My name is Mahindranath Maharaj, and I am an immigrant. I was born in Trinidad in 1962, the same year this country won its independence from Great Britain. Growing up in this particular time period had some struggles, especially with my family being so large, but it taught me a lot. Though it was difficult, the lessons I learned throughout that time are the things that I now come to appreciate and value more than ever.
It was 1979 when one of my older sisters came to visit for my eldest brother’s wedding. I was probably 16 or 17 around that time. Among the festivities, she asked if I would like to come to America to see what the county was like. Being so young, I said yes, not really thinking anything of it. She explained in order to do that she needed to file papers for me, and that it would take some time to process through the government. Because the process took so long, I forgot about having this conversation with my sister. One day, papers came to the house from the embassy, and it was then that I remembered what we discussed. From that point on, I went forward with plans to make the move.
To be honest, I never really gave much thought to leaving my home, but because I heard other people’s firsthand experiences about the opportunities offered in America, I wanted to see if I could make something for myself in this new land. I wanted to give it a go and see if I liked it.
I knew that things would be different than what I was accustomed to, but I did not realize just how different it would be. I grew up in Trinidad. I knew the place well, and I had all my friends there. When I first came here I was nearly isolated. I did not know anything about my surroundings so it was a whole new experience. In the process of moving forward, I figured that I had nothing to lose so I decided to make a living for myself here.
Growing up in a family of 12 was difficult. We did not have running water in our home, so we would have to walk about half a mile one way to the water pipe in order to obtain water for the entire family to be able to bathe, cook, complete chores, etc. before leaving for school. I knew already that I did not have to worry about those kinds of struggles when I moved here because of the books that I read and documentaries I saw previous to my move. Plus, my sister already had all of these luxuries available in her home.
When people come here they have the opportunity to change their name. I think if they seize that opportunity they lose their identity within their family and within their culture. I understand that coming to a new county is a new beginning, but that does not mean you lose your roots in the process. I also think that there is a loss of culture between myself and my children who are first generation American. Where I grew up everyone practiced the same religion and traditions. I consider myself a very religious and spiritual person, and there is a big difference in the way my culture is celebrated in the two countries. When my wife and I decided to start a family, we agreed that one of the most important things we could teach our children is to value their religion and culture.
In Trinidad, majority of the people are Hindus and partake in all the spiritual holidays and traditions. Even those who do no practice Hinduism participate in the religious activities. In America, the Hindu religion is few in number, or at least there is not a great number in one place like there is in Trinidad, therefore, there is not a wide celebration like what I am accustomed too. For my children, I think it is much harder because there are different constrains that do not allow them to practice the religion, culture and traditions as freely as I did. We have to make an extra effort to really teach our children about spirituality and religion because they did not grow up in the same environment that we did. For example, I had a temple in my backyard which I attended every day. My children do not have access to that kind of thing. We have to put in effort and take the time to teach them about our culture. In this sense, they are the ones losing out on the luxury.
Despite all the differences, I think that making the decision to move here was beneficial and a great experience. I was young, and ready for anything. I knew that I had something to fall back on if things did not work out. I really did not give much thought to it, I just kind of picked up and left. I was 19 when I finally made it to Chicago, and though it was difficult at first, and sometimes still is, I do not regret making the journey here. It made all the difference, not just for me, but for my children as well.
Editor’s Note: This article was written on behalf of Mahindranath Maharaj by his daughter Parbattee Maharaj.