Strong women are the lifelines of their families. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we each interviewed a beloved matriarch in our own lives. Their inspirational stories range from escaping a communist country as a preteen, never, ever letting a man raise a hand to her, and taking a leap of faith in pursuit of the American dream. We are in awe of their collective strength, resilience, and capacities to nurture, sacrifice, and fight for the ones they love. Here are their stories.
My mom has always been my greatest inspiration and greatest source of strength. It’s clear and undeniable that my family is a matriarchy through and through. Without the generations of strong, tough ass women, our family never would have made it here to this country. Strength was never a choice, it was a necessity. - Jessica
Jessica: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from the women who came before you?
Mama Wu: My “can do” attitude and instinctual survival mode from my mother. Growing up in Vietnam, we never had an option, we just had to do what we had to do. I am Chinese, but was born and raised in Vietnam. When I was only 11 or 12 years old, I didn’t even know this at the time, but my mother was already planning how our family would escape Vietnam. After her mother (my grandmother) passed away, my mother knew that she would have to do everything in her power to send her children away from Vietnam because she knew there was no future for her kids in this country. And in order for her to do this, she needed money. For us to escape, she had to plan everything out and it was 100% at our own risk – she knew that we could lose everything. For adults, it would cost 15 to 20 bars of gold. For children, it tended to be cheaper, at around 10 bars of gold. In order for my mother to send all six of her children out, she had to plan accordingly to hide and save money for the escape. When I was 11 or 12 years old, she came to me and told me that she needed me to do something for her. I barely remember anything about that time except that I knew that I had to take on this responsibility.
She said, “I need you to carry all of this gold out of this house and to your big sister and her husband’s home.” We lived in Ho Chi Minh City (commonly known as Saigon) and their home was in the next city. She said, “I need to transport all of this gold because you’re a child so no one will suspect you.” She told me that I would take a private car from our home to their home. At the time, I thought “Wow, how cool! I get to sit on this special, private transportation instead of public transportation!”
She made a special body strap with pockets to hide all the gold bars in and wrapped it around my body. It was so heavy and I had to walk normally like nothing was wrong. She had me wear very loose clothes so you couldn’t tell that I was hiding something and told me to just go straight inside the house as soon as I arrived because they will already be expecting me. That’s how I transferred all the gold out to a safe place so we could prepare for our escape. Without all of this money, there was no way we could have escaped.
No one could have done this but me. At that moment, I felt like I had to instantly grow up and do whatever my mom told me to do. I didn’t know anything, but I knew that I would do whatever my mom told me to do. I learned, when you’re in a situation like that, you just have to do what you have to do. No questions asked. Just do it.
And I think that was the moment everything changed in my life. You know, going from being a preteen to having to take all this responsibility on my shoulders – and I didn’t know what that even meant, but I knew I didn’t have a choice. That experience changed and shaped me as a person.
Jessica: What is the most rewarding thing about being a mother?
Mama Wu: To see my two children succeed and look back at all the memories we’ve created from your childhood into your teens through school to college and graduation. Now seeing you both so successful in your careers is such a rewarding feeling for me. To be honest with you, I don’t know how to be a mother. When I had you and Alex, I just told myself that I would raise my kids to the best of my ability and to have honest communication with them, which is something I did not have with my own parents growing up. I wanted to raise my children with the qualities I admired most from both cultures. The respect and honor of eastern culture meets the importance of vulnerability and honest communication of western culture. I think that’s the most rewarding thing for me as a mother.
Because growing up, I did not have that. I was just told what I had to do, without any opportunity to voice my feelings, and I would walk away feeling unheard and not understood. It was always just “go to your room” or “because I told you so” and I hated that part of growing up. And I didn’t realize until now that it was the vulnerability that brought us closer together. We’ve really learned on this journey together because I didn’t know how I was going to do this, but I knew we were in it together and I think that’s why we have this relationship now.
The most rewarding thing about being a mother is loving my children unconditionally and always being there to listen to them. Even if I don’t have the life experience to give them advice, I will always be here for them to talk to, cry with, and lean on.
Jessica: What is the most important thing you want to get across to the younger generations of women and girls?
Mama Wu: You know that I did my best to raise you to have your voice. But let’s say, I have another chance with my future granddaughter, oh I would raise her differently. I would be her ultimate cheerleader, to raise her to have her voice, to be herself, to love herself, to know her power, and to know that her existence is equal to men. When you love yourself and you know what you want, that is your power. I was raised to be silent and timid, but not anymore. Now I know that your voice is everything, your voice is your power. I thought that being silent, timid, and following the rules your parents set for you was what a girl was supposed to do. When you have your voice and you speak up and tell people how you feel, that’s power.
Growing up, I didn’t have that feeling and even raising you, I didn’t know that. Now, if it comes to my granddaughter, I would raise her differently. I would tell her that she can do whatever she wants and she can speak her mind. That is what really makes a woman strong – and it’s the same for boys! Your voice is your power, no matter what gender you are.
When people say “Nana” in my family, it’s unspoken that it means the boss. My grandmother (a.k.a Nana) is the true matriarch of our family, playing a big role in the lives of 25 grandchildren. She has always been one of my biggest examples of what it is to be a strong and graceful mother, wife, and woman. - Neijah
Neijah: What is your first memory of feeling proud to be a girl?
Nana: My first memory of being proud to be a girl is when I got my first job and was able to help my parents around the house. It was hard for our family financially. My parents paid to keep a roof over our heads and give us everything we needed, so I asked my mom if I could buy new furniture for the house and I did with the money from a summer job I had at the time working at the De Fremery Park recreation center in West Oakland. I think that is where my work ethic came from. I felt empowered, because I was able to do something on my own. I started being more responsible from that point on.
