The Immigrant’s Odyssey

Trauma, Loss, and the Promise of Healing

Magazine Issue
March/April 2017
A girl looks at the camera from behind a fence

One of the joys of compiling our 40th anniversary issue a few months ago was coming across so many gems from our archives that we were able to reprint and share. And then there were some that we couldn’t quite fit in but that deserved attention, including the following article on an issue that’s very much still with us—immigration and the immigrant experience, which recent events have only brought further into our collective awareness.

It was toward the end of 1988—summer in Argentina—when a friend suggested over supper that my husband and I take our preschool children and emigrate to the United States. The economic situation in our country seemed truly hopeless: radically unstable currency and terrible inflation, disappearing consumer goods, and increasing poverty. Our friend, a medical doctor in Argentina, had recently married a US-born woman and immigrated to New York. In the US, he couldn’t work as a physician. But within a few months, he was employed making deliveries for a catering service, and—in spite of the presumed drop in status—had discovered the benefits of getting paid on time in a stable currency that allowed him to afford his rent every month without sacrificing on other essentials, like food, clothes, and transportation.

My husband was in law school, and I was approaching graduation in a university psychology program, but we had few prospects in Argentina. Higher education was and is free there, so anyone without a job or much income can pursue professional studies. This produces a surfeit of professionals in a sinking economy. In Córdoba, for example, where we attended the university, there was a lawyer for every 5 people, a medical doctor for every 10. The middle class in Argentina was disappearing. Simply getting shoes for our children, books for our graduate studies, and rent money every month had turned into a nightmare that didn’t seem likely to end anytime soon.

That same night, we made the decision. There was no time to evaluate pros and cons, no time for contemplation of family ties, and no fears or doubts. Here was our opportunity, and we had to seize it. We didn’t think much about the risks—nothing in a remote country, we thought, could possibly be worse than the reality in our own. A couple of months later, my husband arrived in New York, and 11 months after, my children and I followed.

As children of first- and second-generation immigrants ourselves, growing up in a country where most of the population has at least one Italian, Spanish, German, Turkish, or Japanese grandparent, we didn’t find it difficult to think of migration as a means of improving our lives. Once in the United States, my husband worked a series of jobs—dishwasher, delivery person, cook, driver—seven days a week, sometimes for 14 to 16 hours a day for the minimum wage. Seven years after coming here, he was driving a limousine for an affluent businessman. But even before this stroke of luck, what might sound like meager employment represented a significant financial improvement for us. Even with a budget that allowed for no luxuries, we could pay our rent and other bills, buy food and clothing, and still send money to our relatives back home.

Yet there were immediate problems. I spoke little English, and my immigration status was uncertain—we had only temporary visas, and the possibility of obtaining permanent-residence status was remote. This meant that I couldn’t continue my education. We were raising our children without the support of the extended network of family, friends, and neighbors that’s the norm in Latin American countries, while navigating a new culture with multiple new systems—education, housing, employment, community, shopping, transportation—all the while trying to “fit in” and not make waves. During those early years, I stayed home and took care of my children because we didn’t know anybody we could trust to take care of them. Besides, we thought that being in a foreign country among unfamiliar people speaking an unknown language was hard enough for them without putting them in the care of strangers.

Looking back, I think I was lonely. I did have one friend, who had come with us from Argentina, but she was busy most of the time, so I saw little of her and spent a lot of time by myself while my children were in school. I even stopped smoking cigarettes, which I’d always associated with social life in Argentina. During that time, I did a lot of walking. I never took a dictionary with me when I ventured out, so I would memorize words I read on street signs and stores and then look them up at home. I visited local libraries and analyzed everything I saw, trying to understand the culture I was embedding myself in. I watched three TV news channels every night, finally understanding something of what I was hearing by the time I got to the third. My brain was like a sponge—I tried to learn everything that crossed my path. I don’t think I’ll ever again have that kind of energy and voracious curiosity. The worst part was being an adult (I was 26 when we came) and feeling so infantilized when I lacked the words to express myself.

