I grew up immersed in two cultures and never thought of myself as anything other than someone who’s grown up in the United States with roots in Brazil. But at seven, as the new kid in a new school, with a cousin that spoke no English, I questioned my sense of self. The kids scrunched their noses after hearing my cousin and I speak Portuguese, saying, “I thought you were American.”
I am. Brazilian-American. But to these kids, Americans spoke English, and anything else couldn’t be right. The kids in my third grade class in Seymour, Connecticut called us immigrants, some asked if we were legal. One parent didn’t like my parents’ accents, telling their child not to associate with my family. I felt uncomfortable being judged by my peers, and never found where I fit with my classmates.
At my previous school in Bridgeport, CT, where approximately 40 percent of the population are Hispanic, kids spoke many languages in the halls. My friends all spoke different languages in their own homes. The difference in levels of acceptance between two schools just 20 miles apart forced me to think of things I never considered before. I’m white and speak English, I’m Latina and speak Portuguese. But I wasn’t American enough for the American kids.
My parents came to the U.S in the 1980’s, years before having me; mom looking for an education and dad looking for a new start. My dad cleaned bathrooms and mom worked in a factory with other Hispanics and Latinas hoping for something better beyond conveyor belts and moldy cement walls. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve found their American Dream. Mom is working on a bachelor’s degree nearly three decades after immigrating, and dad works as a truck driver. He thinks of going back home. Mom says this is home.
Children of parents from other countries struggle with identity. Today, there are heated political discussions of who really “belongs” in the U.S, and what should be done to keep certain people out. This is all happening in a country founded by refugees. Immigration laws are becoming tighter, and the President doesn’t miss an opportunity to make Americans more fearful. Although I know that this won’t affect my own status, I fear for my family, friends, and neighbors. We know what our parents left behind to come here. There’s no easy way to citizenship, it can take up to seven years. I still remember walking through a New York courthouse with my father when he took his oath.
During the decade my parents came to the United States, 1980 to 1990, the U.S population grew by 23 million, with forty percent of that hike being foreign-born. In 1990 alone, about one million immigrants came from South America like my parents, and approximately four million from Asia. April and Venice are two first-generation friends who share my frustration and confusion.
April lives in New York City, a young, determined and powerful go-getter, never being one swallowed and drowned by seas of people. When asked of her nationality she responded, Thai-Chinese-American. But there’s more to it than that. She explains, “Even though my heritage is Thai-Chinese, a lot of the time, I feel like a fraud. Because I was born and raised in America, I know the country’s history, its story, it’s in and outs, but in Thailand, I might as well be a tourist.” Her Thai language skills are conversational, and she feels like she’s not there enough for her family. She doesn’t know if it’s worth the time and effort to bridge that gap. However, she’s still proud and full of love, but from a distance of over eight thousand miles.
Venice is Filipino-American, and the first in her family born in the United States. Her father went back and forth between here and the Philippines for about eight years, working on bringing his wife and daughter to New Jersey. Venice says, “It’s not just
packing up at a moments notice and you can go to America freely. He still remembers the date when he first came because it was so important to him.” This is her country and her parents’ country. She tackles her sense of self with a no nonsense, humble attitude. She’s hard-working and driven, and is successful because of her parents. “A lot of foreigners still view America as a place of opportunity, and although some things are difficult, I know it did give me better opportunities. All of our parents worked hard so I shouldn’t be ashamed to say that I’m American. My parents sacrificed themselves so I can say something like this.”
This past January my mother, Teresa, stood in our family’s kitchen, drizzling olive oil and seasonings on a raw chicken breast. She talked of her childhood in the Amazon when she’d climb trees for mamão and açaí, eating them in the branches. She’d swing on vines and play in natural bodies of water, remembering that chicken dinners came from chickens in the yard instead of the grocery store.
“The majority of the people that come here, they come here looking for a better life. It’s hard for people that were born and raised here to understand; we come for opportunities.” She put the chicken in the refrigerator and sat at the table. “People aren’t paying attention. There’s a lot to learn.”
There were some times when I felt torn between here or there, feeling disconnected like April, or proud to be an ingredient in America’s melting pot, like Venice. I find the most comfort when I’m with friends that are also first generation. As April said, “I don’t feel judged at all and I feel like I’m walking into open arms whenever I see them.”
We all know what our parents sacrificed for us to be able to live and grow here, but still, people seem to question our rights as Americans. We watch our parents and family, learn from them, but listen to what our peers whisper to each other. The topic seems to go in too many directions and no one seems to understand. Not even first generation kids, juggling expectations, identity and responsibility, while trying to pursue our own American dream.