The Fight to Make It as a First-Generation American

Portrait of my grandmother, at my mother’s house (Cambridge, MA) 2012 Frances F. Denny
Portrait of my grandmother, at my mother’s house (Cambridge, MA) 2012
Frances F. Denny

An elderly woman walks slowly towards the schoolyard. A silk scarf covers her silvery hair and frames her kind-eyed, olive-skinned face. She waits attentively for her eight-year-old granddaughter to finish the school day so that she can walk her home.

I recall this memory vividly mostly because I felt embarrassed by the way the other children stared at the headscarf wrapped around Majoon’s hair as we walked home under the California sunshine. The scarf symbolized an overt difference in the predominantly Caucasian and Christian community of Valencia. The fight to assimilate as an Iranian into American culture was an ongoing battle throughout my childhood, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m now ashamed I ever felt this way about my grandmother.

Majoon translates to “mother dear” in Farsi, and for much of my time growing up, I didn’t know that my grandmother’s real name was Batool, which means renouncing the material world and devoting one’s life to religion. Growing up, I would watch her pray and chant in Arabic. She would sit at the dining room table after cooking flawless saffron rice, and she would always look so contemplative as she peered off into the distance. Was she thinking about how she was in a foreign land far from her home country of Iran and unable to speak English? Or was she thinking of her childhood and how she was forced to stop school after sixth grade?

 
“Sara, you have to make it,” she said, adding that she and my father didn’t become established in creative fields, so it was up to me to succeed for all of us.
 

As an adult, I understand more than ever the sacrifices my grandmother made for our family. She would fight adamantly for every one of her seven children to be top students in school and pushed them to attain higher education in the West during the height of Iran’s brain drain in the 70s (“Brain drain” in the historical context of Iran refers to the mass exodus of highly skilled individuals that attained higher education abroad in Western countries during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. These individuals did not return to Iran, and this cycle has continued into the present day). Her own path to education had been prohibited by her conservative and religious father, who said she couldn’t go to school after Reza Shah banned women’s wearing of the headscarf due to modernization measures in 1936. Having lost her right to pursue an education as a woman, she would make it her mission for my mother and her siblings to study abroad.

They say we all become our mothers. My mother inherited the same fire from my grandmother for me to attain top grades, and she pushed me to attend journalism grad school at NYU. “Sara, you have to make it,” she said, adding that she and my father didn’t become established in creative fields, so it was up to me to succeed for all of us. Everyone strives for their own definition of success. For me, it had the heavy weight of the American Dream attached to it.

I wonder what my grandmother would think today of her many grandchildren dispersed across the U.S. Living in New York City for the last four years has revealed a collective culture of “fighting to make it,” where the young and talented flock here with ambition like a never ending wildfire. My matriarch figures led me to this city full of creative energy from the Patti Smith generation and a pulse so inspiring and cutthroat that nothing else compares. The question “Will I make it?” leads me in my career aspirations and continues to drive my independent journey, no matter how far away I am from my family.

This essay originally appeared in the Fight issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Fight issue here or read The Important Lesson My Roommate Taught Me.

Photo by Frances F. Denny

Frances F. Denny (b. 1984) is an artist and photographer whose work investigates the development of female selfhood and identity. Her work is represented by ClampArt in New York City. Radius Books published Frances’ first monograph, Let Virtue Be Your Guide, in the spring of 2016. She is the recipient of a 2016 NYFA Fellowship in Photography, and has won numerous awards, including PDN’s 30: New and Emerging Photographers to Watch, PDN’s 2015 The Curator (for Still Life), LensCulture Emerging Talent, Magenta Foundation Flash Forward, and Critical Mass 50. She holds an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design, and a BA from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. Her work has been featured by The New York Times/Women in the World, Art New England, Dazed, The Humble Arts Foundation, PDN, and A Women’s Thing. Frances lives in Brooklyn, NY where she balances her art practice and a career as an editorial and commercial photographer.

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