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Chapter 1

Twelve Stories

The following stories are real. The names are fictitious, but the places where they took place and the nationality of the participants are true. They provide a glimpse of the life of immigrant families in the United States today as it takes place in two of its main gateway cities. Both cities where the stories occurred--Miami and San Diego--have been thoroughly transformed by contemporary immigration but in ways more complex than meet the eye. That complexity is due, at least in part, to the very diverse flows of foreigners coming to each place and the distinct ways in which they have adapted to their new environment. These stories serve to illustrate that extraordinary diversity, and they will be used in later chapters to help frame and interpret general statistical results.

In part for this reason, we attempt no a priori organization of the narratives other than by the place where they took place. If the reader does not get past this first chapter, we at least want to leave with him or her a durable impression of who the newcomers to U.S. shores are, how varied are their attempts to make sense of their new reality, and what are the principal challenges facing their American-raised children.

Miami Stories

Marí de los Angeles and Yvette Santana: August 1993

When Marí de los Angeles, Yvette's Cuban mother, arrived in New York's Kennedy Airport in the 1970s, she experienced no trouble at all. [note 1] Cubans were welcome at the time, and the immigration authorities gave her and her family their residency permit--the green card--on the spot. The troubles started after the family moved to Chicago. At first they lived among immigrants, but when Marí de los Angeles's father saved the money to buy a home in the suburbs, their new neighbors and her classmates did not take kindly to their presence. Blond and fair skinned, Marí de los Angeles meshed well in her new surroundings until she opened her mouth and heavily accented English poured forth. "'Spic,' the kids called me. They used to yell, 'Spic, get out of here, go back to where you belong.' Once, a boy asked how come I was Cuban when I wasn't black. Another wanted to know whether I had always been white or had turned white after coming to the United States. . . . They were so ignorant." Marí de los Angeles married a young Cuban printer, Fermí, in Chicago, and Yvette was born there. The family could not "go home" as her neighbors had urged, but it did the next best thing, which was to leave Chicago for Miami. There, Fermí pooled their savings to set up a printing shop, and Marí de los Angeles went to work for a local bank. Neither had a college education, but the family was on a clear upward path. By 1993, their combined earnings exceeded $50,000, and the house they had bought was neat, comfortable, and in a good part of town.

All of this had its effects on Yvette. In school, she has never been called names, never been taunted with ethnic slurs. Unlike her mother in Chicago, she speaks English fluently; more important, however, many of her teachers and most of her peers are also Cuban American. In this secure environment, Yvette has had time to drift. She wears smart clothes but wants jewelry and, at 16, a car. She does not see the need for college since jobs are plentiful for a bilingual girl like her in stores and offices close to home. Marí de los Angeles says: "We are not really poor, but there are things I can't give her because they are too expensive. . . . Besides, that's not the way we were raised." The lack of motivation in her assimilated daughter is a cause of sorrow since she recalls all too well her own difficult path to get where she is. "Yvette may be able to get an office job through our Cuban friends, a receptionist or secretary maybe. She is lazy in her studies. She does not have the drive to become a professional."

Melanie Ferná September 1993

Milagros is Melanie's mother by a previous marriage. She is currently living with Roberto, who has four children of his own. Roberto and Milagros are Nicaraguans who came to the United States in 1986, escaping the Sandinista revolution. They are not married but have been living together for eight years and share their rented two-bedroom apartment with four of their children. Two boys sleep in the living room. Melanie and her half-sister Marcela share one of the bedrooms. Despite the cramped quarters, the apartment is tidy and features new furniture. Like many Nicaraguans, Milagros and Roberto have experienced rapid downward mobility in the United States. In Nicaragua, Milagros worked as a manager in an insurance company, and Roberto ran his own farm after getting a degree in agronomy. In Miami, Milagros has only advanced as far as a waitress job at Denny's. She is now a cocktail waitress working for $6.00 an hour plus tips. He has been a busboy and now works delivering pizzas for $4.50 an hour without benefits.

