This is the story of Jeff who came to the United States from Vietnam in 1987. I was tremendously curious about so many things that my interviewee mentioned. I had so many questions that I felt needed an answer. It was absolutely fascinating to hear what an actual immigrant had to say about what he went through, what he saw, what he heard, and what he felt at that moment in time when he moved from Vietnam to the United States.
The idea of immigration stopped being some statistics that I heard about in the news or read in an article. Hearing how the immigrant process occurred through an immigrants lens showed me how real it was and that it wasn’t just another story, it was someone’s life. Just like the person I interviewed, so many other people out there were forced to face so many difficulties during their journeys, and many faced the death of family members or even faced their own death.
Even if this did not directly apply to my interviewee’s case, this also opened up my eyes to the fact that events such as wars and discrimination only made life harder than it already was. No matter where my interviewee was, there seemed to be unsanitary living conditions, crowded housing which meant “liv [ing] in a small apartment with a bunch of other men,” more men involved in jobs than women, lack of a good education, “barely getting paid enough to make a living,” and so many more factors that simply made life not worth living. After doing some research around the time period my interviewee immigrated in, I found that were so many issues going around, such as the Vietnam War which ended in 1975, which means that his family must have been recovering from the war at the time their family was growing up.
However, while there were definitely difficulties, such as when he had to deal with the deaths in his family where he said his “mom got sick not long after [he] left Italy and came to America” and “about a year later, she was gone.” Also, he discussed how “one of [his] two other siblings died of cancer.” This proves that challenges emerged for many immigrants, including my interviewee, but if the immigrant was determined to make it for themselves, it helped them develop as people. It taught them that they couldn’t mature and grow if things were simply given to them, but they could mature and grow if they have to fight for what they believe they deserve.
Let’s start by giving a bit of background information about your immigration experience. What year did you arrive at America and if you don’t mind saying, how old were you ?
Uh… I believe it was 1987 or 1986, somewhere around there. I think I was… 19 years of age.
And were you alone, or did you have someone to accompany you or did you at least know anyone that lived in America ?
I was alone and I did not know anyone in America. I had no choice but to leave my family behind.
Why do you say that you had no choice ?
My mom had high hopes for me, that I would come to America, get a job, and be successful, and my brothers and sisters were either too old or had already made families, making it hard for them to come to America just like that.
So you’re saying that your siblings had no chance of coming to America and being successful for several reasons ?
Well, okay. What do you mean when you say that they were too old ?
Alright, well … they were an age that may not have actually been “old,” but the thing is, if they had come to America at that age, they would have faced more difficulties than usual along the way. It would have been hard for them to get a job at the age they were at.
Okay, I see. So… when you came to America, what languages did you speak ?
Hm … I know Vietnamese was one for sure. And Spanish and Italian too.
Interesting… So, you say you spoke Spanish and Italian, but you are of Vietnamese origin, so how did you learn those languages ?
Yes, I may not be Hispanic, but for all of my life, I have been into learning new languages. But of course, I didn’t get the opportunity to learn Spanish and Italian in Vietnam. I learned it after I had left Vietnam to go to Spain, then Italy.
Really ? You went to Spain and Italy before you had arrived at America ?
Yes, that is correct.
What reason did you have to go to those countries ?
Coming to America was difficult, but I thought if I had adapted in another country and learned the ways of the world, things would be easier and I would understand better and faster. I guess it all just kinda happened.
So, where did you go to first ?
And, what was that like ? Was it everything you expected it to be ?
I would say it was not as terrible as I had thought. I found a job at a bakery and became something of a waiter. Like most things, it was very difficult at the start, but I eventually found this man, sweetest man I have ever met, and I don’t think I would have made it without him. He eased me in and taught me Spanish. He didn’t speak Vietnamese, but he did speak a bit of English. As did I. I also caught on to some of the phrases said by the workers and from there, it wasn’t hard to understand what the workers were saying.
Learning Spanish from a man who spoke no Vietnamese and only a bit of English, how was that even possible ?
I know, I know. It sounds practically impossible. But he knew a bit more of English than me and I was determined and he was caring. As long as we had all that, there was definitely a chance. And I will admit, I definitely did not become fluent in the language, but it was good enough for survival.
Oh, okay. And you went to Italy when ?
Soon after I had went to Spain, I decided to go to Italy. I believe I was in Spain for a good 3 months.
And you went to Italy because … ?
It was time for me to move on, and I had learned a bit of Spanish and English and I ready for more.
How was it when you went to Italy ? Was it the same as Spain ?
Actually, I had similar job in Italy. I worked in this little pizzeria. There, I met this woman, who was the sister of my boss. We would meet up around twice or three times a week for her to teach me Spanish in exchange for me to teach her Vietnamese. It was hard to communicate, but we both knew English pretty well at that time after I became better in speaking and understanding and whatnot. At work, I used my Spanish skills to understand what was happening cause Spanish and Italian are not far off from one another, so it wasn’t that hard. By the time I had left Italy, I was proud to say that I was fluent in Spanish, much better in English, and was making great progress in Italian.
Wow, what a spiral of events you went through.
Yeah, well, if it weren’t for that, I don’t think I would be the person I am today.
You previously said that you felt the need to come to America, because you seemed like the practical person in your family who could take on that challenge. Is that right ?
Well, besides that motive, was there something that drove you to leave your home country?
Actually, yes. Me being the naive teenager I was, I thought that I could come to America, get a job, make a bunch of money and go back to my country to bring my family with me where I would support them. But life doesn’t work like that.
So, have you ever gone back ?
I wish, but what I didn’t know that that last time I saw my family would be the last time. My mom got sick not long after I left Italy and came to America. And about a year later, she was gone …
I’m so sorry that you had to go through that… (I gave him a moment to recover) How did you deal with it at the time ?
I just kept the memory of my mom in my head and that motivated me to go further and further. No one ever believed in me as much as she did and that was more than enough to keep me determined.
And your siblings… ?
Well, three of my siblings continued with their families and stayed in Vietnamese to take care of them and one of my two other siblings died of cancer and the other stayed for his own reasons. To be honest, I never really fully understood what those were exactly.
Oh, wow. That sounds really difficult to handle. So, you never seen them ever since ?
No, not exactly. I like to stay in touch and I mainly talk to my brother cause the other three are busy with their families.
Best wishes to your family back in Vietnam. So, when you arrived, how did that go ? What was your first impression ?
At first, it was more or less a sigh of relief. But, as time went on, that feeling kind of dissolved as I had no choice but to live in a small apartment with a bunch of other men. My life was going to and from work, which barely paid enough to make a living, and at the end of the day I came to sleep in the corner of a room in an uncomfortable position. I may have been alive, but I surely wasn’t living.
Was it easy for you to transition from Vietnam, Spain, and Italy to America ?
Surprisingly, I would have to say that transition was not as difficult as one would have thought. I mean, I spoke a bit of three languages, so at least I knew what was happening, which is more than I can say for most, and I started to adapt to similar conditions back in Spain and Italy anyways. The conditions there were not as bad, but, still, bad.
When you were coming to America, what was your idea of the “American Dream?”
