First, before I get into the meat of this story, I want to say hello, hello, hellooooo! You might have noticed I've been off the blog for a couple of weeks. Don't worry. I have a good excuse. I've been writing a young adult novel! I am super excited to announce I finished the rough draft yesterday! Happy dance. More on the book, as it becomes meaningful to report on it.
As I was writing the manuscript - spending between 10 and 15 hours a day on it for 15 days straight - I talked to a couple of friends, both of them US-born kids of middle-class American citizen parents. "I've never seen anyone work as hard as you do," they both told me, in their own ways, and separately from one another.
They think I need to take more breaks.
It got me thinking. I do work hard. Like, really hard. I always have. I rarely take a vacation, and even when I do I tend to be plotting the next career move or fitness goal, or whatever. Sitting still and just relaxing is almost impossible for me. It's the key to my success in my career, and probably also a reason my relationships fail, and I absolutely, 100 percent owe it all to my hardworking immigrant father's example.
I remember being a young reporter at the Boston Globe, on my first paid vacation. I was 25. I had been running nonstop since high school - I'd graduated at 17, gone back east for college, worked my way through school as a fitness instructor teaching no fewer than 23 classes per week, for seven straight years. I turned the fitness job into a career, while in college, and ended up managing the entire group exercise program at a Boston gym, becoming, at age 20, the youngest-ever continuing education credit provider and teacher for the Aerobics and Fitness Association of American, and, in my spare time, training my ass off and earning the silver medal in the New England regional fitness championships. I kept teaching in New York City when I went to graduate school, nearly 40 classes a week, because NY is expensive.I was always way too busy working (and way too tired to walk) to socialize with my Columbia peers. It paid off when I had three staff writing offers the week I graduated - in Philadelphia, Miami and Boston. I went back to Boston because it paid the most, and had the best benefits, including the vacation I began this paragraph mentioning. I'd gone to New Orleans to visit my mom, but instead of relaxing I used my time to drum up extra enterprise freelance pieces for the Globe, to earn extra money. I socked it away in the "buy a house someday" fund. My mom, a US-born daughter of middle-class American citizen parents who'd done things like pay for her to go to college, remarked at the time that she thought I was crazy. "Don't you ever rest, Alisa?"
But my dad, then living in Albuquerque (they divorced when I was 11), an immigrant from Cuba who came to the US alone at 15 as an orphan with nothing but 5 pesos in his pocket, didn't have that reaction, at all. His response? "That's my girl."
Years later, after my first bestseller came out and a magazine interviewed my dad about me, he was asked to describe me in one word. The word he chose was "relentless." He meant it in a positive sense, that I work hard and never give up. Truth is, he might have been describing himself.
From the earliest memories I have of him, my father was always working hard. He was 24 when I was born. I was his second child with my mother, then 25. My brother had been born when my dad was only 20, less than five years after he arrived in the United States. As a teen, he'd begun working as a janitor for the University of New Mexico. It was there that he became interested in higher education, while cleaning the sociology building at night. He enrolled at the university, went to school by day, cleaned the school by night, all while being a husband and father. By the time he was 28, he had earned a PhD in sociology with a minor in history, and was taking his first assistant professorship at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I remember sitting at his feet, playing with our pet cat and dog, as my dad type-type-typed away on his dissertation about the Cuban Revolution. He continued to work hard during his years as a professor at the University of New Orleans, and, later, back at the University of New Mexico. Now 74, he is a retired professor emeritus who has a generous pension, owns his beautiful home outright, and is one of the world's leading scholars on Cuba.
What my dad taught me, through example and also by talking about it, is that as long as you are willing to work hard, never give up, and keep going even when all seems lost, you will be fine. He also taught me that a person can lose everything - their family, their home, their nation - and still be okay, as long as they keep learning. He is fond of telling me, and now my son, a freshman at the same university where his grandpa taught, that no matter what anyone takes from you, unless they take your life they can never take away what you carry between your ears, and in your heart. Corny as that sounds, it has been the driving force of my life, and the power that has seen me through many dark times.
If the American dream still means anything, there is nowhere it means more than among this nation's immigrants, and their children. We know the value of work, and we work hard - often harder than nearly everyone else in the room.