The problem they face is their uncertain legal status. For years they have had a work permit but no guarantee of permanent residence. This made it impossible for the couple to obtain jobs commensurate with their education or to seek assistance in learning English. They simply worked at whatever jobs they could find, hoping for an end to their uncertain status. Milagros finally received approval of her request for permanent residency but is still awaiting her card to arrive and make it official. Roberto's status is still up in the air.

In the meantime, Melanie has gone from grade to grade, growing fluent in English, gradually forgetting her home Spanish, and dreaming of a brilliant American life. Her modest circumstances seem to spur her ambition. She gets excellent grades and is determined to go to college. This is Milagros's greatest cause of anguish because neither she nor Roberto has the means to pay for a college education. In the legal limbo where they live, there are no means to obtain outside assistance, and even with the new green card, prospects are dim. As Milagros puts it, "When children don't want to continue studying, that's one thing; you don't worry too much. But to be unable to support your own child when she clearly has the ambition, it breaks your heart." Alone in her room, Melanie plugs away at her homework and dreams her dreams. She has recently become a member of her school's cheerleading team. Her life becomes ever more American, oblivious of the tenuous hold of her family in their new country.

Mary Patterson: February 1995

Mary Patterson had a dilemma. Being black, she was treated in most places as part of the American black population. Clerks followed her in stores to prevent her from shoplifting. Whites from whom she asked a service or bought something added that extra measure of curtness to the transaction--all of this despite her family's home in Coral Gables (an affluent section of Miami) and the achievements of her parents, both successful professionals from Trinidad. When white people knew she was West Indian, their demeanor changed. "Ah, you are Jamaican, hard-working people. Good English, too," they would say. Never mind that Trinidad and Jamaica are different countries. Mary consciously sought to project her image as second-generation Trinidadian--or, at least, West Indian--by carrying a key chain with the name and map of her parents' country and by caring for her attire and body language. In a busy world, few people paid attention to such details, and she continued enduring the same aggravations. Mary noticed, however, that when Patricia, her mother, spoke, the situation changed instantly. Patricia uses firm, well-modulated, heavily British-accented English--the English that she learned as a child in Trinidad. Having grown up in American schools, Mary speaks American English to which she has added local black inflections. She did this deliberately, searching for acceptance among her black school peers in junior high.

But now, approaching high school graduation and seeking a job to help pay for college, the situation is different. That West Indian identity must be conveyed to employers. It must be there, up front, as her best defense against standard white racism. Mary's solution was eminently practical: She has been taking lessons from her mother, seeking to regain an island accent. "My mother is so self-assured. She stands tall everywhere . . . at work, when shopping in the stores. I need some of that," Mary says. While she considers herself American, the question of language is just too important to be left to itself. "Blacks in this country carry a lot of baggage, like the way they dress and speak. I respect them, but I don't have to carry that load. I'm an immigrant." Despite discrimination, Mary is determined to succeed. She plans to surpass her mother, who is head nurse at a local hospital, by attending medical school.

San Diego Stories

Jorge, Olga, Miguel Angel, and Estela Cardozo: January 1994

Jorge and Olga Cardozo and their two teenage children, Miguel Angel and Estela, live in a small house they recently bought in south central San Diego. The neighborhood, populated by Mexican immigrants like themselves and African Americans, is poor and run down, with several vacant lots filled with tumbleweeds; a boarded-up crack house is across the alley from the Cardozo home. Drug dealers hang out on corners down the block from the Mexicans, close to a seedy commercial district. The Cardozos used to give bread to the crack addicts on the street as part of their evangelical outreach to the poor, but now they, too, have boarded up the windows that face the crack house to avoid seeing anything going on there.