Ha (in a sarcastic tone), “American Dream,” that’s such an interesting term. Well, at the time, my idea of the American Dream was getting a good paying job, having a home and later on, the opportunity to go back to my home country and provide to bring them with me. As time went on and when my mum died, I learned that was practically impossible. My siblings were already bent on staying in Vietnam, because of their huge families and bringing them here might make the kids sick and for so many other reasons. Later on, I had the idea that the American dream just meant being happy, even if I am not the happiest I could be, happy is good enough. After getting married and having my two lovely children, I feel like everything fell into place from there.
So, would you say your “dream” was achieved ?
No, but I am glad it wasn’t. I may not have gone back to my country, but perhaps it is for the best. I could have gone back and brought my family with me and they could have gotten sick. And maybe I did not get a great job right away, but it’s the fact that I overcame many hardships that made me the hard worker I am today. So, my “dream” didn’t happen the way I imagined, but at the end, I am happy. Even if I am not happy in the way I initially wanted, I’m happy and that’s what matters, and thank god there were obstacles in path, because if there were no obstacles in my path, how could I have truly known that my path was leading anywhere ?
Mona Shadded '21 (BHSEC Queens)
This is the story of Fernando de Jesus who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1989. In the process of this interview I learned many things such as the reason my father came to America, his point of view on the “American Dream” and information about the situation of when he came to America. Before this oral history project I thought I knew a lot about my dad coming to America; however, all I knew was that he came and met my mother. In the interview he states “The economic problem was that I didn’t have a job so I came to America in hopes to find one.” I was able to expand my knowledge on the fact that the reason my father came to America was due to him not having a job where he lived, which I never knew. I also learned his age of when he came to America, when he states “I was 26 years old.” This surprised me since I always assumed that he came when he was 20. The reason I assumed he was 20 is because I remember once seeing a picture of him in America in which to me he looked like he was 20 years old. Another thing that surprised me and I learned about was his opinion towards the “American Dream” in which he believed people worked too many hours and that there is no American Dream. This surprised me because I thought that my father believed that “American Dream” was actually true and that people did accomplish what they wanted in America. Hearing my dad’s input on the “American Dream” really changed my definition towards it, because now I feel that the “American Dream” doesn’t even exist for most people and when people from other countries come to America their lives just get filled up with work. Larger historical events shaped the life of my interviewee by things such as 9/11 happening where he had to find out if our family was okay since my mom worked near the twin towers. This made my dad doubt if staying in America was the best choice and if he should move back to his home country with my family but after a lot of consideration he decided not to because no matter where people go bad things will happen regardless.
Interviewee: Fernando de Jesus
Place he came from: Nagua, Dominican Republic
What year did you come to this country and how old were you? Did you come alone or with other family members and/or friends? Did you know anyone who lived in this country?
The first time I came to this country it was in 1989 and I was 26 years old. I came alone without any of my family. No, I did not know anybody who lived in this country so I was on my own and not having anyone to rely on.
How was your experience coming to America at a young age and without anybody there with you?
It was a lovely and great experience because I got to see new things such as downtown Manhattan. I went to good cafés and I was even able to go on a ship that showed me the view of beautiful islands. Those are experiences that I would never forget because they were my way of seeing America.
Which languages did you speak when you first came here?
The languages I spoke were Spanish and French. I know these languages because first off, Spanish is my first language since I am from a Spanish speaking country and as for speaking French, I learned it when I was in college.
Why did you leave your home country? Have you been back to your home country since you’ve moved here?
I left my home country because of economic problems. Yes I have gone many times to my home country since I’ve been here and to be more specific, I go every summer.
What kind of economic problems?
The economic problem was that I didn’t have a job so I came to America in hopes to find one.
What was your first impression of the U.S. after you arrived? Was moving here an easy transition from the place you left?
My first impression was that people work way too much. This is a place where people don’t live but instead constantly work. Yes moving here was an easy transition for me because it was a direct flight for when I was on the plane. I can still remember the hours it took me on plane which was 3 hours and 15 minutes.
What made you get the impression that in America people work too much?
Well I saw people leave to work in the morning and came back in the night exhausted from work.
Looking back at your experience (and the experience of other immigrants who you know) how would you define the “American dream?” How easy or hard has it been to achieve that dream?
The American dream for me is not a dream, for me it’s too much of work. What people come here for is to have a good amount of money because you work a sufficient amount of hours. Like in other countries people work only singular which is 8 hours, here in America people work more than 8 hours like double the amount. It was extremely hard to achieve the dream because you have to work so much. In my experience, I had two jobs where I went from one work to the second one and I worked for seven days which was difficult because I would always be tired.
Fernanda de Jesus '21 (BHSEC Queens)
This is the story of Leszek Wiszowaty who came to the United States from Poland in 1985. The interview process for my oral history project was very interesting for me, especially since I got to know more about my own father. Although my father did tell me about his life in America as a kid and his experience in an American college, I did not know other interesting parts of his life. I didn’t know that my father flew to America as a 5-year-old because his mother was to take care of his sister’s newborn daughter. I found it interesting that my father’s mother wouldn’t allow my father to stay with his father in Poland. I was also surprised by the fact that my father knew almost nobody in America when he arrived here at the age of 21. It just shows how difficult immigration was, and how difficult it was for immigrants to adapt to a new country and a new style of life as a foreigner.
A historical event that greatly shaped the life of my father was the Communist/Socialist influence on the government of Poland. Since Poland was behind the Iron Curtain at the time, it was going to be very difficult for my father to find a job and make a living. My father stated: “economically, it was not doing very well, so I knew that if I graduated from college there, I wouldn’t have too many opportunities as far as jobs and my career”. The economy wasn’t doing so well, and if it weren’t for Communism, my father wouldn’t have moved to America. Also, I think that if my father’s sister, my aunt, hadn’t been living in America at the time, my father wouldn’t have gone and visited her. Also, I don’t think he wouldn’t be able to become an American citizen if my aunt wasn’t already a citizen. Thanks to communism and my aunt, my father now lives in America and is raising my family.
My father said that he wouldn’t refer to the American Dream as the American Dream, but rather as anybody’s dream. I was intrigued by this because society’s definition of a good and healthy life is different around the world. However, my father provided me with examples that can apply to anyone: “to get a good education, to have a successful family life, and to have kids, and a place to live, and I job that would provide for you and for the family”. Even before flying to America, my father had this dream; however, America has made this dream more possible and easier to reach. My father’s definition of the American Dream (or anybody’s dream) hasn’t changed my view on the American Dream, but I still agree with him. I am glad that he believes that he accomplished the American Dream, and I am thankful for the opportunities America has provided for immigrants.
Interview with my father, Leszek Wiszowaty, about his journey from Poland to America
Interviewer: Matthew Wiszowaty
Interviewee- Leszek Wiszowaty
Q - In which year did you arrive in America and how old were you?
A - I was 5 years old when I arrived in America in 1969. I came here with my mother, we flew from Warsaw to Paris, and then from Paris to Chicago. And then we came to visit my sister in New York who had just given birth to her daughter, my niece, Yvonne.
Q - Is that the only reason you flew here?
