Inspiration of immigration
By Alice Bauer | LAM
“ I didn’t want to make babies and tortillas at home. Since I was young I was meant to be something else besides a farmer or a housewife,” says America Jimenez when asked about why she moved to the US. With far more to her story-Jimenez teases a little with serious undertones.
The desire to find the “American dream” is not new, but each experience along the way is distinct and rarely publicized. Through first-hand accounts we get a window into the unique experiences of immigrants in the US and the wisdom they have acquired.
“(I moved because) I wasn’t behaving,” jokes Sofia Perel director of marketing & strategy at LAM who came to Belmont, San Francisco in 1992. At 15 she followed three years after her mother who came to the US with political asylum escaping the civil war in El Salvador. Already speaking English, Perel’s move might not seem as jarring as some, but “I was scared out of my mind,”she says. With a particular view of life and high school in the US created from pop-culture and Hollywood, Perel had her reservations.
“That first year was really hard.” Besides feeling anonymous in a new country, Perel’s mother died of stomach cancer, and she and her sister moved in with their mother’s employer, a decision that would change both of their lives.
“We got our papers a month before she died,” says Perel, and even though it was hard to make the decision to stay, “It came down to the fact that my mom worked so hard to get a green card; we weren’t going to throw that away.” While Perel experienced distinct difficulties in her first years, she also faced a number of feelings and situations that are shared by many immigrants to the US. There was a sense of constriction from strict rules about drinking and smoking and the move from a homogenous society to a very diverse one brings about unease.
“It was the first time that I felt like I was being looked at differently-not necessarily racist- just differently, though there’s definitely racism as well.”
Those feelings resonate with America Jimenez-founder of Global America a platform for artists. Moving from Mexico to the Los Angeles in 2000 when she was 20 she says, “I was very overwhelmed when I first came: the language, the food, the culture and seeing all these people I’d never seen before. . .and people think that you’re not smart if you’re Latin.” Advancing in society boils down to perseverance and education though, and Jimenez understands that to the fullest. As a UC Berkeley graduate, Jimenez is a mentor for Hispanic Scholarship Fund recipients (which she once was); is a UC Berkeley Chicano/Latino alumni who helps raise money for ‘The Dreamers’ (undocumented immigrants trying to get an education) and she has revived Las Comadres- a group of women who address important activities women are doing in society and support each other in their ventures. These efforts have a deep meaning for Jimenez. “You know those little girls in the street with dirty old clothes, no shoes and are begging and selling candy on the street? That was me.” Growing up on farms, and not receiving education until high school, has made the pursuit of education one of her greatest goals for herself and others. At 20, with little education and no knowledge of English, she decided to take her chances and move to a cousin’s house in Los Angeles. A self-described ‘rebel’, Jimenez says she always questioned things and always looked at opportunities.
“I wanted to learn the language, earn money and get educated in Mexico,” she says. Educated and still living in the US, her plans didn’t work out. “No, they worked better,” she laughs.
For accounting consultant/ coach Luis Liang, the situation was a bit different. Liang arrived in Orange County, California from Mexico with his mom and three sisters, and at 14 he was an undocumented immigrant with a lot of legal difficulties stacked against him. While entering high school was difficult for him at first, he worked hard and was in an advanced grade and graduated with a 4.14 GPA and a high SAT score. As an undocumented immigrant though he couldn’t apply for FAFSA, and although he received a full scholarship, his lack of social security number denied him the opportunity. ‘I decided I was going to wait another year and apply for every scholarship’. In that time he got involved with ‘The Dreamers’, graduated from Fullerton with a degree in Business and got two scholarships to help put him through the Haas School of Business Program at UC Berkeley. Even attending university couldn’t fully assuage his concerns; there was a possibility that he wouldn’t be able to legally be employed.
“At that time I was thinking if I don’t get a job or my status doesn’t chance-I want to go back (to Mexico). I don’t want to be here with so much potential and not allowed to do anything with it.” Recently protected under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Liang can legally work and pursue a relatively normal life and career which lets him breath a sigh of relief not just for his career but in general. “It’s those little things,” he says, “I used to be so afraid of the police, if they caught me driving, (undocumented immigrants can’t obtain a driver’s license) and of ICE knocking at the door.”
The English Path
Learning the language is one of the key points to succeeding and establishing one’s self in the United States. While Perel had been immersed in a British school, Jimenez, Liang, Angela Romero and numerous other immigrants come with little or no knowledge of English.
“I made a point to only hang out with English-speaking people. Actually, that’s what helped me understand the culture better,” explains Romero- a social media strategist who came to the US from Colombia with a scholarship to learn English. “It’s very counter-intuitive, and it’s very uncomfortable.” Jimenez agrees, saying she was shy at first. “I felt embarrassed of how people would perceive me (when I spoke English), but there was a moment that I decided to try and let people help me, and I started to lose that feeling of being afraid.” Liang ads, “I needed to accept that I have an accent, and that I’m not from here, and that it’s ok that I make mistakes.”
The Female Experience
All three women recognized the ability for personal growth and professional opportunity in the US that wasn’t available in their home countries. With the culture of tradition and machismo still very prevalent in Latin America, each woman had her own views on seeking life outside their countries. “Colombia is still quite macho; here the prospects are better,” Romero says. “For women, the US is way better in terms of positions they can achieve and the salary they can earn.” Perel and Jimenez both echoed similar sentiments but also clearly talked about the constricting role of women as homemakers. “I’d probably have three kids running around by now and no career,” says Perel.
“The role of women in Mexico is to grow up, have a family, a bunch of kids, take charge of the household, and that’s it- I knew that I wanted to do more than that,” says Jimenez.
While a feeling of opportunity is a recurring theme- a sense of longing and respect for home culture and country remains. “I miss the fact that I didn’t grow older with my friends or family,” says Perel, “I sometimes wonder, ‘what would our lives been if we stayed there?” For Romero, the separation from her family and the lack of that strong family unit in the US takes a toll. “When you move you’re going to miss the country, the food and everything, but you learn how to adapt,” Luis says positively. ”The way I see it is that I need to be very open, to learn from other people and cultures; if you’re open you can learn and take advantage of that (diversity).”
Each person has worked hard to get to where (s) he is today, and immersing oneself in a new country and culture is a test of will from simple problems like too many milk choices in the grocery store to understanding disparate cultural differences. The expectations and preconceived notions of other people both in home countries as well as the US are often battlegrounds as well, “Society puts you in a box, but as humans we can question society in many ways,” Jimenez says.
Happy with their hard work and still striving for more, these four individuals are successful in many ways professionally and personally, and they all share a profound and deserved sense of pride. It’s a feeling that’s unlike any other and cannot adequately be described in words; it serves as positive motivation for others. Liang explains that working hard for that sense of pride wasn’t just for him, “Often when people move they want a better opportunity for their kids. We moved for a reason, and I wanted to make my mom proud, and I wanted her to feel that it was worth it.” With her own amazing story as proof of her words, Jimenez poignantly explains, “One of the things that I want to accomplish besides feeling proud of myself is that I want to convey a message for others, and inspire them, and the message is, ‘No matter what or where you’re coming from-your social or economic status-what matters is your own will.”