Mr. Cardozo and his family entered the country illegally 14 years ago in the trunk of a car. He had failed in his first attempt to cross on foot and was hospitalized afterwards. Their original goal was to make enough money to buy a house in their hometown of Michoacá smiling, the Cardozos say they accomplished the first part of their goal--they bought the house--but are still here. They became legal permanent residents under the 1986 federal amnesty for illegal immigrants. Jorge works as a busboy in a tourist restaurant, a job he got through a Mexican friend and has held for 10 years. Olga works at a small Chinese-owned laundry, ironing clothes. They are poor but extremely proud of their son, Miguel Angel, expecting him to become a civil engineer. Miguel Angel gets good grades in school, was recently elected to the honor society, and is recognized by his teachers as a serious student.

Living in a combat zone of a neighborhood, the family has withdrawn from it. The parents speak very little English. The mother's friends are a mix of Latin Americans, almost all drawn from her church--Olga became a devout Pentecostal after coming to the United States--but the father has only Mexican friends, as does their son. Miguel Angel stays home, playing video games and attending to his school work, rather than risk going outside and getting harassed by gangs. He told a painful story of riding the new bike his parents had given him and being surrounded by gang members who tried to steal it from him. They ripped off a gold chain instead, but ever since he keeps his bike locked up inside the house and does not use it.

Miguel Angel is angrier about experiences of anti-Mexican prejudice he has had in school and elsewhere. The family used to live in an apartment building where Jorge was a resident manager yet was frequently abused by the tenants. One day Miguel Angel's mother came home and found him speechless with rage. He said he could not stand seeing his father insulted so and that he would get a gun and shoot the neighbors. This event led Olga to insist that they move. His father wants Miguel Angel "to be better than [him]" and not work all day and come home exhausted. "No one wants to wash dishes, that's the truth," he says, but he is proud that his family has never been on public assistance. Olga worries that her son does not want to go to church and sometimes talks back loudly; she also worries about Miguel Angel's younger sister, Estela, who is more rebellious and dresses gang style. Miguel Angel, for his part, continues to plan on becoming an engineer, but his biggest worry is economic. Sometimes, he says, it seems that his parents work just to pay the bills and never help him get ahead.

Bennie and Jennifer Montoya: October 1995

The Montoyas live in a predominantly Filipino, middle-class neighborhood in San Diego with their four U.S.-born children and Mrs. Montoya's elderly mother. Their home is well furnished, with a huge television set in the living room. The two oldest children, Bennie and Jennifer, attend different high schools in the San Diego area--but not the one that is closest to their home. Mrs. Montoya says that the neighborhood school is "the worst place to send a child right now," due to the poor quality of the teaching and administrative staff. So the kids have to travel long distances to get to other schools.

The parents both hail from Manila. Mrs. Montoya is a registered nurse--she trained in the Philippines--and works at a local hospital. Mr. Montoya is employed as a manufacturing technician; unlike his wife, he did not finish college, but he says that education is very important. "The Filipino way is to have a good education for [the] kids. The kids can then help their parents. They show the world that they are good parents." Still, he seems ambivalent in his career expectations for the children. He wants them to get good grades in school but does not encourage Bennie (a senior) or Jennifer (a junior) to seek to attend a top university or to go to college outside the San Diego area.

Mrs. Montoya says that her daughter Jennifer has the usual problems of wanting to socialize more, and her grades suffer as a result. "There are gangs anywhere you go, there's drugs anywhere you go, you teach your kids to do what's right and hope that they find good friends, that's all you can really do." Jennifer minimizes those concerns: At her current high school, she said, the kids break down along social lines (socialites, brains, dropouts) rather than ethnic lines, but her junior high was majority Filipino, and social life was shaped by Filipino "gangs," organized by where they lived. "At the time everybody was like 'clique-ing' together; it was totally like a bunch of kids saying, 'We're together now and we'll be called so-and-so.'"

Mr. Montoya is dissatisfied with Bennie's academic performance, which has deteriorated lately despite their efforts to send him to a better school--"I would like that A, if possible." Bennie's GPA in ninth grade was 3.2, but in his junior year he managed only a C average. According to Mr. Montoya, an inability to communicate is one of the difficulties he has with his son. Another problem is "the materialism of the youth in this country. Sometimes Bennie has an attitude, the way he dresses, the expensive things he wants."

