She came to America holding a Barbie doll and wearing head phones. She wore the new clothes I’d brought and the bracelet the orphanage workers had given her as a goodbye gift. She’d lived in a children’s center in Managua, Nicaragua, for over a year while officials quarreled about what was best for her. Finally it was decided that letting her be adopted by an American family (us) was the best thing for her. So I flew from Milwaukee to Managua to fetch our little immigrant.
In a story told many times, she leaped to her feet and ran out the door of her hut into my arms the minute she saw me approaching. “Mama!” she yelled as if I’d just come back from a long trip. She sat down on the bench next to me, looked at my now straight hair and asked pointedly where the curls (my old perm) had gone. Baffled, I right away remembered we’d sent her a little photo album of our family as a way to get acquainted. My friend interpreted. “No habla Espanol?” Oh God, I thought, nobody told her that her new mother doesn’t speak Spanish.
She was undeterred. She drew pictures and we labeled them – gato (cat), perro (dog), and the favorite, because my bag was loaded, galleta (cookie). Every day for a week, we would sit in one of the steamy little cabins, children flopping around on mats while donated toys, including the Curious George doll I’d sent her months earlier, sat high up on shelves. The children, accustomed to toys as decorations, expressed no desire to play with anything but the few things left for them on the floor. We watched and kept drawing, every day getting hotter and harder. I just wanted to go home.
The last day at the orphanage, we went to the clinic to say goodbye to the nurses. She was given her last dose of medicine for her heart condition. She told them she was going on a plane to her new family.
And in the most remarkable display of exuberance and joy I have ever witnessed, she gave me this extraordinary, life-changing, show-stopping hug.
That night, our first night together after a week of visits at the orphanage, she tried on all the clothes I’d brought for her and found the Barbie doll. We went to bed, each of us in a narrow, single bed with a sheet for a cover. The fan blew the smallest little breeze across us, enough for the sweat to evaporate from my arms. In the darkest part of the night, I heard her stir and stretch her arm out to me and we lay there, holding hands waiting for what was next.
That’s my immigration story. One of them. I have three.
This post was written in response to an Open Salon Open Call for Immigration Stories.