January 1st was awesome. I hung with close family friends and I learned a bit about the community that came here way before me through the eyes of two aunties that I spent a lot of time around as a kid. I wanted to write them here I could always remember them.
Context: in the 70’s & 80’s American Immigration Policy was pushing for Advanced Field Professionals Employed in America to sponsor Visa’s for Advanced Field Professionals abroad. That’s why, if you came up 70s-90s, you saw so many Filipino, Indian, Chinese and Nigerian nurses/doctors/engineers (advanced field professionals) or ‘model minorities’. Two of my aunts (Aunty is a loose term for browntown) were sponsored by folks who’d they’d studied or worked with in India.
Spring Valley Aunty -My aunt boarded a flight to New York solo in 1976. She landed at her friends place (we’ll call her friend Jackie [but it’s probably really Kochammama]). Jackie sponsored my aunt to come to the USA to work as a Nurse. My aunt stayed with Jackie for two months and when it came time to switch up, she wanted to head to another friend+that friend’s husband in Poughkeepsie, NY. Back then driving wasn’t common amongst the browns–everyone was still settling in, and nobody knew where Poughkeepsie was–but Jackie’s work-friend, an Indian man from Tamil Nadu offered to help. One day after work he picked my aunt from her friends house and took her to Poughkeepsie. My aunt recalls wanting to thank him. She only had $20 bucks in hand. Jackie was equally broke so there was nothing to give him. She said to him, “Here’s $20, it’s all I have. I am so grateful that you took me.” He responded in words she tearily recalled , “Keep your money. I don’t need anything from you, but when the next person like you arrives here help them.” She’s never forgotten. My aunts always gone the extra mile for folks, countless airport trips, pre-prayer meeting cooking, organizing things at church and just being there for folks (she once learned to drive just so that she could take a little girl from church to dialysis).
Back into it, she moved in with her friends and remained with them in Poughkeepsie for six months. They would take her everywhere and join them for everything they did. There weren’t many Indians up there at the time (maybe 3 families?) so people being around definitely counted [being somewhat of an immigrant in Colombia right now, I can vouch for it being uber lonely.] She said, “I will never have a bad thing to say about them. When I needed them they treated me like a sister and never said anything to make me feel bad. We have our disagreements, but we are family.”
Church was a big part of their life. Not too many browns had made it over just yet, but the ones that did set up shop by renting a church at 178th street in Uptown. Renting two floors, upstairs would be for the Orthodox and downstairs would be for the Church of South India (CSI). Back then everyone worshipped together. Together, they’d drive 90 minutes down to 178th just to go to church. That’s an hour and 30 minutes everyday.
They’d go from there to St. Johns Cathedral in NYC–it was huge. They took out (I think) the Synod House and have to wrap up services every day at 12:30. As my aunt told the story, she chuckled. A security would come promptly at 12:30 and say “your time is up” but they’d never be finished, Indian Standard Time (IST) for sure.
She’d get a gig, her husband would come back and they’d get an apartment. A social man, he’d move them to Yonkers to be around other browns in a housing complex we lovingly call Waverly (not to be confused with Riverdale Apartments..that’s the other one). Living in Yonkers made for an easier commute to church and work.
They’d spend a few years there raising three children (two came with my Uncle when he came from India.)
My aunt seemed to love it in Yonkers. She found a community of Indians and Malayalees or folks hailing from Kerala (South India). Together, they sorta took over the building and did a lot together. Many of the aunties also worked together at St. Josephs Hospital around the way (including one of my real aunts–they went to work together!) They raised kids together and didn’t have to worry about leaving kids unattended because everything was good–everyone lived together, they shared meals, ingredients, prayers and life.
They’d do life together. As trauma and challenge hit, the women would get together at one of their homes on Saturdays or afterwork to pray. A husband was fatally was shot, a child diagnosed with cancer, a boy got into a deadly car accident–every time it would find them together in prayer. What started with 3 women grew into 10, then 20 and eventually they had a recurring prayer network that met frequently–with no worry of denomination. That was the beginning of New York’s Sevika Sanghom that continues today (womens group.)
Some years passed in Yonkers when my aunt’s Poughkeepsie friends relocated to Spring Valley, New York in Rockland and approached my aunt and her hubby with the idea of moving onto their block. There were good jobs in the area, both of them just got two gigs and she was sure that my aunt could get set up at a local hospital or nursing home (she ended up at the same nursing home turned hospital that my mom worked at for 25 years–I was sorta raised there too).
They wanted a life where their children could all play together, go to school together and grow up together. That’s exactly what happened. They moved to Spring Valley, that block was sprinkled with Malu families, and about a dozen malu kids would grow up together and do life.
In 1984, still at St. Johns Cathedral, debates, arguments and politics overwhelmed the group of immigrants who by now had grown significantly in number and had people branch into different churches and groups (the most notable was the Pentecostals led by an effusive penti-pastor). They began conversations about how they grow. They bought some some acres in Nyack, thinking that they would build a church there, but around that time a church on Morris Street in Yonkers had opened up. It was a bad area with frequent gang and turn violence, but the church at 34 Morris Street was in forbearance and it was about to be claimed by the bank. It was dirty and defunct with no more working electricity or water.
At $1,000,000 these immigrants could buy it and finally have a place of worship for themselves and for their children. They forked into 4 regions–90 families stuck with it and put their money into Yonkers. They spent a lot of time cleaning it up. According to her everyone involved put in hard labor after work and on weekends, cleaning the mut off the ground and walls, fixing the lighting, bringing the place back into shape.
I grew up in that church. It was home and it saved me more than once: St Thomas MTC.
