A Portrait of an Immigrant Named Millie, Drawn From Her Funeral

One in four Americans are immigrants or have immigrant parents, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis.  American population trends are expected to reflect a steady rise in immigrants, with foreign-born individuals comprising a record 18 percent of the population by the year 2065.  What is often absent from these studies are the individual stories of immigrants who contribute to their newly adopted countries in ways that are not quantifiable in surveys and polls.

One of those immigrants was Millie, who moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s as a child from Guatemala. When she died this year of lung cancer, cause unknown, she was only 38.

Apart from the expected family and friends, there were three distinct groups of people at her funeral aboard a ship in Long Beach Harbor.  Each of them told her story, representing a different aspect of Millie’s life and contributions to the city that became her own.

One circle was made up of school bus drivers.  Soon after graduating from high school, Millie took the job that would define her relatively short life. It was a career she loved – driving a big, yellow school bus for the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Buses had long been part of her life.  Like many immigrants to Los Angeles, Millie’s parents had hoped for a better future for their children, so she spent much of her childhood participating in a busing program that took her from the inner-city to more affluent neighborhoods such as Brentwood and the Pacific Palisades. Millie and I had been friends since meeting at Palisades High School.

As an adult, Millie’s indelible gift to the city lay in the mundane gear shifting, beeping back-up lights, and swinging doors of her bus as she drove the city’s streets.

Another group of friends at Millie’s funeral all showed up wearing number 22.  They were Millie’s softball teammates, and they sported the number on her jersey.  An ardent lover of the game, Millie would travel as far away as Sacramento to compete.  The name of her L,A,-based team, “Fight,” embodied Millie’s fierce spirit.

Millie was the kind of person who always looked out for others. Even as she was dying she made valiant, if irrational, efforts to protect friends and family from witnessing her decline. On two occasions, Millie foiled visits from her sister by calling hospital security to escort her out of the building.

Her cremation ceremony, replete with bagels and beer, was as close to the party Millie would have wanted to throw for her family and friends as a funeral could be, albeit without the dancing Millie so loved.

At her funeral, Millie’s softball teammates gave a traditional pre-game cheer, as if to canonize the years of support Millie was known to shout on fields across the state, hands clasped to the dugout fence.

The third group of friends at her funeral were from Los Angeles’ LGBTQ community.  Much to her parent’s dismay, Millie bravely came out of the closet as a young adult.  At her funeral, the division still showed.  Millie’s family stayed away from Maria, the woman Millie called the love of her life.   After Maria lowered the urn of Millie’s ashes into the ocean, she stepped aside to allow the family to pay their final respects.  To break the sadness, a friend on the boat shouted out, “Where’s the music?”  Fittingly, the song “Just the Way You Are” rang through the boat’s speakers and out onto the ocean.

Millie came to Los Angeles as an immigrant. One could say she left as one too, migrating to her new home in the Pacific Ocean.

After the ceremony, as I stood at the Long Beach harbor dock and watched Millie’s mother and father walk to their car, I thought, “Now what?”

All that seemed left in front of the parents was a long walk alone through a concrete parking structure.  Then Millie’s mother stopped and handed her cellphone to her husband. He took a photo of his wife standing in front of a signpost that read “ONE WAY.”

Suddenly, the answer to my question of what would come next seemed clear. For the countless number of people who face systematic patterns of violence, poverty, and uneven development that force them to leave their homes, there has been and always will be only one way. That way is forward.

Heidi Morrison is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She is the author of Global History of Childhood Reader (Routledge, 2012) and Childhood and Colonial Modernity in Egypt (Palgrave, 2015).