Miriam Kone migrated from Mali in 1994 when she was 16 years old. As a young girl in Mali she was expected to marry at age 13, but she had other plans. She convinced her mother, who had left Miriam to her grandmother’s care, to help her go to America. “You have to be a fighter,” she told the audience. “You can’t give up.”
About 40 people gathered at the Bronx Documentary Center on Nov. 21 to hear immigrants share their experiences. Stories from Mexico to Mali, both deeply personal and of universal resilience, had their moment in the limelight. If there was one common thread woven through each story, it was the deep desire to have a better life built on personal achievement.
Kone is no exception. When she was a little girl, she shared a single pot of food with her siblings, but if she were too slow or timid, would miss out on lunch. Now, in the Bronx, she often reminds her three children how easy it is to get food with a fridge at home. Or how much easier it is to get an education. “I tell my children they are going to college for me,” Kone said.
According to census data over the past decade, the Bronx has seen a 22 percent growth in immigrant population. The large majority of immigrants in the Bronx are from Latin America and Africa. Latin Americans accounted for more than half of the borough’s immigrants, while Africans made up a tenth of the foreign-born population. The demographics of the Bronx were notable at the Bronx Documentary Center.
Hildeberto R. from Guerrero, Mexico, shared the story of his journey to America through a translator. His family decided to leave when Hildeberto’s brother was “murdered in cold blood by the local police,” he said. He took buses, taxis and a plane to reach the border in Sonora, after which he walked for two days straight through the desert.
“On our walk, we saw clothes scattered on the floor,” he said. “We knew people had died there.” Hildeberto witnessed tragedy directly when a 15-year-old girl he was crossing the border with got sick and died along the way. “We couldn’t help her,” he said. “We had to leave her behind.”
Hildeberto is now getting his high school diploma while working 50 hours a week to help his family pay bills. “I want to be a good example for my siblings and my community,” he said. Getting papers to work and study was a recurring struggle for all speakers.
Berthland Tekyi-Berto, a part-Nigerian, part-Ghanaian immigrant, was a strong reminder of how different experiences can be. Tekyi-Berto went to Morris High School in Morrisania where he was crowned prom king and dreamed of joining the army. “My legal status didn’t affect me,” he said. “I had a normal childhood.”
But then Tekyi-Berto turned 18 and, because he was undocumented, everything changed. He couldn’t find a job or apply to the army without a social security number. “After high school, everyone gets excited about college,” he said. “That’s when I started to realize that things were different for me.”
According to Advocates for Children of New York, all students have the right to attend school regardless of their immigration status or the immigration status of their family members. But when it comes to college, the military or getting a job, matters can get complicated and costly. “Trying to legalize my status hasn’t been cheap,” Tekyi-Berto said.
A Bangladeshi lawyer shared his story, as did a Mexican migrant who was fighting to keep his indigenous language alive. Like the rest, they had to fight hard to get where they are, and for many the journey ahead was still complicated.
The event was organized by Masa, an organization dedicated to transforming communities through education, and Mano a Mano, a group that promotes Mexican culture, along with the Bronx Documentary Center.
Aracelis Lucero, MASA’s executive director, closed the event, but not before she reminded the crowd of the difference papers can make. “All of us have dreams and goals,” she said. “But lives can be very different based on status.”