MIAMI — There is no box on U.S. Census forms that accurately describes Ray Gongora.
The Belize-born naturalized citizen grew up in an English-speaking Central American country, a former British colony where African slaves were once sold. He emigrated in 1986 to a country that deemed him Hispanic based on the geography of his birth.
“I identify myself as ‘other’,” Gongora says. “I am black, so to speak — a brown-skinned Caribbean person. You cannot identify yourself as a black American because our cultures are so totally different.”
He doesn’t worry about not being counted, though. Not with President-elect Barack Obama set to take office Jan. 20.
Obama, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, will be the first black U.S. president, fulfilling the dreams and promise of the civil rights era. But for black immigrants and their children, Obama’s swearing-in realizes other dreams.
In Obama, they recognize their own parents, who saw themselves as outsiders, and the children they raised to believe that education was the road to success. His election superseded not only color, but also economics, family divisions, government failures and nagging questions of identity.
“It’s an individual accomplishment for each of us,” Gongora said.
Gongora, a 53-year-old postal worker, scheduled a vacation day Jan. 20 to watch the inauguration on television at his Pembroke Pines home. His hope for his U.S.-born children is that no one will question their citizenship in an Obama administration, even with a Honduran mother and a Belize-born father.
“I said to my (17-year-old) son, ‘You were born here. You can be president even if your parents were both born in different countries,'” he said.
Haitian-American schoolchildren were so caught up in the election that they wrote “Obama” on their arms as they talked about their culture in a Haitian Heritage Museum program this fall. His story, not just his skin color, was so similar to their own, said Lawrence Gonzalez, the Miami museum’s education manager.
Obama’s father left Kenya to continue his education in the U.S. The president-elect also knows what it’s like to uproot his life: He was born in Hawaii, then spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. He returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, then left the islands for college. He eventually settled in Chicago.
“They left that comfort zone and came to a random area where they weren’t accepted. They continued to work to make a better life and get a career going,” said Gonzalez, a Haitian-American who was born in Miami. “Our parents did this.”
Jean-Marie Denis, 67, beams as he lists the reasons any Haitian could say, “Obama is my brother!”
The president-elect achieved success through education, so prized in the Caribbean country that families scrape together money for tuition even in the hardest times. He made his name in Chicago, a city whose first permanent settler was Haitian. He named a Haitian-American, Patrick Gaspard, as his political director. Finally Obama fulfills Haiti’s legacy as home of the world’s first successful slave rebellion, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.
“Martin Luther King’s movement was a continuation of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s dream. Obama is, 40 years later, the realization of Martin Luther King’s dreams,” said Denis. “Toussaint L’Ouverture didn’t work in vain.”
Denis, a naturalized citizen whose bookstore Libreri Mapou is a cornerstone of Miami’s Little Haiti, also sees himself in Obama’s father, who left a poor African village to study in the United States.
“Now his son is president,” Denis said. “He’s just like me. I came to this country with $50 in my pocket and now look at me, with two doctors in my family.”
For all the times that Obama had to fit into a new environment, he never lost his roots, said Sharon Makoriwa, a 30-year-old Kenyan.
Obama has said that while the world saw him as black, he still identified with the small-town values instilled in him by his grandparents, something that helped him connect with rural Illinois voters in his Senate run.
“During the campaign they said, ‘Who exactly is this Obama?’ I found it a very ridiculous question,” said Makoriwa, a grantwriter for the African Services Committee in New York.
“I connected with him as a newcomer to the United States. I’m living in a new culture, I have to learn to respect the culture and I have to fall back on my values and my principles to be who I am,” she said.
Many immigrants are also hopeful that Obama will inspire change in their home countries.
The president-elect’s Kenyan ancestry gives him the authority to criticize African governments, and will set an example on a continent where leaders often fail to uphold the rule of law, said Bonaventure Ezekwenna, 47, who left Nigeria to study in New York in 1983.
“He is in a better position than anybody else to speak with the leadership on the African continent, eyeball to eyeball, that it is time for change,” said Ezekwenna, chief executive of Africans in America, which focuses on human trafficking issues. “As leader of the free world, if he tells them the game is up in his motherland, his ancestral home, they will get a clue that the game is up.”
Marlon Hill, a Jamaican-born Miami attorney, made Obama’s election official as a member of Florida’s Electoral College.
“It felt like carrying tons of history on my shoulder,” the 37-year-old said.
But Inauguration Day should not be a time for immigrants to stop and reflect on past sacrifices and achievements. They need to expect more, he said — from Obama and from themselves.
“It’s beyond just being about Obama and him being a president who is black. It is about our circumstances and, whether we are black or black immigrants, can we do more with our circumstances? Can we provide for our families around us?” Hill said. “We have fewer excuses now because of an election of an Obama-like person.”