Born and raised in the United States, and raised by two parents with deep southern roots, I have always understood myself to be a U.S. citizen. Although growing up in the multicultural world that is Black Boston, I have only had to uphold American cultural values never having to take into consideration the experience of another. Never thinking about what it truly means to be an immigrant in America and what those stories entail. For this article, I sat down with my close friend Shanakay Gillespie to hear her experience as a Jamaican American, and her story of navigating citizenship, culture and going from trial to triumph.
The pathway to citizenship isn’t always easy and the road to building a successful life in America as an immigrant can feel impossible, but Shanakay Gillespie is showing the world that what is thought to be impossible can truly be accomplished. From living in the mountains of Jamaica to now attending a top ranked University while managing her own business, Gillespie is writing her own destiny.
Whether fleeing a war, seeking better opportunities, or merely seeking a change in location, every immigrant has their own story and thoughts while dwelling in their homeland. Born and raised in the countryside town of Mandeville in the parish of Manchester, Jamaica, Gillespie recalls her native country fondly, with a sense of true community. “I remember the walk home from school, the trees, seeing the chickens running and donkeys. Passing by all the little neighbors’ houses, saying ‘evening Aunt Colly, evening auntie.’ Passing by people who aren’t related to you by blood but who feel like family. You’re guaranteed to see everybody sitting on their verandas when you’re walking. Everyone knows that Jamaican grandma sitting out there. Sitting and watching out.” shared Gillespie.
Gillespie lived in this communal, close-knit environment for most of her formative years. It wasn’t until she turned 13 that, unbeknownst to her, she was sent to live in America. “I was 13, and we just got our visa. We thought we were only going to come for summer vacation, so I was so excited. I thought I would get my ears pierced and wear anything I wanted because my mom was so strict. When we got here, my aunt said, ‘you should call your mom and let her know you’re not coming back.’ At the time I wasn’t mad about it because I was 13 and just thought ‘I don’t have to carry water no more; I won’t have to walk up that stupid hill.’ I was excited,” said Gillespie.
Once in America, Gillespie quickly realized the landscape she was navigating would be completely different, not only environmentally but also culturally. “The first thing I noticed was the smell. Everything smelled different. I don’t really know how to describe it, but the smell was weird. That night my grandma made us food and it was still Jamaican food, but it didn’t taste like the food I ate back home. It literally tasted, in a way, diluted. A huge culture shock for me was when my aunt dropped me off at middle school,” shared Gillespie. New to America and new to the school system, Gillespie struggled to adapt to life in the states. “I was so scared, I thought I got on the wrong bus to school, and when I got off I was so embarrassed. No one had uniforms on. I remember the teacher said ‘yeah, mostly we just wear jeans and the shirt.’ I was wearing a plaid skirt with stockings and the whole nine yards; I was so embarrassed. Then when I spoke, they started to say I sound Jamaican and I didn’t want to be made fun of, so I used to not speak” said Gillespie.
Stripped of her voice and desiring to fit in, Gillespie turned to a tool many marginalized communities use to adjust to their foreign environment: codeswitching. “I felt like I had to be two different people, depending on the situation or the environment I was in. When I was at school I had to blend in, but then when I came home it was alright [to be myself].” shared Gillespie.
The pressure to conform to one cultural standard while maintaining one’s own culture is often the struggle of many immigrants. Facing the external conflict of upholding the dominant cultural standards of the outside world while also dealing with the internal battle from one’s community to maintain one’s culture. “Over time I was so used to switching and fitting in–trying to be and look American–that sometimes I’d come home and I’d find myself still acting “American.” I think the worst thing is you get attacked, and called a Yankee, which is a fake watered-down Jamaican. And nobody wants to be a Yankee because you were born and raised there. You don’t want to be a ‘fake Jamaican’” said Gillespie.
Dealing with the struggle to fit in is enough to break any person, but for Gillespie, it offered her the push she needed to decide she wouldn’t choose one aspect of herself over the other. She would preserve both her native culture and her newfound culture as a proud Jamaican American. “I started to really cook, making sure I don’t lose my roots. I always have to make sure I cook Jamaican food–the Jamaican way…always keeping up with the music.” Gillespie realized she had the power to choose. She had the power to express her own agency. “I get to pick and choose parts of my culture that I want. I get to choose what part of my culture I carry with me…I can be both,” said Gillespie.
Over time Gillespie broke free from the stigmas surrounding her Jamaican identity and even the internalized stigmas she felt as an immigrant. Today she stands tall in her Jamaican roots and feels empowered by her heritage. “Now I don’t try to hide that I’m Jamaican, I flaunt it every second I get. I tell everyone, I’m Jamaican. ‘Born and raised for 13 years.’ In middle school I know I wasn’t but now, I’m very proud of my culture,” said Gillespie.
Living in her agency and standing in her power as a Jamaican American, Gillespie found a new wave of confidence, allowing her to go forward and pursue her dreams of school and founding her beauty business ShanaSlays. Through all that she has experienced she finds comfort in knowing she has grown in confidence and success, determined to win above all odds. “I’ve grown as a person. I’m very proud of my culture and the person I’ve blossomed into. I think every day about the person I’ve become,” shared Gillespie.
“I decided I can be whoever I want and that there were no limitations. I could dream as big as I want and go as far as I wanted to go,” said Gillespie.