A - Yeah, my mom flew here to my sister, cus’ she needed help raising a child, and my mother didn’t want to leave me with my father in Poland, so she took me along with her.
Q - How long did you stay here?
A - I stayed here ‘til June 1972, so 2 ½ years.
Q - So did you go back flying a plane or on a ship?
A - Yeah we took a ship, the Stefan Batory Ship. The whole trip took like 4 weeks, and we stopped in England, we stopped in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, along the way, and then we arrived to Gdynia.
Q - Can you describe the whole ship experience?
A - It was pretty boring for most of the time. There were many activities on the ship for adults, but not many for children.
Q - Does that mean you came back to America again?
A - Yeah, I returned to Poland in 1972 and I went to the second grade of grammar school, and I completed high school and a year and a half of college there, and in 1985 I came back to America.
Q - How did you get to America this time?
A - Well, my sister invited me over, so I came here as a tourist. And yeah, I flew here with the Polish Airlines (LOT). I lived with my sister originally, I went to college here to improve my English because the English I knew as a child I had forgotten and everything, so I had to brush up on my English skills.
Q - So, my next question was “How did you learn English?” Did you learn it just in America when you lived here as a child?
A - Well, when I was here as a child, I went to first grade of grammar school, so I learned a bit of English. I wasn’t fluent in English, but when I was going back to Poland in ‘72 I knew enough of English to communicate, to speak, but not enough to write very well
Q - The second time you came here, how old were you?
A - I was 21.
Q - What languages did you speak when you came here the second time?
A - Well, when I was in grammar school and high school in Poland, I learned Russian and German, and I also took some English classes, but not too many.
Q - Other than your sister, did you know anyone else living in America?
A - My mother’s uncle was here, and my father’s brother. Originally, when we arrived at Chicago, we stayed at my uncle’s, my father’s brother house, and then when we came to New York, my mother’s uncle helped us find an apartment and settle down in Maspeth.
Q - Have you lived here ever since?
A - Ever since… yeah. I have lived here since 1985.
Q - Have you visited Poland?
A - I’ve been to Poland countless number of times. I would say 10, 15 times over the past 33 years.
Q - What was your first impression when you arrived here the first time and the second time?
A - My first impression… was… that… I was only 5 so I don’t remember. When I was 21 my first impression was… uh… that it’s gonna be hard, because I was here by myself and I could rely only on my sister’s help. Luckily, she let me live with her for 2 years, so I was able to save on rent, and with the first couple jobs I had, I was able to save enough money to later have enough money to pay my own rent when I moved out of the house.
Q - When you were 21, did you fly here yourself? You said that it was going to be hard since you were on your own.
A - No, I flew here actually with my distant cousin, my cousin’s husband, we flew here together on the same flight.
Q - I know why you came here when you were 5, but why did you come here when you were 21?
A - Uh, in 1985 Poland was still under the Communist/Socialist rule, and Poland had just come out of the martial law. Economically, it was not doing very well, so I knew that if I graduated from college there I wouldn’t have too many opportunities as far as jobs and my career, so when my sister invited me here, originally, I planned on earning some money and going back, but after I went to college in America and met my first wife, I decided to stay here.
Q - Was it easy getting used to the American culture compared to the Polish culture?
A - It wasn’t that difficult… it was different, but it wasn’t that difficult. It wasn’t easy because I was on my own, and I had to provide for myself. Luckily, I had my sister, so I was able to save enough money to start my own life, get my own apartment and so on.
Q - You said you were saving up money, so which jobs did you have?
A - My first job was at a local hardware store, Griff’s Hardware. I worked there for 6 months. While I was working there, I also got a job at Niederstein's Restaurant. I worked there for 19 years.
Q - Which college did you go to, and what did you major in.
A - In Poland… in Poland, after I graduated liceum (high school), I went to Politechnika Warszawska (Warsaw Technical University), and I was studying electronics. And, when I came here, I went to LaGuardia Community College. First I was taking basic courses to improve my English, and then, since I got many transfer credits from Poland, I was able to get an Associate’s degree in Computer Science, having studied in LaGuardia for about a year or so.
Q - Many people speak of the “American Dream”. In your words, what is the “American Dream”? Do you think you accomplished it?
A - “American Dream”... I wouldn’t call it the American Dream… I would call it anybody’s dream… is to get a good education, to have a successful family life, and to have kids, and a place to live, and I job that would provide for you and for the family. And, in America it was a little easier to accomplish all of that than it was in Poland, that’s why I came here. I believe I was able to accomplish the American Dream because after 33 years, I have a good job, I have a house, I have a family, and… hopefully I will be able to retire before anyone else.
Q - Do you have anything else you would like to share?
A - Um, yes. I would like to say that it used to be a lot easier for people to accomplish the American Dream than it is now. But, with hard work and perseverance anyone could still do well here
Matthew Wiszowaty '21 (BHSEC Queens)
This is the story of Cynthia who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1994. During the process of the interview, I learned that each immigrant has his/her own unique story. The person I interviewed had very much to say, for which I had very much to respond because as an immigrant myself I could relate to some of the experiences, for example, the new public establishments that I needed to learn how to use. I am surprised that she knew how to speak English but wouldn’t speak it for her own personal reasons, because a lot of immigrants come to the U.S. without knowing the language and that puts an obstacle to achieving their own “American Dream.” Talking about the “American Dream,” I really liked the explanation she gave of it because it is really true; many immigrants have different reasons as to why they come to the country. I enjoyed hearing her saying that even though it was not her decision at first to stay in the U.S., she then decided to stay because she found her voice here and as in she said “here I was searching for independence, I wanted to be enough, just me,” and wanted things to be different, and they have been. Back in her country she didn’t have a husband and she was an independent woman; however, she was still seen as nothing because she is a female. Also, life changed completely for her in this country, she needed to learn how to do many things she did not know back home. It is inspirational how she found a way to solve all of her problems and manage to have a new unexpected life in the country; to bring and raise her kids here as a single mother must have been really hard for her: “because although [she] was like a child, absorbing and looking at new things, there was another part that made me feel kind of lost and it made me question my life because I didn’t know how to do anything”. What inspired me the most is that along the way of trying to be a better version of herself, she found that she could help others too. For example, when she went to do work and help pack supplies for the people in Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria, because these people needed extra help the Government was taking too long to give; or when she went to the March for Our Lives protest, because she feels that students should not feel scared when they go to school. My definition of “The American Dream” was not always clear; I thought that it was to come to the country and manage to have a stable life; however, my vision of this “dream” has changed a little bit, we all come here for different reasons economical, educational, etc. But at the same time, all immigrants want something similar, something different than back home.
MC: What year did you come to this country and how old were you? Did you come alone or with other family members and/or friends? Did you know anyone who lived in this country?
Cynthia: When I decided to stay, because I have been here before, for visiting, it was in 1994 and I was 28. Some of my relatives were living here already, but I came by myself.
MC: Which languages did you speak when you first came here?
C: Spanish. I knew English, but I didn’t want to speak it, the accent never goes away. I mean anyone could see immediately that I wasn’t born here.