Bennie and Jennifer have lost much of their ability to speak the parents' (and grandmother's) native tongue, Tagalog. Ironically, Bennie is now taking Spanish at school even though a Tagalog class was also offered. But Bennie is not motivated and recently received a D in that class. When asked why Bennie cannot speak Tagalog well, his father replies: "They're embarrassed to speak it because they think we're making fun of them." Bennie shrugged and said simply, matter-of-factly, "I do all the customs."

Sophy Keng: November 1987-June 1988

Sophy Keng, an 18-year-old Cambodian girl, had just turned 6 when Phnom Penh fell in 1975 and her life was turned upside down. [note 4] The apartment complex where she now lives is rundown, but numerous Cambodian children are happily running about. Although the complex is shabby, the inside of Sophy's apartment is neat. Despite the obvious poverty of the place, a corner of the living room boasts a stereo system, a color TV set, and pictures of Sophy's roommate and her children.

Sophy's father was of mixed Vietnamese, Chinese, and Khmer ancestry, and her mother was of Thai and Khmer background. In 1974 her father, a soldier, disappeared and was not heard from again. Her mother had been a clerk in Cambodia with about a seventh-grade education. After the Khmer Rouge came, her mother and two siblings were sent along with Sophy to a small village in Cambodia where they stayed until 1979. However, during this time Sophy was separated from her family and forced to work on a farm from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. She was fed only gruel, which consisted of a little rice and water: "Everybody got skinny." One day she was lonely for her mother and left the farm without permission to go see her. When she returned, she was beaten with a branch so severely that she still bears the scars on her back. She witnessed killings and feared for her own life. She recalls the horror of being called out of bed one night and taken to a field with sharp stakes sticking out of holes in the ground. There she saw babies thrown up in the air and impaled to death as they fell onto those stakes.

In 1979, her family fled to Thailand, where they lived in several refugee camps until the early 1980s, when they were resettled in San Diego and sponsored by an American family. When Sophy lived with her mother in San Diego, as she did until recently, her mother received supplemental security income (SSI) cash assistance from the welfare department. But her mother was distraught and had difficulty taking care of her family. Sophy and her younger brother had received cash assistance through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Her older sister stayed in school for a year but dropped out. Her brother was supposed to be in the eighth grade, but at the time we met with Sophy, he was missing after having run away from home. While in high school, Sophy was married unofficially in the Cambodian fashion, got pregnant, and bore a son. Her "husband" has since disappeared. After her baby was born, Sophy moved in with her girlfriend. She doesn't want to move back to her mother's apartment. "At home it's lonely; nobody visits me there." Her mother sends her $100 per month, and her friend helps her out when she can. She is thinking of applying for AFDC herself, but she doesn't know how that is done. She does recall seeing the social worker when she was pregnant but hasn't seen one since then.

She likes school and would like to finish high school. But it's very difficult now with the baby. Her mother is not a reliable resource, so she is often unable to find a baby-sitter during school days, causing Sophy to stay home and thus resulting in school absences. She claims she got good grades before the baby (A's and B's), but this semester it's been all F's. When asked about her career goals, she selected "clerk" because her mother was one and so was her grandfather. But other than this, she has no idea about future occupations. About her adoptive country, she says: "How could I be American? I black skin, black eyes, black hair." She expresses this very emphatically and insisted on defining American in racial terms. When asked about how she has been treated by Americans, she eluded the question but later repeated that "my English not good enough and my skin color black." She speaks Khmer most of the time, though her girlfriend does speak English, and she is seen by the black assistant manager of the apartment complex as the tenant who can speak English best. Sophy is distraught and confused about both her past and her future. Life is something that has happened to Sophy, and she experiences it as largely outside her control.