I’m especially proud of that church because my Uncle was one of the people that helped to open those doors. I asked this aunty that I’ve been telling you about what he was like–she told me that he was quiet and unassuming, but he was one of the best. He always showed up. He showed up for St Thomas in a big way, but he never played in the politics or power of it. He was there to build a space for us.
As my aunt recalls, St Thomas has been a church of miracles. Through commitment and prayer, she sees that it has healed families and people, brought grace into lives and hope back to the hurt. She chokes up as she shares the story–recounting all of the people who have been in near death situations, including her own child, and how much our little community has done to turn that around. She worries that the youth don’t know the story of the church.
TBH, I didn’t. But I checked it out on New Years for Candlelight Watchnight Service and saw a community that I spent 20 years watching. Fathers, fathering. Mothers, supporting. A community, developing. Those lights took me back and reminded me of what my uncle worked hard for. Many stories, much struggle, and even more miracles.
Retired, my aunt remains hard at work for that place. She visits friends of hers that she built that community with. They’re sick, old and tired now. She (not so secretly) wishes that someone develops the land in Nyack for the old folks to give them a place where they can once again return to each other and find home and the age-old once knew in Kerala, Waverly and Eckerson.
She laments that when I was growing up they’d have weekly prayer meetings at houses all over Rockland, but today they can barely get going once a month and nobody wants to host. “When we had nothing we prayed and gave everything to God. Now that we have everything, everyone has forgotten about God.”
Lowerre Place- Another one of my aunts landed in New York from Madhya Pradesh, where she worked as a nurse in North India. She was from Kerala, but American Immigrant Policy–she came over with a group of nurses recruited to provide healthcare in the American system.
It was just more challenging than it sounds.
They’d have to spend one year serving as a nurses aid. My aunt, frail and small, couldn’t lift a body. She’d spend a lot of nights crying and alone. She came over in 1978 and her husband joined her two years later in 1980. In that time, she lived in Houston, The Bronx and Valley Cottage (Nyack), Rockland.
In warmth of India in 1978 she’d board her first flight towards New York, where it was cold and snowy. With a destination of Texas, this would be her first flight–ever. She’d seen planes before, but she’d never been on one herself.
As she narrated this to me, her husband interjected to share some prose that I wouldn’t have even remotely considered: most of these people have never seen a plane so they definitely don’t know where the bathroom is. They see the little toilet sign, but they’ve been calling it bathroom for years–what’s a toilet/what’s a lavatory? They’d hold off on passing anything for the often +24 hour flight until they land.
Her story was no different. She didn’t eat or drink much at all on the plane and then they made a stop in London, she chose to stay on the plane while they cleaned–afraid that she wouldn’t understand when to reboard and get stranded in London.
Arriving in New York, Unpracticed English, Sari, Sandals and all–she made her first acquaintance with snow. A monster storm was raining now 10-12 inches of Snow. She’d earlier written to her cousin that he should pick her up from JFK that night and help her get on her Houston-bound flight, but the snow kept him home. Without home-phones or cell phones around, there was no way to get in touch with him. Without cellphones, there was no way for her to know that neither in advance nor on arrival.
Sheer luck would have it that her family friend was at JFK that day waiting for his cousin at the same gate. That friend saw her, took her through the snow in a NYC Yellow Cab, guided her to the terminal for her transfer and showed her how to read the signs. He then left to grab his cousin and take him home–as he was there to do.
Aunty took her ticket to the desk and the attendant replied in a think (maybe Brooklyn?) New York accent, okay ma’am. have a seat right over there. We’ll announce it when your flight is boarding. Of course my dear old aunty, unpracticed in her English, understood absolutely nothing, but the attendant pointed at the seats and my aunt understood that. So she sat–only to get up every 15 minutes, walk up to the attendant meagerly and push the ticket out in front of the attendant hoping that she hadn’t yet missed her flight.
Over and over the attendant passed my aunt the same message and signal. Relief came when a North Indian woman, also draped in Sari and Sandal, popped a seat next to aunty and conversed with her in Hindi sharing that she was also headed to Houston and that my aunt no longer needed to worry–this lady would hold her down. *relief*
That was just the start. Aunty would stick around with her friends in Houston for a few months and then find a job at Wards Island Mental Health Facility, now known as Manhattan Psychiatric Center. She found an apartment in the Bronx and would leave home at 10pm to take 1 train to down Grand Concourse and 2 busses over to Wards Island. Her hourlong late night commute would arrive her there to start her shift at 11pm.
She recounted to me what it was like living in the X without her husband. It seemed to her that everyone had someone with them, but in the night she’d feel scared even to leave her room. Those old apartments are always making noises–the wind hitting the windows, the heaters making odd noises and the floors all creaking. Once, on her way to work she thought someone was following her all the way to the shuttle to Wards Island so she booked it and ran for life….only to find out that it was her colleague at Wards.
She says boldly, life is hard. It’s not easy. We had to work hard. Be ambitious and always move forward, not backwards. Don’t look at the people around you. [Look at the people ahead of you] Want more and work hard for more. The people ahead of you aren’t going to want to be friends with you, that’s okay. The people that are succeeding want to be with their people. So we need to succeed ourselves.
It’s pretty dope listening to her share her story. Her husband joined her in 1980 and kept a few jobs before joining the NYPD and making a career there. A member of the Indian Army, the NYPD was the right fit for me. One of his jobs was across the street from Yonkers Raceway, alongside my uncle. He told me that my uncle was quiet. Always got his work done. If anyone asked him a question he answered, but he never asked anything of anyone. I wonder how he was so stoic.
Their stories are our stories. Finding a way to collect, cherish and protect those is valuable to us and to our children. There’s better ways to do. It’s important for us and the people after us to understand how tough things were for our parents, the folks before them and brown people immigrating [et all immigrants too] in general. Their hustle is serious and puts us in places to survive, but remembering who we are is somewhere in their story.