MC: Do you feel as if knowing the language already made life easier for you as an immigrant?
C: It was hard, really hard. Because I knew how to write in English and I understood most of it, but I didn’t want to open my mouth, I didn’t want to talk. And I had to translate what was on my head before saying something. And I just felt so ridiculous and slow, I just wanted to say stuff the way I was thinking it. So I had a hard time with that. I would go to the stores, Macy’s let’s say, with a notebook and if someone talked to me I would write something on it. I just wanted it to be perfect.
MC: Why did you leave your home country?
C: My experience is different than I would say why most people that come here. I had a very comfortable life in the Dominican Republic, so I didn’t come here for economical reasons. I had an amazing job and a nice apartment. So I came here to visit and asked my job in the Dominican Republic if I could take 3 months, and they accepted. However, I made a really big mistake that changed my life completely. They always gave me permission to stay here for six months as a tourist. So they ask me how long I am going to stay here and I say that I am not sure, maybe a month. And I didn’t realize the paper said one month, exactly what I said. So when I was going to get my ticket to go back in the travel agency I learned that I had overstayed my stay and I almost went crazy. Some of my friends thought it was funny to joke about it and say that immigration would be after me and so I was so desperate thinking I would go to jail. I was told at the travel agency that I couldn’t go back, but I could have gone back, I just didn’t know, the thing is I was risking my visa, but why would I care at that moment, I just wanted to go back to the Dominican Republic! Somehow the lady at travel agency and my friend were in this together because they wanted me to stay longer. So that is when I decided to stay, to fix all of this, and it was a nightmare to fix it. So I was forced to stay, to fix my situation here, I lost my job back in D.R., my apartment, my kids were living there. It was a difficult year for me, I felt homeless. Before, when I was visiting, I spend over $300 on a shirt, but when I had to stay, I had to count every penny.
MC: Have you been back to your home country since you’ve moved here?
C: Two or three times a year I go back to visit D.R.
MC: What was your first impression of the U.S. after you arrived?
C: The first impression when I came just to visit New York City I was amazed, the lights, the tall buildings, it was a positive impression. Later on, things changed, when I decided to stay... [pauses] there are a lot of emotions thinking back. Because although I was like a child, absorbing and looking at new things, there was another part that made me feel kind of lost, and it made me question my life because I didn’t know how to do anything.
MC: What do you mean you didn’t know how to do anything?
C: I remember the first time I went to a laundromat and I was like “Jesus, everyone washes their clothes in the same machines, geez.” That was one thing, another thing was staring at the machine and saying “How do I do that?” And things like that, so I used to cry a lot. I realized that life was something else, but at the same time I wanted to grow and experience more things and give myself a chance to do something that really excited me a lot. I wanted to be a human being, not a woman.
MC: What is the difference between a woman and a human being?
C: Yes, let me elaborate on that. In the Dominican Republic back then and even now, men are valued the most and it doesn’t matter how much education you have, you have to be somebody’s wife. And here I thought it was going to be different, and it has been. Here I was searching for independence, I wanted to be enough, just me. And I knew that the price that I was paying here was a lot but it was the only way. I felt safe here.
MC: Was moving here an easy transition from the place you left?
C: No, it wasn’t. One was the language, although I have the advantage of being able to read and write in English, I didn’t want to speak. The transition wasn’t easy, it was not an easy life, I used to have everything done for me, I didn’t have responsibilities at home, it was just to pay bills, and here it was so different and overwhelming. I didn’t know how to cook, and paying for meals was very expensive. I was also homesick
MC: Can you tell me about some of the jobs you had or experiences related to jobs?
C: Well I was looking for a job and one day I saw a boutique, I went in there and they asked me for my papers, and then I went out of there crying because I didn’t have any at the time. My uncle told me I had to get a job, but I told him my situation, he told me it was fine because he has a friend that needs an assistant and he has a restaurant. So I started working there and he was paying me in cash. That restaurant was full of policemen everyday because there was a prison nearby. And every time I will see a policeman coming I will hide and the staff would say “What is wrong?!” and I would say “They want to take me!” Now I laugh at myself but back then I used to get scared, a guy would look at me and I’ll tell myself “they know, they know!” When everything was back in place and I had my papers, I went to classes for 6 months and got a certificate of medical billing and coding. In my first interview I was very lucky and I got the job and was super excited, I could not believe it.
MC: Looking back on your experience (and the experiences of other immigrants who you know), how would you define “The American Dream?” How easy or hard has it been to achieve that “dream?”
C: “The American Dream” to me is how you can do and be anything you want to be. Yes, there is racism, sexism, situations in which it might get really hard for you. But if you really, really want something, you can get it, because this is the land of opportunities. Most immigrants want a better job or want a business, but I want something different, something within me which has taken a lot of years and I am still working on it. I should also say while looking to better myself, I also learned to help others, for example I go to protests or campaigns. In here I learned to finally open my mouth and speak up for all the people.
MC '21 (BHSEC Queens)
This is the story of Rosita Perez who came to the United States from Buenos Aires, Argentina in early June 1969. My maternal grandmother was born on October 10th, 1941 and migrated to the United States at the age of 27. I have decided to analyze her immigrant story because it contains details that shock, sadden, and illuminate the harsh circumstances she faced throughout her life in this country.
In this interview, I learned a great amount about her life as a young woman that I had no previous knowledge of. For instance, Rosita explains that in the duration of her life in America, she “felt much more valued by the people around” her when she taught Spanish to children in elementary school because she “was able to do something,” which “fulfilled” her. Although she was raising three children, this position of motherhood was not “being valued as something good that somebody does,” and thus she felt the pressure from her community to start a career. In addition, I acquired knowledge about Rosita’s changing status in America. Initially, she planned to move to Washington D.C. for one year as her husband completed his fellowship in adolescent medicine. However, they ended up staying in the United States for four years, and at this point, my uncle Ruben Perez was going to begin kindergarten. Furthermore, my grandparents have “this philosophy: if the kids start school here, it would be very difficult to take them to another culture that they aren’t familiar [with],” so they decided that they would build their lives here. Finally, in the telling of her story, I was most fascinated by the way she crafted her life and narrative around my grandfather, José Perez. When she first arrived, she explained to her friend that “I feel that I came here in a suitcase with not me making any decision about it,” indicating that my grandfather made the significant choices in their relationship. While this was a relatively common marital circumstance for this time period, Rosita’s attachment to her husband portrayed how she did not expect to be “more than [...] the mother and the housewife” of her family. Overall, I learned about the emotions that altered my grandmother’s perception of her role in life.
Additionally, in my interview, I found many of her points quite surprising. For instance, I was shocked that she had not returned to Argentina in more than forty years. The last time she visited her country of origin was in 1976 to collect her visa. For the first six years that my maternal family lived in this country, they were allowed to stay through my grandfather’s “exchange visitor visa.” However, in the mid-1970s, they visited Buenos Aires, Argentina for one month to pick up their immigrant visa for permanent residence. “That was the only time that [she] went and it was very painful for” her. To this day, she feels uneasy about returning to Argentina because the tension between her and her family has not truly ceased. Moreover, I was surprised by the level of discrimination that Rosita still experiences today. For example, she explains that “when people don’t value me as a person and only see me as someone who comes from South America and doesn’t speak English properly, I don’t need to interact with them.” She goes on to state that people classify others based on “the money they have, the property they have, how they speak, [and] the color of their skin,” which is not something that she accepts. I find it disgraceful that a respectable woman who has lived in America for more than forty years continues to be discriminated against because she was born in another country. Essentially, many aspects of my grandmother’s story were quite captivating and unexpected.
