Senator Kamala Devi Harris has made history by becoming the first woman, Black and Indian-American Vice President of the United States.
Vice President Harris is the product of the immigrant success story of her mother, Shamala Gopalan, who had arrived in the United States from Tamil Nadu in India in 1958 as a 19-year-old graduate student in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley, and her father, Donald J. Harris, who arrived in the United States from British Jamaica in 1961 for graduate study at UC Berkeley, receiving a PhD in economics in 1966.
Gopalan met the man who would become her husband and the father of her children in the 1960’s. Both were actively involved in the civil rights movement and met at a protest, getting hitched in 1963; both individuals remained involved in the movement, even bringing their daughters along from time to time.
Shamala Gopalan went on to become a biologist whose work on the progesterone receptor gene stimulated advances in breast cancer research and Harris a Stanford University professor emeritus of economics. While the couple’s professional achievements were extraordinarily successful, the journey of their arrival, education, and lives in a foreign nation is a familiar one.
After her parents divorce when she was just 7 Harris was raised primarily by her Hindu single mother. She says that her mother adopted black culture and immersed her two daughters – Kamala and her younger sister, Maya – in it. Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture but living a proudly African American life.
“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” she wrote in her autobiography, The Truths We Hold. “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.
Kamala Harris attended college in the U.S., spending four years at Howard University, which she has described as among the most formative experiences of her life. After four years at Howard, Harris went on to earn her law degree at the University of California, Hastings and began her career in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.
She became the district attorney – the top prosecutor – for San Francisco in 2003 before being elected the first female and the first African American to serve as California’s attorney general, the top lawyer, and law enforcement official in America’s most populous state.
In her work as a prosecutor, Senator, and on the campaign trail, Harris often discussed how paramount this familial background is in shaping her beliefs – and specifically, Harris has credited much of her success to her mother, who passed away in 2009. The Senator once called Shyamala Gopalan Harris “the reason for everything.”
Maya Harris, Kamala’s sister, once tweeted, “You can’t know who Kamala Harris is without knowing who our mother was.”
In her nearly two terms in office as attorney general, Harris gained a reputation as one of the Democratic party’s rising stars, using this momentum to propel her to election as California’s junior US senator in 2017. She was only the second black woman ever elected to the U.S. senate.
Obama applauded President Biden for “nailing” his choice of running mate in the form of Kamala Harris, who he perceived as having a “life story that I and so many others can see ourselves in”.
For many immigrants and their children, the achievement of Harris and her parents resonates the fact that we always have something to prove, to ourselves and others, that it was worth leaving home, and that we seized every possible opportunity that comes with living in a foreign country. In what is overall an ordinary life, it’s hard to imagine an achievement that will be big enough to settle the score.
Listening to Harris relate her acceptance to her mother’s immigration story, I couldn’t help think of all the nights fellow immigrants and children of immigrants wondered if they would ever be able to definitively say that their sacrifice, or, more importantly, our family’s sacrifice for us, was, in fact, worth it.
There is no one moment that can lift a complex, emotional burden completely, though being nominated as the next Vice President of the United States is probably as close as it gets. Most immigrants and children of immigrants will never get that moment, but it doesn’t make our immigration story any less worthy.
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