my grandfather for leaving my grandmother (he’d cheated on her) and for being absent in his children’s lives after the divorce.
Later in his life, my father spoke about resenting my grandmother, and how eventually she stopped writing and calling. He resented his sisters too, because they didn’t even tell him where my grandmother was buried.
Wow. (I keep saying wow.) Do you remember what it was it like coming to the United States as a five-year old?
I do remember, very vividly, what it was like. It was scary, frustrating and sad.
The first year we were in the U.S., four of my siblings were still in Nicaragua. We immigrated in batches: first my parents, my youngest sister, and me. Then two more of my siblings arrived, and finally my two eldest brothers. (By that time, they were married and immigrating for them was more complicated.)
I really missed my older sister, Marbely, who has always been like a second mom to me. She’s 15 years older than me. I cried about it all the time.
My dad adapted faster. He worked long hours as a handyman in an apartment building and was away from home a lot.
Going to school was hard, because I didn’t know a word of English. Kids and teachers would talk to me, and the more they talked, the more frustrated I became.
Once, I punched a kid in the face because he wouldn’t stop talking to me, and I just couldn’t figure out what he wanted. I’d cry every day and beg my mom not to send me to school.
Sometimes she’d cry along with me, but kept insisting I had to keep going, that I’d learn the language soon. I remember watching Sesame Street and—believe it or not—I Iearned a lot of English watching that show.
Even my mom picked up a few phrases.
That’s the sweetest argument for Sesame Street! What was your mom’s experience like?
My mom had a hard time, too. She was isolated at home and her whole family was still in Nicaragua.
In the U.S., she had no one to talk to. In Nicaragua, she had neighbors, friends and relatives. She had been a business owner, so many people knew her and respected her, but here, she was no one.
And it didn’t help that my aunt wasn’t very welcoming toward her. My mother was my father’s second wife, and was of a lower social class.
For a long time, my father’s family went out of their way to make her feel inferior and rejected. My father took a passive approach to the issue and just stayed out of it, so that made my mom resentful.
In the beginning, she’d threaten my dad by saying she’d go back to Nicaragua with us and that he could stay in the U.S. alone if he wanted to, but that never happened.
Once my aunts got to know my mother, they accepted her and even respected her.
Even though your father was an American citizen, did you feel you had an “American dad” or a “Nicaraguan” dad?
My father had some qualities of both cultures, but he was definitely more Nicaraguan than American.
He admired how independent American kids were and he loved how important sports were in American culture.
He fought with my mom often over her tendency to be overprotective. He wanted us to join Girl Scouts and he pushed us to be physically active. He often took us to the park to play catch, basketball or tennis.
He loved American things like camping and barbecuing and family road trips. He loved the English language and tried his best to speak with us in English as often as possible.
He was really patriotic and proud of his heritage, even my grandfather’s accomplishments, although he resented him.
But, like most Nicaraguan fathers, he was very possessive of his daughters, especially when it came to dating.
I didn’t experience this personally because I was too young when he died, but I saw him in action with my older sister. He was very suspicious and skeptical of anyone my sister dated. He’d interrogate them and give them what I call “The Stare.” My dad had this way of staring at someone, like an Australian shepherd dog commanding sheep with his gaze.
It was frightnening.
Also, he was your typical Nicaraguan husband. My mother did all the housework and he worked outside the home. At home he did manly things like fix cars, home improvement projects, and yard work, but you’d never catch him washing a dish or cooking.
He did, however, play an active role in our lives, more than my mother, actually. He attended all our school events and met with our teachers. He also took us to all our medical appointments. He did homework with us. He took us to the library. We read together.
I have many fond memories of trips to the library where he’d go through stacks of magazines and my younger sister and I would pick up Nancy Drew mysteries and picture story books.
That is all so sweet!
Do you feel like Americans know a lot about Nicaragua?
In my experience, Americans know very little about Nicaragua. I once had a grad school classmate ask me if Nicaragua was in Africa.
Aaaah! How does that make you feel?
I don’t expect Americans to know much about Nicaragua. It’s a small country in Central America that is very similar to most countries in the region—characterized by poverty and war.
When I come across someone who knows nothing about Nicaragua, I’d rather have that person ask me curious questions than make ignorant assumptions.
I like that idea. On that note, you’ve lived in Miami since you were 11. What do you like about your city?
I love the beaches and the parks and the abundance of Latin culture.
What do you think most people don’t know about Miami?
I think most people outside of Miami have this assumption that we spend our days on South Beach drinking, dancing and hanging out on the beach.
The reality is that most of us live in the suburbs (pretty far away from South Beach) and work really hard.
Also, there’s this stereotype that people in Miami are airheads, but there’s an intellectual community here and people who are into the arts, too.
Ever considered living elsewhere?
Yes. I love New York City. I got a masters in journalism and tried to settle there, but financially it was really difficult. Also, with my mom being pretty sick, I would have ended up in Miami at some point, anyhow. She needs me. My family needs me.
You mentioned that you’re an English teacher and that many of your students are ESOL (English speakers of another language)? What’s that like?
I love what I do. ESOL students are challenging because you have to find a way to not frustrate them. They can’t keep up due to the language, but you also want to make sure they are being challenged and are making learning gains. Some people have this assumption that becuase they are English learners, they have lower academic skills, but that isn’t always the case.
In fact, some of my ESOL students are much better students than kids who were born here. In general, they have a great work ethic and are used to working at a higher academic level in their countries. I love working with them because it gives me a chance to make a difference in their lives.
Right now, English is the most important subject for them because their success in this country will depend on mastering it.
Amazing. Do you ever feel like you’re seeing a younger version of yourself?
It definitely gives me a unique perspective as a teacher. I take a special interest in students who remind me of myself at a younger age. It’s almost like having a do-over in life. I try to provide them with the support and guidance I didn’t receive from the majority of my teachers.
Any sense of how your issues are similar/different from theirs given the time period?
Our issues are similar in that they are trying to make their place in this new setting, while at the same time learning a ton of information in as short a time as possible. I think also that since they came to the U.S. at a later age, they face different challenges than I did.
I was 5, my world was still pretty flexible. It only took me two years to learn the language fluently. But when you come here at 14 or 15, you have a harder time losing your accent, learning the language, and adjusting to new people and a new system.
Most of these kids still have family and friends back home and it’s difficult to leave that behind and to start over. They struggle with feeling displaced and with meeting parents’ expectations for academic success.
Immigrant parents place a lot of pressure on their kids to make family dreams happen. Immigrant kids are constantly reminded of all the sacrifices made in order to be in the U.S. and of how many opportunities are available to them that were not available in their own countries.
Growing up, I always felt like I had to succeed not just for me, but for my entire family. I had to do everything they weren’t able to do. It makes you a hard worker and become an overachiever, which is not necessarily bad, but it’s a lot of pressure. I was the first person to graduate from college in my family and the only one to pursue grad school.