Rosita’s life was shaped by a variety of large historical events of her time period. Firstly, my grandfather, after completing his M.D. in Buenos Aires, longed for something more. José came to America to further his education in adolescent medicine. He planned to return to Argentina and share his newly acquired knowledge in order to establish this new specialty in his country of origin. However, he realized that going back to South America, specifically to a country with a less developed medical field than the U.S., would provide him with fewer opportunities. Furthermore, the “situation in Argentina was getting worse and worse” during the Dirty War, a period where the fascist government officials terrorized Argentines, forever altering this country’s history. With these two major factors taken into account, José decided to make America his new home. In this way, he paved a path for my grandmother’s life, taking away a portion of her freedom. Moreover, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 dramatically helped my grandparents immigrate to America. This act ended the previous racialized quotas and changed immigration policies to be based on occupation and family status. It also allowed many more people to emigrate from countries in Central and South America, Asia, and Africa, equalizing the vast number of people from Northwestern Europe. In conclusion, Rosita’s life was formed by the many events surrounding her immigration to the United States.
By creating this oral history of my grandmother, my understanding of “The American Dream” has expanded, specifically in the analysis of the role this concept plays in immigration stories. Rosita did not come here for the American Dream. She did not leave “all the family in Argentina” that she had because she longed to live in America; in fact, living in the United States was “a shock” to her. At the time, she thought to herself, “I was here because I had to be here.” This principle casts a dimming shadow over her life experiences in the United States; the place she has considered her home for over four decades was a place where she did not care to be. However, once Rosita accepted that she would stay in this country, she realized that she desired more of an “American” life, so she worked as a Spanish teacher for over twenty years. This career united her with her neighbors on a professional level because she was able to construct her life into that of a stereotypical industrious and determined American worker. Additionally, this specific occupation allowed her to take pride in her Hispanic culture and fight the prejudice that she experienced due to her persona, which did not conform to the strict ideals of Americans at the time. Ultimately, while each migrant may have a version of their American Dream, this social construct does not define who is an immigrant; instead, their position corresponds to their approach to the everyday struggles they face.
Interviewee: Rosita Perez
Transcribed by: Inés Rossi
Inés: What year did you come to the United States and how old were you?
Rosita: It was 1969 and that was in June. I think it was June 8th. Almost sure. You know, almost sure. June 8th, but now I’m confused, it was 6th. Well, put June 1969 because that’s for sure. It was a month before Opi was going to start at Children’s Hospital, and I was…’69 lets see… twenty…how much I was? Just a minute. ‘71 I was going to be thirty, right, because I was born in 1941, so I imagine I was twenty-eight. I think I was twenty-eight. Just a minute. ‘69, yes, I was going to be twenty-eight that year, so I was twenty-seven.
Inés: Yes, so you were twenty-seven years old. And, so you came with your two children and your husband. So how old were they at the time?
Rosita: Actually, Alejandro, I mean, oh Alejandro, Ruben, was his second birthday, it was on the twenty-eighth, twenty days after, on the twenty-eighth of June, so he was two years old, and Mama was five months old. Let me see, diciembre…ya, because she was born on the seventeenth, it was almost six months old, almost.
Inés: And how old was Opi?
Rosita: Oh, Opi was eleven months younger, was twenty-six, because he was 1942.
Inés: And then, did you know anyone personally, or, you just came because of Opi, right, or did you know people in the United States?
Rosita: Actually, it was very interesting, he a doctor…he came here to do exactly the same like Opi, so kind of…specialization, I think he went into genetics, so he went, with his wife, and I think the boy was born here, to Baltimore. His name was V.P. I think he was the only one, no no no, we had other people too: G.N. and T.M. There were three people that we knew that were here and like I said, two were in Washington, and this other one, V.P., who actually helped us tremendously, we were in his apartment in Baltimore before we were able to find an apartment for ourselves in Washington D.C. [...] You know, he was almost caught by the Nazi Guerillas in Argentina, and then he went to Venezuela, and then he came back here. V.P. is something incredible.
Inés: And so when you came here, you just spoke Spanish. So how did you learn English? What was that process like?
Rosita: We live in a very, very modest place in Hyattsville, Prince George County, and that was the cheapest place you could get, but but, you know, I never was somebody looking to be with a certain class of people, and now I realize it was a very blue-collar type of neighborhood. Anyhow, I went outside with my two children and I found a lady, I think it was my age or younger maybe, and I don’t remember too much about it, but I will like to talk, so I took, I didn’t have even a big one, I have a two little dictionaries called “Lilliput,” somebody gave me those, and I went outside, and I was trying to communicate with this woman, and trying to find the word in this Lilliput dictionary, and I will talk with her.
Rosita: Anyhow, we were making just connections one at a time, one here, one there. When we heard Spanish speaking people, “Oh! Spanish! Hi! From where are you?” because there were no Spanish speaking people at the time, at all, very very little.
Inés: And that first place where you lived, Hyattsville, was it primarily white?
Rosita: Oh yea, yea, yea. I don’t remember too clearly, but I think so. The people that I interacted with, my neighbors, I don’t remember seeing African Americans. I didn’t interact with any African Americans, but I think there were some.
Inés: I have heard from my mother that you also watched the $25,000 Pyramid show? Did television shows help you learn English as well?
Rosita: Oh yes, and Sesame street. And actually, in Portland, Oregon, there was a relative of Opi, whose wife was the cousin of Opi’s father, and he knew someone who was a journalist named B.M.D. He came to our house, and I told him that I was trying to read and speak in English, and he told, “You should watch Sesame Street,” and so I started to watch Sesame Street with the kids. Now, I love Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.
Inés: Later, when you started teaching in the school, was it a complete immersion class, or did you speak in English?
Rosita: Well, actually, when I have to give instructions, let’s say in the beginning of the year, I would give them in English. But after that, it was practically full-immersion. Everything was done by gestures, by props, visuals, everything was done in Spanish. The kids learned quite a bit. It was a beautiful program; I really enjoyed teaching, and I taught for twenty years.
Inés: What was the main reason that you left Argentina?
Rosita: Well, because we came only for one year for Opi to be trained in adolescent medicine because he did some in Argentina when he was still in the residency, but there was not a program called adolescent medicine. So, the only place that had developed this speciality, that went from pediatrics into adolescent medicine, was America. Many other doctors from different specialities were interested in adolescent medicine, but they had to do a fellowship first for one year. So we came here just for a year, so he could get trained, and then we planned to go back. So we rented our apartment just for a year. After the year passed, the situation in Argentina developed in a militarized Nazi, fascist way, so Opi realized that going back to Argentina was for nothing because nothing was established. Anyhow, he realized that everything was going caput in Argentina, but on the other hand, he realized that being here has more possibility, if we stay a little bit longer, more possibility of going back. So he does a second residency in Philadelphia at Jefferson University, and we are there for three years, logically thinking that after these three years, we are going back to Argentina.
