Immigration and Identity

Superintendent’s Conference
New York, March 19, 2003

It is my pleasure to have been invited to share with you my reflections on the topic of immigration and identity. I have spent a great deal of my adult life thinking about this topic, trying to understand and find meaning into what I consider to be an extra-ordinary experience. At the same time, I have been helping others to reflect on their own migratory experiences as well.

As a clinical psychologist, I cannot resist the temptation of capturing this very instant of interaction between you and me, to illustrate some possible underlying feelings that characterize the relationships between immigrants and natives.
Under my skin, under circumstances like this, I cannot help but to feel a little self-conscious, mainly because I am speaking in English, which is my second language. It is an awkward situation, because it is still difficult for me to think in English, and what I think in Spanish, does not easily translate.

A lot of value gets lost in translation. I consider myself to be an intelligent, competent woman, but I do not feel very sophisticated and articulate in my second language. To be quite honest with you, I have a lot of trouble understanding people when they speak English with an accent, so I can imagine that for some of you, it might be hard or trying to understand me, not only because of my accent, but maybe also because of my turn of phrase, or even by my points of view that may be colored by foreign experiences.
In a way, you and I will have to overcome some kind of barriers. Hopefully, by the end of this presentation, we might be able to connect on another level, as human beings in search of meaning and understanding, beyond the differences that set us apart.

I will begin by sharing with you three examples of immigrants’ experiences to help me provide context for the ideas that I will present later.
I will start with myself, so you can have a better idea of who I am and were I am coming from.

I was born and raised in B.A Argentina, surrounded by my extended family and friends. I got married, I gave birth to my two daughters and naturally I began my life as a clinical psychologist. I had in Argentina what I call: “a way of being”.
My husband and I lived through very dangerous times of military dictatorships, and resisted the thought of leaving, because Argentina, was our home, and we stayed the course until my husband finished his training as a pediatrician. Then, he was warned by the head of his department, a very influential and powerful man, that he would never allow him to find a job in Argentina. His influence made his open threat a reality. Why? Not because of his credentials, but because of his religion. That was the moment in which we felt expelled from our country. We had two kids and we needed to provide for them. A fellowship at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, was a lifesaver. Still, I did not want to give up on my life as I new it. Furthermore, I did not want to rob my daughters from their extended family. But reality has it ways, and it was not very friendly to us. The future was not promising. So finally we uprooted, and yanked ourselves out of Argentina.
To me the sense of loss and loneliness was unbearable. I found myself, with no English, no license to work, and a temporary visa status. Relocation meant dislocation, and we had to start all over again. As you can see I manage to overcome. It took a very, very long time, and a lot of effort and pain to develop a new life, to recover my profession, and re process my identity, and in doing so creating a “new way of being.”
Do I have regrets, yes I do. Do I still miss living in Argentina. Yes I do. Am I happy with my life? I am. Most of the time.

Now, let me present you with another story. Araceli was fourteen years old when she arrived illegally form El Salvador.
When I met her, she was in foster care; she did not speak English and was not interested in school at all. She left her grandmother’s care in El Salvador to reunite with her family in Washington D.C. She had no say in that decision. She crossed the US-Mexican border into the dessert, with a group of people, but nobody took care of her. She was terrified. Araceli gave me very few details of her perils as often happen when people go through traumatic experiences. Empathizing with her reservation, I did not pry. She did tell me though, one illuminating anecdote: that on her journey, she lost one shoe in the mud and could not go back to pick it up. So, she continued her travel with only one shoe. This image, of Araceli partially barefoot, crossing the dessert, stuck in my mind. I could not help but to think to myself that her shoe was not Cinderella’s crystal slipper; that no prince was going to come to rescue her. Nevertheless, Araceli could definitely be the hero in her story. It is true that the ending is uncertain, and very much in the making, but she has already survived an incredible ordeal.

And my next tale belongs to Manuel. He was five years old, when he came to the States. His parents came to work at NIH. He was an eager, curious and very intense child. He was the oldest brother and had a sense of real importance in his family. For some reason, probably capturing his parents’ concern about separating the children from their familiar environment, he felt responsible for deciding where to live. He really believed he had this responsibility, and it was obviously more than he could possibly handle, so he was extremely anxious.
Manuel was pleasant and very well behaved in school, but he made a stubborn decision not to speak in English.
I asked him about his reasons, so he told me in a most asserting way that he did not want to speak in English, because then he would forget his Spanish.
When asked why he thought so, his answer was really simple and amusing. He said to me: See, first I learned to swim with my head above the water; then I learned to swim with my head underwater, and now, “I cannot swim with my head above the water even if I want to!!”. He was not only worried about forgetting, but also to be forgotten.
It was clear that Manuel was holding on to his past, one that included a very close relationship with grandparents, and was terrified of losing his place and his bonds.
Manuel’s family was caring and supportive. Looking from the outside, he had everything that he could possibly need, nevertheless he was expressing with great intensity, the conflict that is so intrinsic to the immigrant life.