The Sacrifices of Immigration

Immigrants come with a store of knowledge, experiences, and family history that have delineated their position in the home society and given them their sense of personal identity. Often much of this familiar identity is lost in the new country, particularly when they must sacrifice their old social and professional status to survive. For example, one lawyer I know from Colombia works as a teacher’s aide in a New York suburban high school. Professional engineers in South America work as construction laborers here. A psychology student in her native Bolivia is cleaning houses in New York City.

Finding work wasn’t easy for me. At first, I taught Spanish language and Latin American culture on Saturdays in the independent school my children attended so they’d stay connected with our cultural roots. Then everything changed in January 1996. In an effort to get my family’s legal status resolved, I visited a nonprofit immigrant agency led by Don Gomez, a prominent community organizer from Colombia, to get information—and I left with a job as an immigration consultant in his agency.

At this agency, I began working closely with people like me, who faced legal problems related to unresolved immigration status, as well as the pain of family separation, financial vicissitudes, the challenges of adjusting to their new environment, and the emotional upheavals resulting from all these difficulties. Most of these clients had arrived here in the late ’80s and early ’90s undocumented, but had found a way to legalize their status, either by marriage, long-standing work-related visas, or relatives’ petitions. Many of them were sharing their immigration experiences with another person for the first time since their arrival. Although most of the stories were deeply traumatic, and relayed through tears, the act of telling them clearly brought my clients great relief.

Magdalena, for example, was 14 years old when she left her native Venezuela with her aunt. From Mexico, she continued alone on the journey to the US to reunite with her mother, whom she’d never met. On her way here, walking across the desert—probably with smugglers—she was raped twice and escaped a third attempt by running away and jumping over a cliff. She told me that she’d decided she’d rather die in her leap than face another attack. Instead, she survived the jump, stood up, and continued walking until she finally made it to her mother’s home. But the emotional cost was terrible. “I wish I could look back and erase parts of my life,” she told me. “I found my mother, but lost my childhood. I feel I lost myself in the voyage.”

Jorgito, a six-year-old boy from Honduras, came to the US to meet his parents, who’d left him under the care of his grandparents as a three-month-old baby and were now financially able to reunite the family. Somehow, on his way to the States, he was lost, nobody knew where or how. After a month, his parents in New York City traced him: he’d been found at Chicago International Airport and placed in a foster home by social services. Even though he finally made it home to his parents, the terror and loneliness of the episode left him deeply traumatized. Three years later, he still couldn’t talk.

Pedro, a middle-aged father of six, traveled part of the way from Ecuador to the States in a small boat with nearly 30 other people—but with no food, water, or toilet—before making the rest of the journey by foot. He was picked up and sent back by the border patrol several times, but always managed to return. Now, many years later, he’s an engineer in this country, who’s managed to send enough money home to put several of his children through school and college.

Listening to these clients and hearing their appreciation for whatever help I could give them convinced me that if I completed my education and became a psychotherapist, I could help them even more, while contributing something to the country that had embraced me. It also became clearer that we immigrants need help in creating a space within ourselves for incorporating the transforming experiences we undergo. It can be extremely challenging, for instance, to find a balance between acknowledging and accepting the very real losses (immigrants often work at not thinking about what they’ve lost) and embracing our accomplishments and victories. Family therapist Pauline Boss’s concept of “ambiguous loss” fits the immigrant’s situation well. You know that you’re no longer who you were or who you wanted to be, but somebody else. This “somebody else” may be better than the person you would’ve become had you not immigrated to a new country, but there’s still a bittersweet sense of loss.

As a therapist today, I can see the beginning of my journey reflected in the narratives of the immigrants I see in my practice. With empty hands, but full of energy and plenty of dreams, many of us arrive in the United States hoping for better times. But the immigrant families I work with tend not to explore many of the possibilities offered by their new country—in education, economic and financial opportunities, labor rights, social life, and recreation—partly because they’re dealing with basic survival and have the sense that everything is temporary. They often feel that they can never get ahead enough to settle down, become truly at home, and begin seeking some personal fulfillment.