Inés: Did you live in hospital housing?
Rosita: It was not for everybody. It was for doctors, and nurses, medical students, and people who worked at the hospital. But there was not enough rooms, so we were very lucky to be living there. We were living on the seventh floor I think it was.
Rosita: And remember one thing, very important, that when we moved to Philadelphia, in our building, there was a sign, and someone was looking for a babysitter. So, to be able to help, because we were thinking of going back to Argentina, so to save money to buy a place in Argentina, I started to work as a babysitter. I had plenty of kids from morning to night. The first year I had two kids, a boy and a girl, both kids of medical students. And people kept coming with their children, and I would take all the kids downstairs. One woman said to me, “Why don’t you have a play group,” and you know what I did, I started one. I would put records on, I would sing with the kids, we would draw, and it was from nine to twelve. These were very young kids, because they were not yet accepted in nursery schools, and most of the time I would talk in Spanish because I didn’t speak very much English at the time. So, I started to take English classes, someone would drive we there and take me home, and Opi would stay with Mama and Tío Ruben.
Inés: So when did you decide that you definitely weren’t going to move back to Argentina?
Rosita: Oh that was when we bought the apartment in Kensington, Maryland. When we were in Philadelphia, we realized that the situation in Argentina deteriorated and deteriorated and was awful, and Opi said “There is nothing for me to do over there.” So that was in 1973 and I was pregnant with Alejandro, so Opi talked to the chairman, who just gave Opi a position at Children’s Hospital in Washington D.C. That wouldn’t happen today. You know, Opi is very interesting, the way he got into El Hospital de Niños de Argentina, Buenos Aires, it was amazing too. He got into the university, into the hospital, it was one, two, three, four. No waiting period! No anxiety! So anyhow, at that time Ruben was already a kindergartener, and we knew…we have this philosophy: if the kids start school here, it would be very difficult to take them to another culture that they aren’t familiar, they only knew the language, and they were already learning and speaking English. So, we thought, “This is it. We have to stay here.” The situation in Argentina was getting worse and worse. But we had to go back to get our immigrant visa because Opi, for six years, had a special visa called an “exchange visitor visa,” which had to be renewed every year. He renewed that visa for six years, and at the end, we applied for an immigrant visa, and all the paperwork was done by mother in Argentina. After all the paperwork was finalized and the visa had been approved, it was a requirement that we go back to Argentina to pick it up. So when we returned to the United States, we were immigrants, and we could stay here as long as we wanted. But, the reason why we became citizens is because we knew that this was going to be our country, and we thought that we needed to be able to vote. As an immigrant, people still look at me and think, “Well, you’re not a real American,” but, you know, I consider myself, that I have the rights of any American to express my opinion. So anyway, we became citizens after five years, which was in 1981. For that, we had to have people that would go with us to the court; two good neighbors decided to testify that we were good people.
Inés: How many times have you been to Argentina after you moved here?
Rosita: Just to pick up the visa. When was that…I don’t remember. Well, I think it should have been ‘76. You know why it’s ‘76? Because we moved to this house in 1977. I am almost sure. Opi went back many times, but that was the only time that I went and it was very painful for me. My parents were alive, my grandfather had died, but my grandmother was still alive, so we visit everyone. I think we were there for a month.
Inés: When you first moved to the U.S., what was your impression of it? You thought you were just coming here for a year, so you just believed it would be a temporary place, right?
Rosita: Exactly, exactly. Oh, it was a shock. First of all, I was completely ignorant of the language; that was a very difficult time. Then, having two small children and practically knowing nobody…See, we knew some people, but it was a shock for me because I left all the family in Argentina, my parents, my brother, my nieces, my everything. And it was something very lonely, very lonely. And plus, I did not drive, and I lived in a place completely isolated with nothing around. I couldn’t even take I bus. I didn’t know the language. I was scared to death! I was just, my two little kids and my husband; maybe it’s why I became so overprotective of the two little ones, especially Ruben, having cancer, and not knowing that he was okay yet until he was five. And Mama, thank goodness, she was okay, and then they detected that they have Thalassemia minor. Another thing for me!…It was a very difficult time, a very difficult time. I didn’t feel any rejection, at least, because you know, my skin was white, you see. So, I think I was scared, but not from the people. I interacted with the women more than the men, and I also wanted to interact because, you know, human beings need to be with someone. It was very hard, Inés. I was not able to count on anybody, so it was difficult. Opi was working very hard, and came home, not like crazy hours at that time. At that time he was doing the fellowship, and it was a more relaxed way, but the poor guy had to learn how to drive.
Inés: What did you think, when you were moving to the United States, what did you think you were going to get out of your time living here? And how did you change this as you stayed here?
Rosita: You know what Inés, it is very interesting what I am going to tell you. I remember talking with the wife of this man in Baltimore, I told her, “You know how I feel? I feel that I came here in a suitcase with not me making any decision about it.” That was my feeling. Sort of like I was here because I had to be here, and I didn’t have any, you see I was so busy raising one child which was two years old and the other one six months old, that really, I didn't have any expectation more than be the mother and the housewife. We didn't have any money, Opi didn’t make that much money being a fellow, so even though we saved enough money to buy a new Volkswagen, do you remember the beetle? So, I was also a saver. One day, Mama was in love with a little doggy, a red doggy, that was old that she decided to throw it away, but she slept with it for years. Anyway, it was called “Baba Lotti.” And she was very little, and she had it like this. And me and Opi looked and her, and we knew we had to buy it, so we bought it. Look at the way we were! Very, very, very cautious. Even a dollar, we had to think very careful if we were going to buy it.
Inés: And so, then, once you had definitely established a life here, what did you think of America? What did you think of this country?
Rosita: Well, I will say that, thanks to being here, we are safe. Because, Opi being a socialist in Buenos Aires; Argentina was very dangerous. He was a lefty and he was associated with a party called socialism. If we had stayed, the same thing that happened to V.P. probably would have happened to Opi…That was one of the main things that I said “thank goodness we are here.” But there was always the feeling that I didn’t belong here because, and even today, I feel like I am not seen with the same value as other Americans, by some of my neighbors for example…When I was with a group of women at my neighbor’s play, a met the sister-in-law of one women, someone I had never met before. So, everyone introduced me, “Oh this is Rosita Perez,” and I say hello. And these women, look what she said to this new person that I meet, she said, “Her husband is a doctor at Children’s Hospital.” What did she say to these women? “Look, she is with us here, and we accepted her here, because her husband is a doctor.” So, how do you think I felt? I said, “Ok, I am nothing. If my husband was not a doctor, they probably wouldn’t even say hello to me.” Isn’t that awful! So, in a way, you are always thinking, “Well, we made it, and Opi has an incredible, incredible career, I enjoy tremendously, you don’t know how much I enjoy, teaching Spanish, I love it, and the parents, frankly were and still are very grateful to me.” When I was there, is when I felt that people really valued me and respected me, when I was teaching Spanish. That time was the best time for me, being in this country, because I didn’t feel marginalized or discriminated. Sometimes, I feel discriminated. For example, when I go to return something, the second they hear my voice, or the way I look, boom! It looks to me like, ok, I feel like they are not trusting.
