Survival as a Jamaican Immigrant
by Paul Brown
(as submitted to The Change Agent)
I lived with my grandmother and my aunt in Jamaica until I was a teenager. Our life in the country was much harder than the city life. We were poor so we lived in a house with no electricity. We put kerosene in the lamps for light in the house. We had no refrigerator or running water. We cooked over a wood fire.
I had to walk a long way to get water and wood. Then I had to carry them back on my head. Everyone in Jamaica carried the weight on their heads unless they had a donkey. We couldn’t afford a donkey. I had to go into the forest to cut the wood down with a machete. I had to clear the land to plant crops for food. I had to dig potatoes and yams. I had to root cassava, turnips, and carrots out of the ground.
I always had a hard time remembering things. My grandmother and my aunt would send me to the store and I would forget what I had to buy. I would come home with something else. The same thing happened when I went to school. I couldn’t remember what they taught me, so I quit in seventh grade.
My aunt sent me to trade school to learn furniture making. I was good at turning chair and table legs, or turning the posts for beds. I worked at that until I started having kids and I needed to earn more money to support them. Around eighteen or nineteen, I went to work on a plantation where I used a machete to cut sugar cane in the hot sun. That was the hardest work I ever did. Next I went to work on a banana plantation where I had to carry the bananas on my head from the field to the trucks. On the same plantation I picked up coconuts and threw them on the wagon behind the tractors.
I worked at several different plantations. Some were more modern. Then I had to pull the bananas on a line over my head for a couple of miles.
In my mid-twenties I had an opportunity to get a work card to come to the United States. I had to go to Kingston, Jamaica to pass a physical exam. After I passed the exam, they sent me back home to wait for a telegram. When I got the telegram, I packed up my clothes and was taken by bus back to Kingston where I got on a plane with about two hundred people to come to Miami, Florida. We got on a Greyhound bus and they gave us fifteen dollars each to use for food for the three day non-stop trip to Connecticut. We were taken to the camp for tobacco workers. We slept in bunk beds and were fed from trays like prisoners. We could go and come, but we had to be there for work at 6:00 in the morning and worked until 4:00 in the afternoon. I made seven dollars an hour. I had to tie up tobacco to keep it straight while it grew. When it was ripe, I had to pick off three bottom leaves from each plant and put them on a carpet where it was pulled to the tractor and taken to the barns to dry. I worked at this for three months. When the tobacco was harvested, I got on a bus with another group of workers, and took a five hour bus trip to northern Maine where we picked apples. At the camp we were allowed to cook food for ourselves. Most mornings there was ice on the apples, so when I picked them, my hands were frozen. I had no choice because I had signed a contract with the government.
After I finished the tobacco-apple cycle I was flown back to Jamaica. When I came to the States the second time, I could get a green card and all my papers in the U.S. if I married someone who was working. I married a woman from Connecticut and we moved to Rockville, CT and then had two kids while I continued to work on a tobacco farm in Windsor.
My life began to change after I got married. I injured my left arm in a tractor accident. I could no longer work, so I went to the library in Vernon where a woman from England started teaching me how to read. She tutored me to get my driver’s license. After physical therapy I went to work for a textile manufacturer and saved my money until I could get a car. With my little reading skill I could get by because I used my common sense. I worked a lot of hours. They would call me sometimes to come in before my regular shift in order to cover for someone. Then I would work through my own shift. I loved to work. Because I was a good worker, the supervisor kept pushing me to become a part-time machine operator. The other workers told me that the job would be more stressful because it had more responsibility and more reading and writing. I did not take the job until the company started laying off people and the machine operator job became full-time. As an immigrant, I had not established any credit, and I needed a full-time job to earn more money. My old car had caught on fire and I was making payments on a new one. I couldn’t refuse the machine operator job.
I continued to work in that job for fifteen years until they closed the doors because of bankruptcy in June, 2012. In the settlement package I was given the opportunity to go back to school. I went to the CT Department of Labor to provide funding for my education. Now I am a student at Read to Succeed. When I can read better I will look for a good paying job.