U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has plenty of historic firsts under her belt, including being the first woman of colour elected to her office by voters — following a stressfully tight election race that dragged on for days.
Canadians may know the 56-year-old politician for her Montreal roots and her controversial policies as a prosecutor, but contrary to bewildering U.S. coverage from October, “Kamala Mania” has never existed north of the border.
With her newfound role turning Harris into a household name, those roots and other branches on her family tree are seeing renewed interest globally. Here’s what we know about her illustrious immigrant parents, the Indian-Jamaican heritage that shaped her American career, and what she’s like as a mom to two adult step-kids:
Her immigrant parents were part of the Civil Rights movement
Indian graduate student Shyamala Gopalan met Jamaican-born academic Donald Harris in California, while both attended a student-organized weekly meeting that discussed Black intellectuals, the New York Times reports. The two dated and married a year after meeting, with Gopalan giving birth to Kamala at the age 25.
The family attended protests together and according to the Los Angeles Times, Harris was politically active as a baby; the newspaper reports that amid a march filled with chanting attendees, her mother asked, “What do you want, Kamala?”
“FEE-DOM,” she chanted from her stroller.
Harris’ parents divorced when she was seven, due to her father taking a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and personal differences. In her book “The Truths We Hold,” Harris wrote they became like “oil and water” when around each other.
Her mom was a gifted scientist
From the start of her political career, Harris has cited her mother as the biggest source of inspiration in her life.
“Shyamala Harris was no more than five feet tall, but if you ever met her you would think she was seven feet tall. She had such spirit and tenacity and I’m thankful every day to have been raised by her,” she wrote on a Mother’s Day Instagram post.
Known for going against tradition, Gopalan refused an arranged marriage in favour of her studies and career as a breast cancer researcher with notable contributions in her field. As a single mom with full-time custody, Gopalan often enlisted her kids to help her clean test tubes, according to a Mercury News report.
She passed away in 2009 due to colon cancer, but her influence on Harris is still apparent: In a video posted on her Twitter account in October, she bonds with actress Mindy Kaling over having brilliant scientist mothers pass away too soon.
“Our mothers are very proud of us right now. And I’m sure our mothers are up there right now, having a good cup of chai,” she told Kaling.
Her dad is a renowned economist
Donald Harris isn’t in the spotlight as much as his daughter, nor is he in her life.
“My father is a good guy, but we are not close,” Harris said in a 2003 interview.
Now retired, the former economics professor is credited with helping Harris and her sister make happy memories in his Caribbean homeland. In a post on a friend’s website, he writes that when his daughters visited them they spent their time together exploring fields and eating fruits sold in markets.
That love of Jamaican cuisine her father cultivated has always been strong, Harris told Canadian-American personality Ayesha Curry in late October, with rice and peas especially being dear to her heart.
Besides teaching, the senior Harris is known for working as a Jamaica government consultant, advising its prime ministers, and widely admired academic advancements.
Although he’s expressed great pride in her accomplishments, he’s also chastised Harris for perpetuating a stereotype about Jamaicans and marijuana.
Her little sister is her best friend
Maya Harris, 53, is a lawyer and has been at her sister’s side since childhood, serving as a political advisor during Hillary Clinton’s presidential run and her sister’s short-lived campaign in 2019.
At the start of the pandemic, she revealed that she was diagnosed with lupus in a story for the Atlantic.
Her grandparents have made great strides
Harris has spoken highly of her maternal grandparents, P.V. and Rajam Gopalan.
“My grandfather fought for and was a defender of the freedom of India, while my grandmother travelled across India — bullhorn in hand — to talk to women about accessing birth control,” she wrote in September on Instagram.
And the Indian village where her grandfather was born has shown Harris their support, holding prayer ceremonies throughout the U.S. election race.
Critics however have noted that Harris, who has been overly vocal about her Desi roots, has underplayed her family’s Brahim caste privilege, specifically as a Tambrahm.
“Harris’s family illustrates how caste, class and global mobility are linked through access to state jobs, upper class education, social networks and opportunities for immigration,” Jamhoor writer Tanvi Kohli noted. “Harris’s grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, one of her ‘favorite people in the world,’ was an imperial officer — a position which made possible his daughter’s immigration to the U.S.”
The former self-dubbed “top cop” has been criticized for what she’d done in previous state jobs: Past law-enforcement policies have been described as harming Black Americans and sex workers. Harris has since distanced herself from these stances with a plan to reform the criminal justice system.
Harris’ stepkids call her “Momala”
The future Vice President and her husband Douglas Emhoff raise two grown kids together: Cole, 26, and Ella, 21, who Elle reports are named after musicians John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald.
“Cole and Ella could not have been more welcoming,” Harris told Elle, while reflecting on her first meetings with the two teens. “They are brilliant, talented, funny kids who have grown to be remarkable adults. I was already hooked on Doug, but I believe it was Cole and Ella who reeled me in.”
They even gave her the nickname of “Momala,” she told the outlet, as “step-mom” was too awkward.
Ella is a design student whose made plenty of quirky Instagram posts showing off knitted fashion.
The older sibling keeps a lower profile online, but loves posting selfies of himself and his partner Greenley.
She has high hopes for her youngest family member
Harris recently took a break from her gruelling workweek to talk to her grand-niece Amara Ajagu, 4, about her career aspirations. When Amara voiced apprehension about becoming president of the United States, Harris allayed her worries.
“You could be president! But not right now, you have to be over the age of 35,” she informed Amara.
Amara’s mother later explained her daughter’s conundrum over Twitter:
With Harris in her life, she’ll have a strong foundation for both careers. And as Canadians have learned from Julie Payette, it’s definitely possible to go to space and hold political office.
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