The New American Leader’s Project (NALP) is a bipartisan non-profit organization that is “leading a movement for inclusive democracy by preparing first and second generation Americans to use their power and potential in elected office. NALP stands by the belief that when our elected officials mirror the makeup of our nation, we achieve stronger communities, a more responsive government, and a robust democracy.” During a recent training sponsored by NALP, I felt validated for the first time in my life. In my experience as an elected official, I never shared my story as a first-generation American to seek common ground. On the contrary, getting involved in politics exposed me to the fact that we are represented by strangers and that most of us are still yearning to be seen and heard.
I am a proud first-generation American. Growing up, I didn’t really understand or appreciate the power of my heritage. I remember feeling like I did not belong anywhere. “Ni de aquí, ni de allá.” I wasn’t from here or there. Every time I visited family in Mexico, I was an outsider, gifted free hot dogs at the corner stand in return for being able to recite the ABC’s in English. When I came back home from our annual visits, I was not American enough. I was an English-language learner for most of my childhood and had to be enrolled in speech classes to improve my enunciation (i.e. minimize my accent). If it weren’t for my struggle with language acquisition, I wouldn’t have felt as different in the U.S. The majority of my classmates looked like me and we were all bilingual. But as I grew up, I realized that even though we shared similar histories, we never saw them reflected in our books. It made me question if I actually belonged here and that feeling followed me through college. “Ni de aquí, ni de allá.”
My dad immigrated to the United States in the ‘80s and became a resident through his employer. My mom crossed the border illegally in 1985. She often shares her story to remind us that the best things in life don’t come easy, and to ground us when we are taking things for granted. My mother had just graduated from college in Mexico with a degree as a registered nurse when she came to the U.S. The move to California meant she had to leave all her dreams and aspirations behind and start over but she wanted to be with my dad, and she knew that the United States offered more employment and educational opportunities. My siblings and I grew up with access to limitless opportunities, at the cost of her sacrifices. Even though I was familiar with her journey crossing the border illegally in search of the American Dream, it wasn’t until last year that I truly understood the power of my story as the daughter of immigrants.
While I have been privileged to work alongside many others who look like me and shared my background locally, in the larger context of our country as a whole, immigrants and their first generation children are rarely represented. NALP changed that for me. Many of us in the training shared a similar narrative: We worked hard and did our best to help others achieve their own potential, often working against systems meant to keep us from succeeding. Still, many of us hadn’t realized that we had to own our stories if we wanted to help others feel like they too could embrace their identities, and we had to serve our country and be visible for our underrepresented communities if we wanted to have a greater impact. We carry the weight of our ancestor’s sacrifices on our shoulders. Our stories as proud Americans seeking to empower one another in the pursuit of happiness need to be heard.
We are a country of immigrants that have contributed to America’s development, yet we are often excluded from the nation’s narrative. Now, more than ever, we must stand together and amplify our stories. Don’t allow a single person to question your American pride. We must remember that there are more of us than there are of them. Our first and second generation American students need to be reminded that this country is OUR home, and they should not live in fear or uncertainty. We are here to advocate for them. This is OUR home and no ignorant lunatic can ever make you question your own potential and ability to serve.
So here is my question for you: Want to live up to the sacrifices our parents and families have made to provide us a better life? Want to demonstrate your pride as a daughter or son of immigrants or as an immigrant yourself? Run for office! Our country needs you more than ever. The more of us there are, the more weight our voices will carry. We need you to answer the call. We need you to serve. And if you don’t know where to start, then start here
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