'Coming to America' Was the Immigrant Story My Family Needed

The 1988 comedy became my family's favorite movie because it reminded us of our struggle to succeed in the United States.

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Jun 26 2018, 7:13pm

Photo: Paramount/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

It opens with a majestic view of an African kingdom: impossibly green hills, trees, and mountains, and a bright, beautiful castle in the distance. It might sound like a scene from Black Panther, but it’s the opening of Coming to America, the seminal Eddie Murphy movie that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

The 1988 comedy tells the story of a crowned prince of a fictional African nation who wants to find true love despite his father’s insistence that he marry the bride who was picked out for him since birth. Somehow, Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) convinces the strict King Jaffe (James Earl Jones) to let him travel to America in order to “sow his royal oats” before entering into the arranged marriage.

So Akeem comes to America, heading straight for the borough of Queens, New York, because that’s where he believes he’ll find his own queen. It’s a sweet, funny tale, and one of Murphy’s best films. But for me, an immigrant, the movie has always meant so much more.

Like Akeem, my family came to America in search of a better life. The year was 1994, just a few years after Coming to America first came out. Although we first landed in Miami from Russia, we moved to Florida’s west coast a couple of years later. My Cuban-Russian parents wanted desperately to learn English and integrate into American culture, which was proving difficult in Spanish-speaking Miami.

Although I can’t remember when we first saw the movie together, sitting on a used couch in our small house and with the subtitles on since my parents were still learning English, I remember the laughter. Soon enough, Coming to America became our favorite movie.

As an immigrant, what I related to most in Akeem was his determination. Although as a prince, he had more money than my family could ever imagine, he strived to present himself as a regular American. Not soon after his move, he gets a job at McDowell’s, a McDonald’s copycat run by the father of his love interest.

Despite not having worked a day in his life—he doesn’t even know how to clean, which we soon find out in a comical scene involving a mop—Akeem takes to his job with gusto. Then, and over and over again throughout the film, we see him tackle various new tasks with a smile on his face.

His attitude reminds me of my parents’ when we first came to the United States. I was eight years old and my brother was only two, and my parents immediately set out to work in order to provide us with a better life. Despite both of them having master’s degrees in engineering, neither could find jobs in the field. Instead, my mother cleaned houses while my father did handyman work. Eventually, my dad found a job as an electrician, construction worker, and pizza delivery man, while my mom toiled away at a food packaging company. She, too, delivered pizza at some point.

That may not sound optimal, but things were much worse in Russia. There too, despite their degrees, they were never able to find work in engineering. Instead, in Russia my mom worked various odd jobs as a seamstress and my dad had several jobs, including work in a bodega-like stand in Moscow and smuggling in goods like VCRs from Singapore. We lived in Cuba briefly from '88 to '89, and faired no better. But in America, their work could provide a better life for their kids. There was optimism, a sense we could move up. And I remember those early years whenever we re-watch Coming to America together.

The movie isn't without its critics, especially in the way it plays up stereotypes of Africans. But I always thought Murphy subverted these assumptions made about his character. He, after all, was a prince, and not the uneducated man who hunted lions those he met in America assumed he was. Upon my arrival in the States I too dealt with misguided stereotypes. I was called a "Double Commie" by classmates who didn't know what to make of my Russian/Cuban heritage. Because of my name, Irina Gonzalez, I was sometimes called Speedy Gonzalez too. But repeated watches of Coming to America sent me a message louder than the one I was receiving at school: That people's stereotypes of foreign lands and those that come from them are often unfair, unfounded, and only serve to make them look ignorant.

It also served to reinforce what I saw firsthand in my family. For most immigrants, the journey here isn’t easy. When we arrived, my parents only had $5,000 for the four of us. They were able to get a loan of $10,000 from a relative who lived here already, but they worked for years to pay it back.

They never complained, and they never stopped smiling. Like Prince Akeem, they tackled each new job with enthusiasm. That’s what’s required of anyone who comes to this country, after all: to work hard to create a new life, and Akeem’s travails exemplified that.

Of course he got a different kind of happy ending. His secret is found out and chaos ensues, but he gets the girl in the end. Yet instead of staying in America, Akeem marries Lisa McDowell in his native Zamunda. Later on, as they ride off into the sunset in regal African style, Lisa asks him whether he was truly willing to give it all up for love. He assures her that he was, and that they could still leave it all behind, but she replies with a simple “Nah.”

This ending remains particularly touching to me as an immigrant, because it speaks to what so many of us miss from our homelands. If things had not been so bad for my parents in Russia or Cuba, then we wouldn’t have come to America. If my parents could have advanced themselves and improved our lives better at home, they wouldn't have made the difficult decision to move thousands of miles away from their families and friends.

But that’s what immigrants do. We may not come from royal backgrounds, but we come here with the same desire as Prince Akeem: to make our lives better.

When I look back over the past 30 years of Coming to America, and my family’s 24 years of being here, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride as an immigrant.

Although his may have been to find true love, my family’s American Dream eventually came true, too. My parents are now successful business owners and, with their help, I was able to attend a top university and work in my chosen career.

Through Akeem’s indefatigable smile, I was able to understand my parents’ struggle. The film became my family’s favorite because, ultimately, it was a comical and romantic tale. But it will always hold a special place in my heart for the way it reminded me of the hard work immigrants do when we come to America.

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