So, what do all stories have in common? They are stories of immigrants, and beside the startling differences, in terms of age and resources, they share the same essential underlying elements.
Let’s look at them.

Pre-emigration

What are some of the causes that determine the decision to leave our homeland?

In most cases, emigrating is an extra – ordinary decision made as a last recourse. This decision, naturally stirs-up a great deal of anxieties and stress, forcing the individual and their families to develop and implement a new set of behaviors to cope with their past, present, and future. Ordinary life, life as we know it, provides us with some sense of predictability and security. In our daily environment we know that tomorrow we will be the same person, immersed in similar if not identical circumstance and human network. We know what to expect, we know who we are within the context in which we live. Birth, marriage, carrier changes, and even death, ride on a time continuum and are somehow expected occurrences. We are linked to our ancestors’ history through our parents, and we inherit a mandate of continuation. This lineage, that bestows upon us a profound sense of belonging, does not occur in a vacuum. It takes place in a certain time and space, deeply intertwined with the history and folklore of the country, and the land in which we are rooted. Our identity is forged within a network of human relationships along the lines of historical continuity. That is why even the thought of leaving the native country, shakes us to our core. I often hear from people statements such us: “ I do not see myself growing old in this country”. I know of people who were flown to their native country to be buried. I recently heard a program on emigration on National Public Radio, in which a woman from El Salvador, stated that she wanted to get her American citizenship, so she could go back to live in El Salvador!
Why is that? Why does the thought of leaving our homeland creates such turmoil?
Because leaving the place in which we were born and raised, tears the fabric that sustains our identity and sense of existential continuity. This fabric is like a nest, made from relationships: relationships to people, places, language, smells, tastes, textures, tempo etc. It entails a whole esthetic of being. This fabric holds together a symmetry between the internal experience and the external world. This symmetry, never a conscious fact, is fundamental to a comforting state of well-being. This sense of symmetry is expressed and better exemplified by the feeling we have when we return home after a long day of work, and we know that this is exactly were we want to be, home sweet home, pajamas and all.

Mending the tear that the immigration produces is a very arduous process, one that involves being able to restring past, present and future and re-creating the lost sense of continuity. It means sorting out what to keep, what to toss, and what new to incorporate, and integrate. We need to answer questions such as: Who I was, who I am and who will I continue to be. The rupture in the fabric will endure forever, turning into just a dent, a scar or even remain an open wound. The outcome will depend on the individual’s characteristics and circumstances.
The variables multiply when the emigration is done as a family, increasing the complexity of the process and changing the family dynamic. This is indeed a very difficult path, since not everybody evolves at the same pace or on the same path. You may have a family in which the parents don’t speak English, and the kids don’t speak Spanish. You may have a family in which the wife went back to her country taking the children with her; Another family in which the children went to live in a country in which they were not even born, while the parents remained in the new country; lastly you may have families in which not everybody has the same legal status.
So, considering the perils and uncertainties, and the threat to one’s identity and sense of existential continuity, the causes that prompt people to emigrate have to be very intense.
What are some of these causes?
In general I will cite three overarching categories that are certainly not exclusive

  • Political o religious persecution
  • Economic survival
  • Opportunity for professional development, especially when the native country does not provide opportunities in the field

On a more subjective level immigration may take place because people have

  • The feeling that the conditions in the native country became unlivable.

Each one of these categories, imply different ranges of choice. Sometimes you may have a menu of choices; sometimes there is no choice. It is a matter of life and death.
While the decision to emigrate always implies a crisis, the different scenarios predispose different outcomes. More freedom to choose diminishes the potential trauma, by allowing the person to be more in control of his destiny. It is definitely different to travel than to escape, to have a ticket and a visa, than to cross the dessert under perilous clandestine circumstances; and of course, financial and educational resources make a big difference in the relocation and adjustment processes.

Some people migrate alone, some with their families

  • Families that have educational and/or financial resources tend to emigrate together
  • Families that lack resources, (and I will refer exclusively to Latin American emigration, because this is what I am familiar with) tend to come incrementally, adding extraordinary emotional stressors, imposing a lot of negative outcomes across the board.