Inés: People make assumption very quickly based on the way you look, or the way you sound, or the way you act, or where they think you’re from, and they don’t acknowledge the human being.
Rosita: No, they don’t value that. Prejudice is quite like the rule in this country…That time, when I was teaching, I felt very much appreciated by my supervisors, and I was able to do something, I felt that I fulfilled something, that I really got something. I felt much more valued by the people around me. For example, I will go with Opi to a dinner, and so, people will ask you, “What do you do?” And the fact that I didn’t have a career, I was being seen like a dummy. I was raising two kids, and then three kids, but, in a way, that was not being valued as something good that somebody does. You have to have some kind of career, that was important and valued by the people I interacted with, and in a way, that is why I began to isolate myself. Because I said, “if people don’t value who I am, why I have to interact with them?” and when people don’t value me as a person and only see me as as someone who comes from South America and doesn’t speak English properly, I don’t need to interact with them. They consider others not as human beings, but by the money they have, the property they have, how they speak, the color of their skin; that is not something that goes with me.
Inés Rossi '21 (BHSEC Queens)
This is the story of Fany Siguencia who came to the United States from Ecuador in 2000. In the process of this interview, I learned about the struggle it was for my parents specifically my mom to come to America and live a better life. When I was doing the interview I realized that my mom is telling me more than what she told me when I was doing this project back in 4th grade. She told me about her physical journey here and the money it cost. I learned a lot of little things that I haven’t asked before like what was her first job and how she “didn’t make any friends or talk to anyone because [she] was depressed. All [she] thought about was [her] kids and how much [she] wanted to see them. [She] would work extra hours just so [she] wouldn’t have these thoughts.” One thing that surprised me a lot was that my mother was actually left alone with her brother in the middle of nowhere; she could have actually died and I wouldn’t be writing this. My mom was affected by the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform that was passed in 2002. Many of her sisters and brothers were still in Ecuador, and once she realized that she couldn’t return to Ecuador because she was illegal she wanted to bring them over to America. However, this new law made it really hard for people to cross the border because there was more security and a lot of the Coyotes stopped working for a while so they wouldn’t get caught. I grew up with parents that weren’t born here so they had to work hard to achieve the “American Dream”. I’ve seen the American Dream; I’ve seen my parents working extra hours so they can win more; I see them taking risks; I see them trying to have a better future. I’ve heard them say multiple of times “My husband and I worked and are still working our asses off so we can see you guys go to college.” Even though it is difficult to be Hispanic and illegal in America, my parents have tried and worked hard for it. It’s such a huge coincidence that I was just told that one of my family’s friend’s kids died in Mexico trying to cross the border illegally. My parents weren’t fortunate enough to get a visa and come here, so they had to suffer long and hard to get here. I am proud to say that even if they are not categorized under U.S Citizens they still make major contributions to the country.
Interviewer: Mayra Jasmine
Interviewee: Fany Siguencia
City/Town of Origin: Cañar, Ecuador
What year did you come to this country and how old were you? Did you come alone or with other family members and/or friends? Did you know anyone who lived in this country?
I came to the United States of America in the year 2000 and I was 22. I came with my husbands sister and my brother. Yes, my husband was here already and most of his family.
When did your husband come? Was his experience here what encouraged you to come to the U.S?
My husband tried to come here 3 times. The first time he paid the coyote, the person who guides us on this journey to America, but he got robbed and they left taking all his money. Then in 1995 he got to America but got caught so he was put in jail for 2 months and then deported back to Ecuador. And then the third time was in 1998 when he was 20. He successfully got here the third time but he always glorified life here. The only reason why he didn’t tell me how hard life was here was because he wanted me to come here and be with him. He sent me shirts with the Statue of Liberty and pictures of him posing in front of really tall buildings. He definitely persuaded me to come here.
Which languages did you speak when you first came here?
I only spoke Spanish. I didn’t even know another language existed.
Why did you leave your home country? Have you been back to your home country since you’ve moved here?
I left Ecuador because I had no future there. I was really poor and I couldn’t support my family. There were no jobs there and I had no family there. I feel into depression and I became hopeless. Ecuador was filled with gangs, criminals, rapist, and many horrible things. I am an illegal immigrant so sadly I can’t return to my home country.
What was the hardest part about leaving your home country?
The hardest part was leaving my kids. My daughter was two and my son was only a month old. Do you know how horrible it feels to leave your kids? I remember getting on the bus to leave and come here and seeing my two kids crying and screaming my name. Sometimes I blame myself for leaving them. And until this day I haven’t seen my son since I left.
What was your first impression of the U.S. after you arrived? Was moving here an easy transition from the place you left?
When I arrived I was surprised about how different it was. Back in Ecuador I lived in a farm with cows. Streets, cars, bicycles, and stores were all new to me. The fact that you can walk less than a minute to buy clothes or food was incredible. Yet, I always heard that there was money everywhere and that everything was free but everything was actually expensive here. Did you ask if it was an easy transition? Heck no. I always got lost and couldn’t ask for help since everyone spoke English. And the train was a whole other story. I would take the 7 train the wrong way and somehow end up in the Bronx. It took me a long time to adapt to everything.
How did you get here? How long did it take you? Was it expensive to get here?
My journey was really difficult. I walked for days without any food from Ecuador to Colombia. Then I took a really small boat to Guatemala. During the week that we had to be in the boat was really horrible. The boat would be rocking back and forth like crazy and you’d start to get dizzy and seasick. Everyone would start to cry and regret coming to America. Once you got there you would have to swim ashore but I clearly remember seeing dead bodies floating in the water, I remember seeing this little boy’s head and this baby’s hand. After arriving at Guatemala, I stayed at this random women’s house for one month waiting for any further instructions from the coyote, the main guy that guides us on the journey. Then, we tried crossing the border between Guatemala and Mexico but we got caught. We had to lie that we were from Guatemala so they would just deport us to Guatemala instead of all the way back to Ecuador. The second time crossing I remember having to go under mud and as I was about to cross and I remember my hair getting stuck in the wire and how anxiously I was trying to free myself and being terrorized that the immigration officers would take me. After successfully crossing we walked endlessly for days without any water or filthy water. It took us 2 weeks to walk all the way up to the border between Mexico and America. On the last few days in Mexico, I remember being so tired and dehydrated that I couldn’t continue any longer. All I remember was getting dizzy and about to vomit and then out of nowhere waking up in a little room. I learned afterwards that I had fainted and everyone was so devastated and tired that they just left me there thinking I would die anyway. However, my brother came back looking for me and took me to this random little cabin in the middle of nowhere. It was only my brother and I because the whole group of people coming with us left us. I remember being so scared and endlessly crying because we had no idea where we were at. We had no idea how to get to the closest town or if we would get caught while trying to look for it. So I prayed for hours while my brother tried to look for any helpful resources until we gave up. We just started to walk north but we had no idea where we were going. I still thank god for this, but after walking for 2 days straight only eating worms or whatever animals we could kill we found our group in another cabin. I figured out that we were really close to the U.S and that it would only take us a day to get there. In order to pass the border without the immigration officers catching us we had to hide. So all of us were nailed under a big truck without any air for more than 40 mins. We had very little holes to breathe through but the anxiety and the fear made us need more oxygen and with the heat and everything I fainted again. So we arrived in Houston, Texas and from there we got driven to New York. It took us 2 days to get there and when we finally got there they would drop each one of us in different locations so we didn’t look suspiciosus. It took me a total of 2 months to get here I am pretty sure. I had to borrow money from someone to get here. I had to borrow 4,000 dollars to come here. And thinking about it, that was a lot considering that we were in poverty. It took me one year to pay off my debt.
