WEIGHING IN – Demantra Constantine often pauses before singing the national anthem. It can be a lengthy pause, sometimes long enough to make onlookers wonder what’s happening.
“I think it’s important that you give people an opportunity to be reflective before you start,” Constantine told me after singing at a naturalization ceremony in Schenectady last month. “If people are with their children and they’re rustling or they’re on their phone, it forces them to almost look up and go ‘what’s taking so long?’”
Constantine has a special reverence for Francis Scott Key’s famous lines, which she sings at events ranging from Union College hockey games to the Schenectady Police Department annual awards banquet that she’ll perform at next month,
As an immigrant who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and who didn’t become a naturalized U.S. citizen until she was in her mid 20s, Constantine says she has added appreciation for the significance of the flag that waves in dawn’s early light. She’s particularly awed by those who have worked the hardest to pledge their allegiance to it.
That’s why naturalization ceremonies like the one I attended and the ones she performs at each month mean so much to Constantine.
“Probably because of where I’m from,” she said. “The fact that it is such an honor now for me to be a citizen of the United States, not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate that and feel very grateful that I was chosen to have that opportunity.”
Over the last few weeks, the issue of immigration has been making headlines in New York, with several upstate communities welcoming – or bracing for – migrants coming by way of New York City. As we consider people who are going to such lengths to find a home here, and on Memorial Day no less, when we honor those who made the greatest sacrifice for our country, it seems relevant to note someone like Constantine, who has an abiding awareness of what this country is all about and why so many people are willing to risk so much to come.
Like all immigrants’ stories, Constantine’s is uniquely American.
Constantine was born in Trinidad and Tobago to parents who met on the radio. Her mother was an opera singer and her father ran a radio station in the Caribbean, and they met when Constantine’s mother came to her father’s station to sing. They were married just three weeks later and eventually had five girls.
In the mid 80s, when Constantine was 14, her parents decided to move the family to the United States to give the girls better educational opportunities. Trinidad and Tobago, a small, oil-exporting island nation, was rife with corruption and had limited higher-learning options.
The family settled in upstate New York after first making a home in western Massachusetts, where Constantine’s father had a friend he’d met over ham radio. Then, thinking they should move to New York to make contacts in show business, the family moved to the Capital Region, not really thinking about it being very different from New York City. And so here they came, 150 miles from Manhattan.
For Constantine’s parents, providing opportunity for their children meant sacrificing their own careers. It’s a common story among many immigrants who come to the States seeking refuge. The former doctors who end up working retail, the lawyers who become line cooks. For Constantine’s family, the radio host and singer found themselves working in mall security.
“They both worked at Crossgates at one point,” Constantine said.
Nonetheless, the family made a life here, with the girls pursuing degrees of higher education. Constantine got a two-year-degree from Hudson Valley Community College, thinking she wanted to go into psychology and perhaps become a therapist. But after community college, while working at the old Mohawk Mall in the early 1990s to save money for a four-year-degree, Constantine met her husband, Tom, then a Niskayuna police officer. Tom Constantine currently serves on the Schenectady County Legislature as a representative of Scotia, Glenville and Niskayuna, where he lives with Constantine.
The suede and leather store where Constantine worked had been burglarized.
“So he came into the store to solve the crime. He did a photo lineup and everything, and that’s how we met. He still to this day says I ruined his case,” Constantine said with an easy smile.
They got married a year later and soon Constantine was pregnant with their first of three children, who are now ages 22 to 28. Constantine had married into a famous law enforcement family, with none other than the late Thomas Constantine, who served as the 10th as superintendent of the New York State Police and as chief of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, as its patriarch. She set aside her therapy career ambitions to focus on being a mom. Constantine has no regrets, but it’s hard not to see it as another all-too-familiar American pattern that’s stubborn to change, even in this modern world. Research shows women still bear the heavier burden than men when it comes to balancing work and family life.
But even if Constantine’s psychology career ambitions faded, her love of singing – fostered by her musical childhood in the Caribbean – never decrescendoed.
When the children were school age, Constantine began singing in the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish choir, and her talent almost immediately stood out. She was asked to be the cantor, which eventually led to requests for weddings and funerals and then regular engagements at local bars and restaurants.
Constantine has even sent audition tapes to reality shows like “The Voice.” As a matter of fact, she’s currently awaiting review for the upcoming season. Imagine if that tape ends up launching her musical career? Immigrant mother of three finds TV fame at age 52. Is there a more American story than that?
But as she daydreams of stardom and works a day job in the Schenectady County Clerk’s office, Constantine continues taking local singing gigs. Commonly, she’s asked to perform the national anthem, a song she estimates she’s sung publicly between 500 and 1,000 times.
“Demantra Constantine has performed the national anthem at Schenectady Police events for as long as I can remember,” said Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford. “For over 15 years she has made herself available to sing at our annual award ceremonies, retirement walkouts and banquets, and swearing in ceremonies.” She even performed at Clifford’s 2016 swearing in.
While Constantine makes money singing at weddings or other weekend gigs, she never accepts a fee to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Taking money to sing America’s anthem would feel sacrilegious. “Because the majority of us who respect it and want to hear it, there’s a common understanding of why it’s being sung and what it stands for. It just has become such a powerful song.”
That’s why she says she pays careful attention to her appearance when she sings the national anthem, not wanting to disrespect anyone by slumming it in blue jeans. On the day I watched her perform, she wore a peach-colored dress with a black waist band. Her feet slid into golden heels. Her appearance helps her assume the proper gravitas.
“When you sing certain songs that are especially prayerful, there’s something very moving about that. Internally, you feel it, you see it on people’s faces, and it’s a connection,” Constantine said. “Music really can bring people together in happy times and sad times. It plays a role in so many different ways when you talk about emotion. So, yes, I just feel that.”
She certainly felt it at the naturalization ceremony, where her pre-performance pause was longer than usual. At the celebration, dozens of people from places as far flung as Guyana and Russia became Schenectady’s newest U.S. citizens, and each of them had their own story to tell. That’s the thing about America’s story: It’s made up of 335 million unique narratives. Constantine’s. Yours. Mine. Our individual spirit combined with our deep connection to each other is what makes this country so special. It’s what Constantine thinks about before she launches into “Oh say can you see…”
In that pause, she always mutters the same words to herself:
“God help me share my gift and help me honor these people today by singing this beautiful song that means so much,” Constantine tells herself.
It’s the kind of reflection that deserves to be noticed.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.