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)
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