For the sake of this exercise, let’s say you are 5 years old.
You have the early memories of this cool uncle: the one you hear all the good stories of, who takes you to places you haven’t seen before. After spending some time with him, you realize that he is beyond suitable to nurture your potential and cater to your needs. When you’re around him, it feels safe. It feels right. It feels like home.
You sheepishly ask him if you can stay with him longer. He says maybe (it means no). You beg and cry. You can’t bear to leave him. You have already grown to love him, as you would your own father.
So, you stay. He doesn’t fight you, or tell you to leave. He turns a blind eye to it all.
For the next handful of years, you grow up in the suburbs, in his home. You play sports with the boys and sleep over at the girls’. You race bikes and climb trees. Trade Smarties for Reeses after a long night trick-or-treating. You pass notes. Camp with your troop. You join clubs and teams, play instruments, get the top grades, and at quite the young age, emerge as a leader. You hit the milestones of childhood into puberty with the same group of friends, who see every awkward second of your transformation (braces and spin the bottle, yes that too).
But one day you finally realize: something’s different between you and everyone else. You buy the same lunch, but on their plate is fresh chicken, and on yours? The knockoff brand. Your uncle tells you: to what they are entitled you would be privileged to have.
When the others start driving, he takes away your keys. “You’re too dangerous,” he says. You look in the mirror. You don’t look dangerous. You don’t feel dangerous. But soon you begin to question your own integrity. Am I dangerous?
When you bring home a list of scholarship offers, he tears it into shreds. “College is not for you,” he says. You are angry and hurt. You want to rebel against the intellectual ceiling he puts over your head.
When you begin a doctorate program, he doesn’t rejoice. Instead, he says, “I’ve given too much of my money away to the neighborhood kids; there is nothing left for you.” So you hustle. You begin this 24-7 madness of a sleepless hustle. You wear yourself thin.
When you share with him your vision to make the house a better place to live in, he shakes his head and reminds you: you live here. But this isn’t your home.
You work harder, in ignorance, thinking maybe one day he will change his mind. You pay his rent, treat him well, do him proud — overachieve because achieving just isn’t enough — though deep down, denial aside, you know he will never adopt you.
Then everything changes.
It all changes the day he brings home a foul woman with loud opinions. She is your recurring nightmare of 22 years. You plead: “Not her, date anybody but her,” but he diverts his eyes away from you. He does not hear what you have to say. The whole neighborhood chimes in: “She’s not right for you.” He still doesn’t change his mind.
Before the shock wears off, they marry. They honeymoon. They have children of their own.
As a power hungry tyrant would, she orders him around: do this and do that, and well, he does just this, exactly that. She tells him he needs to take control, because their names are the names on the lease. This is the piece of paper that dictates it is so. She urges him to start fresh, to build a a white picket fence to keep their children in and dirty orphans like you, out. Let’s make things good again.
And after a lifetime in the only home you’ve known, he looks you in the eye and says, “You should leave.” He knows you have nowhere to go. “No means noooo~” she taunts, hiding behind his shoulders. He hangs his head in shame, and she, with arms crossed, towers over him and taps an impatient rhythm with the sole of her shoe.
She throws a vase across the room, but it is you that is broken.
You are weighed with disappointment, watching the cool uncle you once loved and respected allow a symbol of hatred to take a collar to his neck. He used to be strong. He used to be tall but now it’s hard to tell by his cowered, slumped posture.
There is a knock at the door — it is a neighbor who has heard her from the distance. You have never seen him before. He is holding two brooms.
You take one and sweep. You sweep the pieces of glass, side-by-side with the stranger, without saying a word. You sweep, not knowing if another vase will fall, or if will be thrown and crack your face. You sweep and clean the home for your uncle, with the slightest hope that she’ll move on and he’ll go back to being normal.
You hope if you sweep hard enough, you’ll make it feel like home again, and he’ll finally come to understand: you’re as good as family.
To the workers at New Economy, CUNY Citizenship Now!, MinKwon, and other DACA advocates: thank you for the broom.