We often read stories about tragic, wonderful, painful, beautiful, big events that in the blink of an eye changed someone’s life completely, shattering what was behind and opening a new path. Mine is not one of those.
These days when I walk into a room I almost instinctively introduce myself as a working-class immigrant, a first-generation high school graduate and a current PhD candidate. Because these layers of my identity are important. They carry experiences that have made me who I am and they paint a map of what it has taken for me to get here. And it has taken a lot.
I grew up in the projects of Latvia, or what would be considered “the hood” in the U.S. My father is a truck driver so half the time I was living in the truck with him driving around Europe. This was good because we were constantly facing housing insecurity. Putting food on the table, making rent and paying bills was a struggle every month. I knew women were divine already as a child because I watched my mamma put together meals after meals out of thin air. Something possible only with divine powers.
I had big dreams as a child. I wanted to make enough money to buy everyone a house. To buy my grandma a big cake. To tell my dad, it’s ok, you don’t need to work anymore. To give my mom all the things she never had. To share a big meal with all the kids in my neighborhood, even to build a shelter for all the stray animals that roamed our streets. I wanted to study abroad. I wanted to go West. I watched American movies and tried to imagine what’s it like living in a house, having your own room, a golden retriever, two cars, the white picket fence and all.
I first left Latvia at the age of sixteen. I waved my parents goodbye, my whole life stuffed in a carry-on suitcase wearing the only pair of shoes I owned. After two years in the Netherlands on a scholarship, I graduated high school and left again, this time for the United States. Another four years went by, on another scholarship, and I graduated college in upstate New York. Another year on a fellowship in Thailand. A study abroad program in Brazil. An internship in Armenia. An acceptance to a PhD program. It’s funny how immigration sometimes happens on accident.
This year marks my tenth year away from home. If I close my eyes and imagine little me, at the airport ten years ago, standing in line to board that plane, what would I tell her? How would I prepare her for the journey she is about to unknowingly take on? For one, I would tell her to hug mamma a little tighter and hold on to that hug for a little longer.
I would tell her that the world is going to constantly devalue her intelligence, her strength, her abilities, her knowledge, and her power. That where she comes from, what she looks like and what she has will always precede what she knows and who she is. And that all of this will make her feel small. That the next decade of her life will be one of never belonging, of forever playing catch up. That the world will offer her metrics by which to measure her success that were created based on her exclusion. That she will be fed spoonfuls of injustice every day and have to learn to swallow them.
Anyone that has grown up in poverty will tell you that it wasn’t easy. Anyone that has gone through migration will tell you of the never-ending struggle and the losses they carry. Any first-generation student in academia will tell you of the mental and institutional challenges that mark their everyday existence in these spaces. Any woman that has survived and thrived in a male-dominated world, despite the harassments and assaults will have pockets full of stories of perseverance.
My story is not mine alone. I share it with so many other strong, brilliant, divine women who have come from nothing and ended up in a place they were never meant to get to.
But in celebrating our accomplishments, we must also acknowledge the uneven distribution of opportunity. The precarious nature of social and economic security when there is no safety net, when you always have only one shot to make it or to fall deeply, deeply back to where you started from. In order for me to receive the scholarship that brought me to the Netherlands, how many other equally smart and hard working girls from my neighborhood were turned down? We must celebrate ourselves and be proud of our accomplishments, but we must also place them in the context of a world where those at the bottom are constantly competing over a few spots, and where in order for one of us to make it, a thousand more must stay behind.
What has gotten me to where I am today has been hard work and determination. It was teaching myself English at the age of thirteen because I knew I needed it to study in the U.S. It was finding a broken keyboard in the trash and taking it home to learn to type on it, because I will need that skill in the future. It was watching others enjoy weekends and holidays while you go to clean houses with your mamma to help with the bills. But it has also been an incredible amount of luck. Every step of the way, every new opportunity I fought myself into could disappear in a blink of an eye if there were a medical emergency that I couldn’t afford, a missed check and no money to pay the rent, a visa denial, a need to go home and care for a family member. Nothing is ever truly promised, and even the things that are given can disappear swiftly.
My story is not one of a big monumental life changing event. It’s about creating that change, building doors for yourself when there were none and then breaking them open. It is about getting up every single day and fighting tooth and nail to maintain what’s mine and to climb further. For people that come from nothing, even when we get there, we are never really there. It’s about knowing that the path is unjust and difficult but choosing to walk it anyways. It’s what people on the margins have always done. It’s about making wine out of water, meals out of thin air, homes out of hopes, like women before us have done for generations. A divine, intentional struggle that happens every day, with every inhale and exhale, as we choose to resist and persist, because we must.
Luīze Anna Eihmane (Lulu) is a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University specializing in American politics- the intersections of race, class, gender & migration. She is a writer, traveler, and a creator.