Moving to Detroit from Haiti is a shocking, uncomfortable experience for Fabiola—especially because her mother, Manman, is detained and so doesn’t accompany Fabiola to live with Matant Jo and Fabiola’s cousins. Feeling alone and unmoored, Fabiola has to confront the fact that in her cousins’ eyes, she looks too Haitian—while Fabiola’s American-born cousins Pri and Donna look embarrassingly American to her. With these difference, the novel suggests that the quest to find one’s identity as an immigrant is a process that’s difficult and anxiety-inducing, no matter what—and for many, that quest is never complete.
From the moment Fabiola sets foot in Matant Jo’s home, she must confront the fact that being an American means that she’s going to have to give up on aspects of Haitian culture, even within her own home—something the novel suggests is uniquely traumatizing. For Fabiola’s entire life, she’s known her aunt as Matant Jo. When Fabiola spoke on the phone with her aunt throughout her childhood, they spoke Creole. It’s understandably shocking, then, when Matant Jo insists on being called Aunt Jo and threatens to punish Fabiola anytime she uses a Creole word. Since Fabiola expected to be welcomed with open arms into an extended Haitian community in Detroit, this is unsettling and even traumatizing. Fabiola thinks of herself as both Haitian and American, since she grew up in Haiti but was born and spent the first three months of her life in the United States. Having her aunt—someone she loves and trusts, and who has financially supported her for her entire life—essentially tell her that her Haitian identity is unacceptable makes Fabiola fear that she’ll never find a home in Detroit.
As Fabiola gets to know her cousins, though, she discovers that it’s not just recently arrived immigrants like her who struggle to with a dual identity. Rather, all immigrants—whether first- or second-generation, and no matter how American they may seem—feel the strain of a dual identity, to varying degrees. This becomes particularly clear to Fabiola as she becomes closer with her older cousin Chantal, with whom she shares a room. At 19, Chantal was born in Haiti and immigrated to Detroit with Matant Jo when she was a toddler. But despite having lived in Detroit almost all her life, she still feels burdened by her Haitian roots. For instance, she tells Fabiola that when she was nine and her father, Phillip, was murdered, it fell to her—as someone fluent in Creole and in English—to translate newspaper articles and conversations with the detectives. She frames her identity in terms of having American skin and Haitian bones and muscles. Her Haitian identity is embedded within her and isn’t something she can or even wants to escape, but having this dual identity poses its own problems (like losing her innocence by translating the news of her father’s murder). With this, the novel suggests that people who immigrate as small children are often forced to grow up and assume adult responsibilities long before they’re ready to do so. It’s possible to see Chantal’s parental role with her sisters as a product of her traumatic coming-of-age process.
While Matant Jo urges her daughters and niece to assimilate into American culture, the novel proposes that for the sake of one’s mental and emotional health, it’s essential to hold onto elements of one’s home culture. For Fabiola, this means clinging tightly to her Vodou spiritual practices, which help her make sense of the confusing things she encounters in Detroit even as she becomes more American in other ways. And indeed, Chantal, Pri, and Donna all seem more confident and self-assured as they start to take Fabiola’s Vodou seriously. Connecting with their Haitian heritage through Vodou helps Fabiola’s cousins feel more at home in Detroit.
However, one’s relationship to traditional cultural elements or customs is never static. In other words, it’s possible to have a multifaceted identity that’s constantly shifting and adapting. Fabiola begins to feel more American when Matant Jo gave her pocket money, and when she learns to write research papers in a way that will please her American teachers. But Fabiola also finds ways to hold onto her Haitian roots, such as when Matant Jo leaves her to prepare the Thanksgiving turkey. Rather than cook the bird whole, Fabiola prepares a version of a traditional Haitian dish where the turkey is cut into smaller pieces, fried, and put in a tomato sauce. The turkey—a symbol of American Thanksgiving—is made undeniably Haitian thanks to Fabiola’s preparation method. Fabiola also comes to the conclusion that Pri and Donna aren’t less Haitian just because they grew up in Detroit. The fact that they didn’t grow up speaking Creole or practicing Vodou doesn’t preclude them from identifying as Haitian; they can always make a point to learn more about their culture, thereby creating richer, more well-rounded identities for themselves. With this, the novel proposes that especially for immigrants, the process of figuring out one’s identity is never over. As new immigrants like Fabiola assimilate into American culture or as second-generation immigrants like Pri and Donna reconnect with their roots, they are constantly learning who they are as Haitians and as Americans.
Identity and the Immigrant Experience ThemeTracker
Identity and the Immigrant Experience Quotes in American Street
And then tomorrow, she will come to this side of the glass, where this good work that will make her hold her head up with dignity, where she will be proud to send me to school for free, and where we will build a good, brand-new life. Une belle vie, as she always promises, hoping that here she would be free to take her sister’s hand and touch the moon.
This is your home now, Fabiola. This is Phillip’s house—the house he bought with the last bit of money he had from Haiti. He had dreams, you know. That’s why when he saw this house for sale, on the corner of American Street and Joy Road, he insisted on buying it with the cash from his ransacked and burned-to-the-ground car dealership in Port-au-Prince. He thought he was buying American Joy.
I see you clearer now because I light my candle and pour the libation, rattle the asson, and ring the bell to call all my guides, the lwas. You’ve told me that they are here for me. All I have to do is call on them so they can help me. I believe you, Manman. Even without you being here to hold ceremonies with drummers and singers and a village of followers, I will practice all that you’ve taught me.
I look all around the restaurant. “But this is your job,” I say.
She inhales and looks around, too. “Yes, it is. But our work is not without the help of good American citizens like yourself. You are an American citizen, right?”
“On American Street, I will live with my aunt Jo and my cousins, and go to school, and have a cute boyfriend, and keep my mouth shut because in Haiti I learned not to shake hands with the devil. But on Joy Road, I will tell the truth. The truth will lead to my happiness, and I will drive long and far without anything in my way, like the path to New Jersey, to my mother, to her freedom, to my joy. Which road should I take, Papa Legba?”
Creole and Haiti stick to my insides like glue—it’s like my bones and muscles. But America is my skin, my eyes, and my breath. According to my papers, I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m not a citizen. I’m a “resident alien.” The borders don’t care if we’re all human and my heart pumps blood the same as everyone else’s.
But I don’t want to look like a church lady. I still want to look...good. So I take off my mother’s church dress and put on a plain sweatshirt that belongs to Chantal and a pair of new jeans. I wear the Air Jordans that Pri picked out for me, but I keep my hairstyle. Now I don’t look so...Haitian. So immigrant.
I used to stare at that address whenever those white envelopes with the blue-and-red-striped edges would make their way to our little house in Port-au-Prince. I’d copy the address over and over again, 8800 American Street, because this house was my very first home. But for three short months only. This house is where I became American. This house is the one my mother and I prayed for every night, every morning, and during every ceremony: 8800 American Street.