Children are left behind at the care of grandmothers, so they are in double jeopardy when reunification takes place. First, they feel abandoned by their parents upon their departure. Then they adjusted by attaching to the grandparents, who in turn become the parental figures (usually it’s just the grandmother) then losing the bond to the grandparents when reunited with their parents. This is in my experience, a very difficult situation for children and adolescents to overcome. They resent their parents, and feel abandoned by the grandparents. Of course, so many experiences of abandonment do not add up to a great sense of self-value and trust. This situation even worsens, when the children realize that the parents cannot tend to all the material wants and needs that other children their age have, increasing the negative feelings. All of these circumstances predispose these children to a whole range of pathological behaviors. Let me also add, that often by the time of reunion, the nuclear family has changed dramatically (We’ll come back to this changes in more detail)

We do not see this context when we come across immigrants in their regular daily life. Somehow prejudice is unavoidable, and we are predisposed to see the differences that single out immigrants apart from the main stream, like the color of their skin, accent, or lack of wealth. We frequently view immigrants as “little people.” On the other hand, often, deep inside, the immigrants measure themselves with the same stick that the mainstream culture does, and may see themselves as “little people too.” Ex: Once I was observing in an English kindergarten class at a Spanish Immersion School. As I was going out to recess with the children, I was chitchatting with a colleague in Spanish. Then one daring child spoke to me pointing with his finger, imitating a grown up gesture, and said to me in a broken English: “Spanish in the kitchen and the bathroom!” What an ideological piece to ponder, especially considering that half the population of the school was in the immersion Spanish program, and the teacher was bicultural and bilingual herself. Clearly, the teacher did not allow the children to speak in Spanish, since they needed to learn English, although she could not supervise them when they were in the bathroom and the cafeteria and the message somehow got hijacked into a main stream prejudice.

Considering some of the hurdles that I described I think that, emigrating, is an epic endeavor. If the immigrant story was told in a literary context, like a book, or in a movie, we would most certainly describe the main characters as heroes, and somehow they are. (Think for example of the characters in the recent movie In America). I really want to stress this, because acknowledgement is empowering. It is like saying: You made it so far; let’s see how much farther you can make it now!Acknowledgement enables the new immigrant to seize the true dimension of his or her accomplishments and capitalize on that strength for the reconstruction of identity. It allows the self to realize its agency and competencies in a tangible way.
Without this positive feedback, the links between the efforts and results are lost, dissipating the magnitude of the extra-ordinary accomplishment. Acknowledgment is paramount because it helps to restore the natural flow of time that, as I mentioned before, was disrupted. Acknowledgment, signals a new beginning. This moment between “you and me,” this new human connection, becomes the present, everything before that, belongs to a past, and from now on we can explore the future.

Keep in mind that there is “no tomorrow” when we operate in a survival mode, and traumatic experiences often cause the subjects to live in permanent survival mode. You might have come across the difficulties of trying to teach verb tenses to some children that went through a traumatic immigration. They often speak in a permanent present, adding yesterday or tomorrow at the end of the sentence. I notice even some difficulties in their native language narrative. But these are some empirical observations that need further exploration.

 

As educators, you seek to provide an atmosphere of success for students. Acknowledgement is the first step in this process. As a community we should strive to provide –a “surrogate loom” to allow and facilitate the weaving of a new fabric, a new life that again will re-capture the lost symmetry between the inner experience and the external world. No loom, means no fabric, no fabric means trouble for the individuals and society as well. Some people bring with them strong foundation, and they will prevail. Nevertheless acknowledgement and support will considerably ease their adjustment. I remember when I was so self-conscious about my English, (I still am) and often people that I respected, told me “ I wish I could speak Spanish as well as you speak English. I felt acknowledged, appreciated and it help me to value the beginning of my bilingual and bicultural life.
In the new country

What are some of the big changes that happen when people are already in their new land? I will refer specifically to changes in a family. These changes really shake the balance that was already unstable when the project of immigrations began to exist.

First of all

  • No one knows what’s going on. New comers are unable to read the cues that are familiar to the natives.
  • Parents feel responsible and powerless to ease their children’s transition and adjustment and
  • They need to learn new ways of negotiating with the environment
  • Children do not feel that their parents are that competent anymore and feel insecure
  • Sometimes children over adjust. Ex. When we first arrived in the USA my oldest daughter was supposed to start K. We went to visit the school, but the first they of class I was not allowed to ride the bus with her, and I couldn’t drive her, because I did not have a car. I was really distressed by this, but my brave little daughter comforted me: Don’t worry mami, she said, I am not afraid, I will find my way. I had no choice but to believe her. Of course when she got to school she did not remember which way to go, so she had an ingenious way to solve the problem: “She followed the shortest kids.” I was really proud of her, but I was also sad that she had to do it alone.
  • This over-adjustment could lead to a fantasized, sometimes real, parent-child role reversal, which bring serious consequences in the family dynamic, and children well being.
  • Often the children feel embarrassed by the way their parents speak, they feel disappointed and lose respect. In their minds they feel that there is something out of sync. How come I can speak well and they cannot. How come I do not have an accent and they do.

