Maid in America
She has traded in professional apparel for a housekeeper’s uniform. Cleaning rooms replaces educating college students. Titles like maid and immigrant replace professor. A master’s degree, status, and affluence are irrelevant in her current job at the Omni hotel.
Emiliana King is not famous. She is not fleeing poverty or other hardships. Although her childhood was difficult, she became an educated, upper-middle-class citizen in Dominican Republic. She owned a home staffed with a chauffeur, nanny, and maid. She was employed in her desired occupation as a college professor, and had the status she worked hard for. In 1993, she left this life behind to pursue a different dream. This dream was void of a job, money, and the luxury of a staff. But, it offered her children a chance of a better life.
The merging of Dominican and American culture is clear to see in the home of King’s daughter, Marlene. There are colorful, Afro-Caribbean oil and acrylic paintings acquired from visits to Dominican Republic along with DVDs, a gaming station, and flat screen television. Xica, Marlene’s Labradoodle, bounces between a cage and bright red sectional that encompasses much of the living room. The art and décor convey an almost tropical feel. King has smooth skin, and her stocky, 5-foot-5 build are deceptive for her 61 years of age. She explains that she is under time constraints as she has been all week, and that she is leaving the next day on a women’s retreat with her church, and has church immediately after the interview. Having just arrived from work, she still wears her uniform.
King begins by describing a meager childhood. She reminisced that even though both parents were illiterate farmers, they stressed the importance of education to her. They took on several jobs to ensure she attended school. This was uncommon in the rural town of Samana, where most children worked in lieu of school. She walked miles to and from school daily, and tended six younger siblings in the evenings. She eventually attended a university in the capital of Santo Domingo, where she received a master’s degree in chemistry. She then went on to teach at the same university.
In Santo Domingo, she met her future husband, Isaias. They each rented rooms in the same boarding house. She knew him, but was hesitant to become involved. Mr. King was somewhat notorious in Samana; his relatives were wealthy land owners, but he became displaced after the passing of an abusive father and growing animosity by his stepmother. His desire to improve upon a second grade education and refusal to work the family land was considered illogical. He was subsequently homeless, and ventured into the capital where he found work in construction. A courtship developed and they eventually wed.
Their union produced two children and was the catalyst for their migration. The King’s felt they could not afford suitable education for their children because all schooling is paid out of pocket in Dominican Republic. This began a nine year journey resulting in relocation of the family. They first went to Queens, N.Y. and then Lanham, Maryland. The change signified the realization of their American dream. It meant improved chances to receive education and medical coverage, and the fair opportunity to obtain employment.
“No matter how well you do in Dominican Republic, you can always do better in America,” says Mr. King.
Mrs. King reveals they did not possess any winter clothing upon arrival in New York. Relatives gave them hand-me- downs to suffice. Marlene rushes to grab a sweater that she has kept from that winter. It was given to her by a cousin and is tattered and worn. She explains that she cannot part with it, and that it serves as a reminder of the voyage she and her family embarked upon that first winter in the U.S.
“Adapting to American culture was most difficult,” says Mrs. King. “I could not speak the language, couldn’t drive. But, the cold, the cold of New York- that is the one thing that stands out most.”
Mrs. King soon realized that better life in America posed consequences to the life they had already been living.
“Not being able to enforce my education is regrettable,” she says.
Marlene explains that her mother means not continuing in her career path, passing knowledge on to fellow Dominicans, and using education to better her country.
“Education is better than money because it can’t be taken away. It is my fortune and my children’s inheritance,” Mrs. King adds in Spanish, which Marlene translates.
Mrs. King’s facial expression saddens as she recounts the story of her pursuit of education in the U.S. After contacting the New York Board of Education, she discovered that she needed six classes to transfer her degree. Within seconds, her shoulders slump and she blinks rapidly. Her shift in demeanor is followed by the admission that she never took those classes because they were administered in English. She sits up straight, changes her tone and nonchalantly summarizes that she had no choice but to move on.
Moving on, she explains, meant contributing to American society by being a productive citizen. She reiterates that she is American. She will maintain her faith, which has been an integral part of her journey. She will continue to work hard and always do her best – without complaining. But she says that being an immigrant is difficult, and that she feels constantly scrutinized.
This determination is the attribute Marlene says she admires most about her mother. Mrs. King lowers her head and smiles while looking at nothing in particular, then talks about how proud she is that Marlene is a U.S. Marine. “It is very patriotic!” she says.
The exchange between mother and daughter leads to Marlene’s recollection of dinner conversations in which her father would remind her that the life she has comes at great cost. She explains that this dialogue has occurred at the King home since she was a child and still ensues today. She speaks excitedly, and her eyes grow wide as does her smile.
“Is it good?” her father would ask.
“Uh huh,” she’d say.
“….And the price?” he would ask finally.