Guest post by Aixa Perez-Prado, Senior Instructor, Florida International University
I looked around the room in my class last week and asked my students how many were either immigrants themselves, or the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Every single person in the class raised a hand. I work in a university that is known for its diversity and large Hispanic population in the city of Miami that is known for the same. Yet, in this class of immigrants and their descendants, it wasn’t obvious to me that we were all so close to being geographically located somewhere else. Basically, if we traveled back in time not too many years, we would all be in a variety of different countries, on different continents, speaking different languages and living different lives. Many of my students would not even exist since their parents, immigrants from different countries themselves would have never met.
The process of immigration has changed us, as it changes all immigrants. When we leave our home language and culture and settle in a new place, we inevitably leave part of who we are behind. We cannot continue to be the exact same person we were because we are faced with different situations, different customs, different words and different expectations. We must grow and change through the process of cultural adaptation and acculturation or we will never be able to fully function in the new environment in a way that makes that environment feel like home. This is easier for some than others.
Can we ever really be at home in a new place? The concept of home is an interesting and complicated one, and one that my students have been exploring. What makes a place a home? Is it a house where we grew up, a country where we were born, is it where the people we love and care about life, or does home move with us wherever we go? I have thought about these issues many times as a childhood immigrant and come up with different answers.
For years I thought that my real home was Argentina and the house where I was born. Yet, I would visit Argentina as a child and teen and be teased for my strange habits and less than Argentine accent. I would struggle to fit in but never really would. To this day when I go there I often feel like the ‘other’. The words, the customs, the pace of living and the idea of what is ‘normal’ are sometimes strange to me. When I don’t understand something right away, I am often treated as though I were limited in intelligence rather than unaccustomed to a certain practice or situation. I struggle to communicate with the same level of depth and complexity in vocabulary and grammar as I have in English. It is harder to be ‘me’ when I am there. Its almost like I have to be a caricature of myself, a less complicated ‘me.’ I find it frustrating, and sometimes hurtful. I have often thought that I love my native country and want to be a real Argentinian, but that Argentina doesn’t really love me back, and has impudently moved on without me.
But then what about the place we childhood immigrants grow up – is that then home? I grew up in Buffalo, New York, a place very different from Buenos Aires in multiple ways. There I learned a new language and way of living, made new friends and became part of a new family when my mother remarried and had two more children. I went to school in Buffalo, learned math, went through puberty, went to college, fell in love and had my first broken heart there. But was it ever really home? I am not sure. I was also ‘othered’ many times during my snow-capped Buffalo years.
I remember one humiliating experience when a girl in my fifth-grade class found out that I was born in another country, and that I spoke Spanish. She was joking around with me, not really being mean (but kind of) and told me to, “go back to Mexico.” When I told her I had never been to Mexico, she told me to “go back to Spain then.” When I mentioned I had also never been to Spain she didn’t know what to say, and everybody laughed. It was a joke, supposedly, but the message of the joke was clear. I didn’t really belong, and never really would. Message received. It hurt. When you’re a preteen or a teen you desperately want to belong, but as an immigrant that isn’t always possible. So, if I didn’t really belong in Buffalo and I also didn’t really belong in Buenos Aires, where did I belong? Where was home?
I guess I didn’t really have a home, or maybe a better way of looking at it is that I had two homes with neither being quite genuine, neither quite embracing me the way I wanted to be embraced. The thing about immigration is that you can never really go back to exactly where you came from because that place no longer exists once enough time has passed. The culture and the language changes, neighborhoods change, the people and their routines change, even the food tastes different after a while. You may experience these changes like tiny, painful, betrayals because your home went and changed without your knowledge or permission. Going back is like seeing your grandmother doting on another grandchild that you don’t even know, instead of doting on you. And you weren’t quite ready to grow up yet, but you don’t have a choice. Grow up you must, no matter your age, you’re on your own.
The other thing about immigration is that the person you were back in that first home also doesn’t really exist anymore. Your struggles and your triumphs, your experiences and your age have also changed who you are. That ‘you’, who once lived in that place that no longer exists, also no longer exists. An immigrant trying to go back home is like a ghost returning to a ghost town. Everything is familiar but somehow different, all of the sights and sounds, the smells and sensations are heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s all a little bit creepy.
But what about those immigrants who are displaced people who can never even attempt to go back to where they came from? What about the refugees who have escaped war or famine, persecution or disease? Where are they supposed to go when they are not welcome in a new place? What should they do when their efforts at creating a new home are thwarted at airports, in the court of public opinion and in the media? If it is hard enough for those of us who immigrated by choice, or whose parents did, how much harder is it for those who were forced to flee? If we who immigrated as children struggle with our understanding of who we are and where we belong, how must they feel?
In some ways, we are all immigrants searching for a home. Whether we were born in one country and raised in another, or came over as adults to a new land. Whether our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents made the decision to leave their home, or our very distant ancestors crossed a land bridge thousands of years ago – none of us has an absolute claim to any piece of this earth and yet it belongs to all of us. Why can’t we share it, care for it, and create loving homes for ourselves and our neighbors no matter where we end up, what we look like, or what we believe or don’t believe?
When no place is home then there is nowhere to feel comfortable, and loved. There is nowhere to belong. Instead of othering how about it if we think about ways of connecting, relating and caring? If we do that then nobody is in danger of being without a place to call home. Let’s give everyone a comfortable place to lay their heads and pursue their dreams, no matter where they took their first breath or where they will take their last. Let’s help each other in the long immigration of our life journeys by sharing our spaces, our hearts, our kind words and our hopes for a better world. We can all do something today and every day, even if it is just a kind word or a smile. We can each help create a feeling of home in the day of an immigrant who may not be feeling welcome through our actions and our words. Let’s do that.