 

Let me now shift to the issue of Role changes

Let’s start with Women

  • For the more affluent families, women often temporarily or even permanently, lose their professional role and status that goes with it, to help accommodate the family.
    Even when this is a temporary situation, it has a heavy impact on the women self esteem, subsequently affecting the couples’ relationships as well as the distribution of chores and responsibilities within the family.
    An upset six year old, said to his newly stay at home mom: “Emily’s mommy is important, because she works.” After listening to this statement, both mother and father felt devastated.
  • With less affluent families often the women become the only breadwinners, taking jobs as nannies, housekeepers and other service oriented jobs, shaking the male dominating, “macho” dynamic. This usually brings severe consequences to the family structure. Men feel devalued, powerless, and often turn to drinking, thus the children are left with no appropriate care.

Now, let’s look at what happens with Men

  • In more affluent families, men rapidly get involve with their new job. (usually is the job that opens the opportunity for the relocation)
  • They still do not have any idea about the world around them, and need to improve their language skills
  • They feel very responsible for the move and very stressed to perform.
  • At home, they feel over demanded by wife and children, and resents feeling unappreciated in their efforts, often stating things like “I work all day, I am tired! These statements do not sit very well with the rest of the family. If the children are little they simply don’t understand, if they are older they resent the comment, as if they did not work and stress at school as well. And the wife gets bewildered because her husband does not value her work, which often involves taking care of all other aspects of reality even for her husband.
  • In less affluent families, men often depend on their wife’s work. This is a terrible blow to their self-esteem.

On the Intrapersonal level

As a consequence of all the changes, people often have a

  • Sense of de- realization, sometimes causing great anxiety. What do I mean by de-realization? A strange feeling that what is real, is not real, that “this is not happening to me”, that “I am not myself anymore”.
    In my case I often felt like a character in a movie, because suddenly the environment around me looked like the one I saw in the movies, and in the language of the movies. The very little I new about living in the USA I learned from Hollywood.

I would guess that this de realization feeling always take place in some degree, and ranges from very mild to quite severe. In my practice, I learned that normalizing the de-realization feeling at the beginning of the emigration process releases a lot of the anxieties and fears of going crazy.

What happens in the Aftermath, after the initial period of adaptation is over?
After adjustment is accomplished, life is more enjoyable and people acquire a real sense of security.
What makes for a healthy adjustment?
There are some

Practical Aspects like:

  • Work permit
  • Permanent legal status
  • English proficiency
  • Job opportunities
  • Re-accreditation of competencies

Emotional Aspects

  • Finally people manage to establish a sense of continuity in their lives and find meaning to the question why am I here?
  • What felt unreal, becomes comfortable and real, when people begin to understand the spoken as well as the unspoken rules and expectations of the new community. They learn the ropes; they become familiar with the environment and learn what is appropriate. A friend of mine from Peru told me how his mother, when they first arrive into the country, sent his two older brothers to high school in dressed in suits and ties. Could you possible imagine the kids’ embarrassment? A new immigrant, even has to learn the meaning of the unspoken language, because even gestures are different!
  • A new human network develops and immigrants rediscover a sense of belonging. That human network includes neighbors, friends, health care providers, teachers and, even, who to contact when something in their households breaks.
  • Trust and confidence in the endurance of the relationships with family and friends in the native country, heal the feeling of lose and help to sustain the new life.
  • One that holds some kind of congruence between life here and there. This is the dawn of a bilingual-bicultural life.
  • The ability to become again what we once were, or some equivalent, allows the new immigrants the restoration of confidence and self-esteem.
  • This makes it easier to accept and find some level of comfort with the discrepancy between their self-perception and the way they are being perceived. (body image, accent)
  • At the family level
  • The family group, manage to reestablish a new, and more harmonic dynamic and, can successfully
  • Renegotiates roles and expectations.
  • Finally, the children adjustment to the new environment, especially the school is paramount to underline the sense of accomplishment.

It is in this context, that we can finally say, that the rupture in the fabric is mended, that a new symmetry between the inner world and external life is established. Nevertheless as I stated before, in the best scenarios, a little scar will remain, and will ooze longing every now and then. This longing also becomes a part in the new identity.
As one of my patients phrased it: “finding new meaning in this country makes me feel further away from the ones I love.”

In closing I would like to thank you for your attention and emphasize the relevance of your role as educators to empower the new immigrants. You are all in a unique position to ease the way of the newcomers through the very difficult process of adjustment. Your success in achieving this goal will be at the end their success.

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