For some, their perpetually “temporary” state here means that their sense of “home” is tangled and complicated. They may wish to someday return to their native country and grow old there, even though there’s no realistic possibility that they’ll ever do so. Other immigrants don’t dream about going home as much as have nightmares of being forced there. Some face impending deportation procedures and live not knowing whether they might wake up the next day in their bed, in custody, or even back in their home country, regardless of the often horrific circumstances from which they’ve fled. I can vividly remember the bad dreams I used to have in which I was being forced to return to my native country without work, without status, without a future. In the therapy room, my clients recall those nightmares, too.

For people who are afraid of what the future holds, living purely in the present moment keeps them from falling apart. Detaching themselves from their emotions and not thinking too much about what they’ve been through or what they’ve left behind allows them to get through each day. What keeps them going is the thought that they’re helping their distant families now and that someday there will be enough money to bring them here. They also dream that one day a general amnesty will allow them to stay here legally, to get some recognition and entitlements, and to be welcomed and respected for the hard work they perform.

Dealing with Feelings of Loss

In my experience, we immigrants suffer four basic losses: a loss of mastery over surroundings, a concrete loss of family networks, a critical loss of language, and an erosive loss of everyday life. These losses give our existence a chronic sense of never quite belonging anywhere.

Take loss of mastery. Mercedes, a Salvadorian single mother of four, attended a parent–teacher conference requested by her daughter’s high school teacher because the girl wasn’t doing well in school. I interpreted the meeting for Mercedes, who speaks little English. During the course of the meeting, she pleaded with her daughter to apply herself and improve her performance. “My child,” she said, “you know English and can defend yourself. You can express your feelings and thoughts. Look at me: it’s been my experience that most of the time, I can’t say what I feel, and it stays within me. I feel it stays inside me forever! It’s very painful, even today.” Mercedes’s words convey a sense of intangible loss. Unlike tangible losses, like family and income, loss of mastery causes a silent, persistent grief in a society that consistently devalues those who are different or don’t measure up to mainstream standards of language or cultural proficiency. Loss of mastery creates an internal shame, which often silences the real self and renders the person essentially powerless and voiceless.

Loss of family networks, the second major loss, can have profound and unexpected consequences, even when immigrants struggle to maintain old ties. Emilia and Estela are sisters, 19 and 18 years old, who came here three years ago from Central America. After their mother had left for this country, 16 years ago, they were raised by their grandparents. While in the US, their mother got married and had two other children, now 14 and 7. Like many immigrants, she lived a life oriented toward bare survival, focusing almost entirely on work while minimizing and suppressing her own pain and suffering. Even though she visited Emilia and Estela a few times, their relationship was held together by phone conversations, monetary support, and the dream that they’d be reunited at some point.

Emilia and Estela are now in high school here, struggling with the language and cultural differences that at times make them regret having come at all. Emilia spoke about their painful realization that time and distance have distorted their mother–daughter relationship: “The woman we knew in Nicaragua was a different one,” she explained. “She visited us from the US two or three times, and we saw her happy and loving. The woman we encountered here is another one—we don’t know her. She sees a big difference between us and her other children who were born here. We think she didn’t see us growing up and that’s why she doesn’t feel for us what she feels for the other two she raised.” As is the case with many other immigrants, Emilia and Estela’s experience has been deeply affected by the time and space fragmenting their family and interrupting its normal life cycle.

A third major loss—loss of language—promotes a sense of insecurity, inadequacy, and low self-esteem, and can have far-reaching negative psychological effects. During a school counseling session, Carla, an 18-year-old Guatemalan girl, was asked about her experience so far in a US high school. She became suddenly emotional and disclosed how painful every day of her life had become since she entered the school after her arrival here. “First of all, everyone sees me as garbage. That’s how I feel sometimes,” she said. “It’s hard, very hard. I try my best to understand, and I surprise myself how much I try, but it’s never enough. My classmates look at me badly no matter what I do. I feel they get frustrated with me because I don’t speak well, like I don’t know what I’m talking about. I have no voice anymore.”