Looking back on your experience (and the experience of other immigrants who you know), how would you define “The American Dream?” How easy or hard has it been to achieve that “dream?”
The “American Dream” is the idea that anyone in the U.S should have the same opportunity to attain security, success, and prosperity through courage, hard work, determination, and sacrifice. I have definitely achieved that “dream” but it hasn’t been easy. Since I don’t speak English or look like an American it has been hard to be heard and accepted. In the beginning all I wanted was to raise enough money to return to Ecuador to be with my kids but everyone that came here said that and no one returned. Then I had two other daughter and my only goal was to give you guys everything I didn’t have growing up. My husband and I worked and are still working our asses off so we can see you guys go to college. I successfully own two nail salons and my husband owns a house. Comparing my life here to my life back in Ecuador, this is heaven.
What was your first job here? Was it easy? How did you get to your job?
My first job here was working at a supermarket. My husband was already here so it was easy getting the job. It was easy there because everyone that worked there was Hispanics and the majority of them also just arrived from Ecuador. I didn’t make any friends or talk to anyone because I was depressed. All I thought about was my kids and how much I wanted to see them. I would work extra hours just so I wouldn’t have these thoughts. To get there I had to take the Manhattan bound 7 train to Queensboro and then take the N train to Astoria. Until I learned how to get there without getting lost, I would leave a piece of paper on a wall to indicate where I had to go to get home or go to work, and I’d make sure I always found the paper to know I was on the right side.
Was it hard talking about your journey here and how you immigrated?
Sometimes I feel like a superhero because I have survived through a lot and whenever I tell my story I feel brave and inspirational. The first time I ever told anyone about my story I couldn't stop crying. I always want my story to inspire you guys to be better and work hard so you can have a better future than me.
Mayra Jasmine '21 (BHSEC Queens)
This is the story of Rabab Abedalla who came to the United States from Egypt in 2000. I learned so much about my mother’s experiences living in America. I really got a deeper view into her life before me, and how her overall time was spent coming to America and starting a new life. Almost everything she said was surprising to me, considering she had positive experiences for most of her life in America. I was definitely surprised as she was discussing her story about her experience after 9/11. I had no idea she has such a difficult time after this event, and it must have been especially difficult considering she had only lived in America for a little more than a year. She said that she was “stared at as if I was a criminal,” a feeling that nobody should ever experience. It was also shocking how even after she went through this uncomfortable time, she still had a good view on America and her new life. Her attitude towards America is reflected throughout the entire interview, which truly showed me how strong one must be in order to achieve a better life in America, or “The American Dream.”
This interview has definitely changed my definition of “The American Dream.” My idea of “The American Dream” was that coming to America will bring one money, riches, new experiences and opportunities, and an overall better life. “The American Dream” seemed to me that you could support yourself and even gain a lot. However, from my mother’s experiences made me realize that “The American Dream” isn’t only about the money; it is a whole range of different things that make living in America better. Since my mother says “I am happy with my husband and children,” she has achieved what I believe is “The American Dream” because of the way she views her life so positively even when going through troubling experiences, and she continues to strive for even higher goals.
This interview has not only taught me so much about my mother and her morals as an immigrant, but it also showed me how interviews truly show a different side of certain person or group of people. It truly gives one an insight of the other person’s life and reading about it doesn’t always give people a full sense of the interviewee’s life. Sitting face to face and knowing their emotions is a completely different experience from just reading a story. Overall, interviewing a person is a great way of actually sensing their feelings and emotions and the significance of the events they experienced.
What year did you come to this country and how old were you? Did you come alone or with other family members or friends? Did you know anyone who lived in this country?
I came to America in 2000, and I came alone. My husband and my sister in law lived in this country.
What languages did you speak when you first came here?
I spoke Arabic and English.
Was it difficult considering Arabic was your first language at the time?
It wasn’t particularly difficult considering that I learned English when I lived in Egypt. Of course my English wasn’t perfect, which was a bit difficult, but my speech overall was understandable.
Why did you leave your home country? Have you been back to your home country since you’ve moved here?
I left Egypt because I wanted to live with my husband and start a family and a new life. I have went back to my country once.
When and why did you go back that one time? How long were you there?
I went in 2001 for 7 months to visit my family.
What was your first impression of the U.S. after you arrived? Was moving here an easy transition from the place you left?
The United States seemed so different, and almost magical when I first arrived. I was excited to start a new life, but I was definitely worried about how I would interact with others in this new foreign place. It was a pretty easy transition because I am much happier here and I have a completely new and better life.
Is your impression of the U.S. still the same? Why are you happier here?
I would definitely say I still have the same view on America. I am so much happier because I have not only given myself a new and better life, but I am also giving my children better experiences and opportunities.
Looking back on your experience, how would you define “The American Dream?” How easy or hard has it been to achieve that “dream?”
“The American Dream” is usually defined as coming to America and receiving all the riches and happiness, but to me the American dream is living a happy and healthy everyday life in America. I am happy with my children and husband today, so I would say it wasn’t particularly easy or hard to achieve the American dream.
What was difficult about achieving that “dream?” What was easy?
It was easy because my way of life was overall much better, but the difficult part is actually achieving that better life.
Based on all your experiences living in Egypt and America, how would you compare your living situations in both countries?
I was born and raised in Egypt, so it is definitely a big part of who I am, and also my whole family lives there. However, I would have to say I prefer America considering all the endless opportunities my children now have and the amazing life I am currently living with this family I started all here.
What is the most difficult moment you’ve experienced while being in America as an immigrant?
The aftermath of 9/11 was definitely the worst experience I have had living in America. It was tragic to watch on the news how several people were killed during the event, but walking outside was almost traumatizing for me. I was stared at as if I was a criminal because I wear a hijab. It was frightening to see how people judged me and assumed things about me because of my religion and what I believe. It made me start questioning everything because I always believed America is where everyone is accepted no matter their race or beliefs. I came to a realization at one point that judgements will always be made, but I kept my head high and got through this experience. It was extremely difficult, but I also learned a lot from it.
Did it take you a long time to feel comfortable walking outside wearing a hijab?
Yes, several months, actually. But as I said before, even though I was scared and uncomfortable, this experience completely changed my attitude and how I view the world.
Amira Elbagoury '21 (BHSEC Queens)
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