Neijah: What is one thing that your sisters or women in your life told you that you will remember forever?
Nana: My grandmother’s favorite quote was “I will knock you down to your knees before I let you think you can run over me.” She was four feet and 11 inches tall. Were we scared of her? Hell yea. She didn’t play. It was weird because my mom and grandmother were stern and firm, but so sweet and lovable.
Neijah: Do you know what made your parents move to California from the South?
Nana: Whatever went on had something to do with racism. When they left, they didn’t look back. My mother moved to Oakland from Jasper, Texas as a teenager and my father moved to Oakland from Mississippi. My father was given away by his mother as a child because he was “too dark” and she refused to raise him.
I had my first child (your mother) when I was 16 and my parents were there to support me through it. My mom made sure I finished high school and kept my part time job because she wanted me to be a responsible mother and love my child. I had to be a woman.
Neijah: What do you mean when you said you had to be a woman?
Nana: That means I had to be responsible about how I took care of and represented myself. I had to take care of my baby, too. My mother taught me to care about myself and not to let anybody put me down.
I was in a relationship earlier on where the guy I was dating hit me one time. My grandmother and mother always carried a . 38 back in those days. When it happened, they came over and my mother laid her gun on table and told him “this is the last time you will hit my daughter”. He never hit me again. Them coming to my defense like that let me know that I needed to learn to love myself. I didn’t need to let anybody put me down because of the way they feel. From that point on, I won’t say that nobody ever disrespected me, but did I receive it? No. Did I stand up for myself? Yes.
Neijah: As the woman, the boss, the Nana, what is one thing you want the young women of your family and the world to know?
Nana: If you have a dream that you want to achieve in life, I want you to learn how to stand up and follow through on your dream. I want you to be proud of who you are, no matter how big or how small. Because in life, there is always a storm. But storms only give us strength we need to move through to the next level. We can always succeed at what we want to do as long as we put our mind and our heart in it and put God first.
Raised in the rural province of Nueva Ecija, Philippines, my mother, Magdalena (better known as Nina) took a leap of faith to give her family a better life. At 26 years old in the 80s, she migrated to America to pursue her career, and ultimately petitioned her parents so that they, too, could live the American dream. - Melissa
Melissa: What is your first memory of feeling proud to be a girl? Nina: I was so proud of myself to study nursing and graduate college because many kids in my province could not afford to go to school or were not interested. Thankfully, my parents earned a decent wage from selling crops on their land, which helped me and my siblings go to college. Growing up, I’d always care for my little brother, and from an early age I knew that nursing was what I wanted to study. As a young girl in a third world country, I wanted better opportunities for my family [in the Philippines] and wanted to raise my own family with better living conditions than what I was used to. It makes me proud to see all that I’ve been through to be where I am now.
Melissa: Growing up in a rural town, what are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from those who came before you? Nina: My childhood memories were some of the happiest moments of my life. Growing up in a middle class family of 5 children, we owned poultry and pigs, and together, had to do chores around the house. I remember picking eggs in the afternoon, and I would help my father give baths to the pigs. As a family we would help my mom cook, and she always made sure we ate dinner together. The experiences and lessons growing up will not be forgotten. College separated us, but we still make sure to come together for special occasions. My parents taught us respect, love, and independence. Having a family of my own, these are the values I knew I wanted to carry on to my children and my children’s children.
Melissa: I remember you would tell me stories about coming to America in the 80s with just $20 in your pocket. How did you overcome the feelings of fear when you moved here? Nina: When I left the Philippines at 26 years old, it was a combination of excitement and fear. I was excited because I thought, “I’m going to the place that everyone dreams of,” but also fearful because I knew that I would be far from what I knew—my family, parents, and friends. I knew I would start a new job, meet strangers who lived different backgrounds, and it all became a scary thought. I arrived to windy Chicago in July of 1980. I remember riding a bus to purchase my first coat and was so excited to see the shopping center—it was a complete culture shock! Now being here for 40 years, the fear is gone and I’m happy to be here in what we used to call “the land of honey.” Wow, time flies! I got married, raised 3 beautiful children and 2 grandkids. This is my home now.
Melissa: Once you landed in the States, what goals did you set for yourself? Nina: I came to the states alone so that I can further my career and help my parents and siblings back home. I kept hearing about a better life in America and so I wanted to eventually bring them to America, where we’d start a new life. Because I left my family behind, I always felt the need to send money and care packages. Life is hard there, it was hard to survive on the basic things. To this day, I still send Balikbayan boxes full of clothes, canned food, and chocolate to our relatives in the Philippines.
Melissa: What is the most challenging and rewarding thing about being a mother? Nina: Making sure to give my children a good life was the most challenging thing. I wasn’t given the things I had dreamed of as a little girl, so I wanted my children to have a better way of life. For many many years, I put my children first. I always had to think about the welfare and future of my kids so that they can enjoy experiences of their own. Now that my children are grown and done with school, it’s rewarding to see them start their own families. The most important thing to teach my children and grandchildren is how to love. It’s rewarding to look after young ones and pass down the lessons that were handed to me. Now that I’m retiring soon, I’m seeing the reward of raising a family and caring for others. I’m taking time for myself, my health and I have no worries. My dreams have been fulfilled and I can happily say that I’ve reached my peak in life.
We are nothing without our history. We have to look back to know who we are and where we’ve been so that we can move forward and pave new roads for new generations. We’re so inspired by the stories of the hardships they’ve endured and overcome and their journeys to becoming strong women – and now, raising the next generation of women. Looking back at everything our matriarchs have faced and overcome, we know that if they can get through that, we can get through this.