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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This blog is excerpted from "The Immigrant's Odyssey" by Priska Imberti. The full version is available in the March/April 2017 issue, Round Hole, Square Peg: If It Doesn't Fit, Don't Force It.
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