Loss of the normal patterns of existence that comprise daily life in their native country is another type of loss that deeply affects immigrants. Cristian and Evangelina are two middle school students from a small town in Peru where wild flowers, warm rivers, and high mountains were their everyday landscape. During the group counseling sessions I run at their school, they always drew colored pictures of those landscapes and talked about their life in their hometown. “Every day after school I rode my bicycle to the river and swam for hours before going home to my grandmother,” Cristian remembered. “Here, I take the bus home to no one because my mom works until late, eat something, do homework, and watch TV.” Evangelina recalled, “I used to spend a lot of time with my friends because we did a lot of walking to and from school every day. We’d walk for an hour and play outside. It was a lot of fun. I don’t really have many friends here. Besides, we all live blocks away from each other and my parents say it’s dangerous to play outside.” Differences in lifestyles, foods, climate, after-school activities, geography, kinship, child care, social networks, and support are, indeed, the parts of the everyday life that provide us with a sense of belonging. Without them, we become foreigners in a foreign land.

A Nation of Immigrants at Odds with Itself

After coming the States, I began to believe that what allowed me to persevere was my determination not to be slowed down or defeated by self-limiting attitudes arising from practical difficulties. I refused to say “I can’t” or “This is impossible for me because I don’t speak English” or “I’ll not ever be able to pursue professional studies.” I refused to allow myself to be intimidated: by other people, by the systems I had to deal with (Immigration Services, for example), by the thought of writing an academic paper in a foreign language, or even the prospect of treating English-speaking clients in therapy. In fact, I think the experiences of being an immigrant have given me a sense of self-realization that I might not have acquired otherwise. Becoming familiar with a new culture, learning a new language, finding mentors in the States—all this has allowed me to find pride and joy in my own transformation.

Yet at times, like so many of the immigrants and clients I know, particularly those whose immigration status is ambiguous or undocumented, I’ve experienced a chronic state of hypervigilance, an alertness to danger and possible catastrophe that can be debilitating. My clients live in that state above all, often due to the real fear that la migra—slang for immigration authorities—can completely alter their lives at a moment’s notice, even if they were brought to the States as small children and have lived there for most of their lives.

Of course, even after several revisions, immigration laws continue to benefit just a few privileged people—based on their country of origin, education, social class, and family migration status in the US. Every year, Immigration Services offers a “visa lottery,” which has educational and nationality limitations, and leaves out certain countries—including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, India—because the US is considered already “overpopulated” by these nationalities. Immigrants from some countries, including India and the Philippines, wait longer for permanent residence papers (green cards) than immigrants from other countries. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ever-changing policies.

Nonetheless, for most people, the immigration journey gradually brings about the realization that there’s a vast disconnect between the fantasy of a better future and the reality of being an alien in an unwelcoming land. And yet immigrants stay in spite of their disappointments. Often, they have no choice. It may be too late to turn back—religious, political, and social persecution might rule out the possibility of returning, for instance.

Sadly, in a society abounding with immigrants, there’s still a subtle (and at times painfully obvious) sense that being foreign born, speaking a different language, and adhering to different cultural values are negative characteristics. Our way of speaking sounds unfamiliar and is often perceived as unattractive and flawed. The common expression that we speak “broken English,” and classes offering “accent correction,” can make us feel that we’re somehow “broken” and need repair. For the last 18 years, I’ve found myself responding to the same question—“You have an accent. Where do you come from?”—making me feel that I must explain myself every time I meet someone. Many people are just curious, but it becomes exhausting after a while, particularly because I usually have to follow up my answer with “but I live here now.”

The Healing Work: Self-Reconciliation

Today, therapists are much more likely than they were decades ago to take into consideration the ways that race, class, gender, and culture powerfully affect individual psychology and family relationships. However, we still tend to neglect exploring the various immigration experiences to discover how they’ve transformed the inner world of our immigrant clients. Only by understanding their aspirations and validating the difficulties of their journey can we help them find a healing place from which to move forward. As much or more than any other client population, immigrants—living in this hostile social and legal climate—need a therapeutic breathing space for reconciling the different parts of themselves and finding a sense of peace. This work is important not just for them, but for their families—and communities at large.

Remember Emilia and Estela, the sisters who felt their mother was rejecting them in favor of her two daughters who were born in the States? Meeting with the mother helped me understand how she could be so emotionally connected to her daughters when she visited them in Nicaragua and so apparently disconnected from them in this country. Immigrating to the States had meant losing the part of herself that was valued as a mother and a member of her close-knit family and community. In her journey of transformation, she’d felt compelled to suppress this pain in order to devote herself completely to working in the US on behalf of the family she’d left behind. So I gently invited her to access the place within herself where she still kept hidden the pain of separating from her firstborn children and, at the same time, acknowledge the joy of having been able to reunite with them. The therapeutic work we did together involved helping her connect with these seemingly disparate aspects of her journey—the loss and the gain, the trauma of the separation and the victory of the reunion. It involved helping her tap into a sense of personal agency, feel the importance of all she’d done for her family, and celebrate her accomplishments. Cultivating this sense of pride, sharing her story with her children, and listening to theirs would help bring the family together and heal.

For Mercedes (the mother who couldn’t advocate for her child because of her inadequate English) and Cristian and Evangelina (the young girls who longed for their beautiful, rural Peruvian landscape of flowers and warm rivers), it was necessary to work through their grief at having lost their sense of belonging to a community and a culture, as well as having lost the old sense of mastery over their surroundings. To ground themselves in their new, unfamiliar terrain, they needed to develop a new kind of compass for measuring personal mastery and self-worth.

In my personal experience as an immigrant and my professional experience working with immigrants, I know that in our new world, we need to create room to hold the two realities—what has been lost and what has been gained. It isn’t that the accomplishments replace the losses—they don’t—but the two go hand in hand and, considered together, help make the immigrant feel more whole.

As for me, looking back always brings mixed feelings. After I left Argentina, I never saw my mother again. I can’t spend a lot of quality time with family and friends who live in my home country: phone conversations don’t make up for physical absence. Yet I see myself writing this article in my second language and feel accomplished.

Recently, after visiting Argentina, my 25-year-old daughter said how grateful she is for our decision to leave 20 years ago. She told me that the trip made her realize all the opportunities she had here. “Seeing how my life is now and knowing how it could’ve been if we’d stayed makes me appreciate how hard you struggled and how much I’ve taken for granted,” she said. Her words were deeply satisfying to me.

Of course, there will still be more transitions and adjustments in my life, more immigrant experiences I’ll have to absorb. My grandchildren, for instance, won’t speak Spanish as their mother tongue—we’ll have to take pains to instill it in them. This is no tragedy, but it brings me a little pang of sadness nonetheless. Meanwhile, they—with their native-born Argentine grandparents and parents—will live in two worlds, though the worlds aren’t as far apart as the two my husband and I had to bring into a single orbit.The journey of the immigrant begins with a dream—a dream of a better life for us, a better future for our children. Along the way, there will be trauma and loss that transform our lives and reorganize our world, which will need to be explored and healed if we’re to reconcile the divided parts of ourselves and thrive. Creating a space for stories of loss, suffering, and survival in the therapy room gives meaning to the journey. Embracing the story and exploring the dichotomy between the cultural self—who one is in one’s native land—and the everyday social self—who one is or becomes in the new land—are critical to helping immigrants bridge the great divide in their lives.


Photo © Jonathan Kim

Priska Imberti

Priska Imberti, LCSW-R, BCC, is a bilingual and bicultural family therapist. She’s the founder and director of CRECER, Inc., a psychotherapy center that provides comprehensive psychotherapy and psychoeducational services to the community, focusing on immigrant issues.