The Immigrant Experience
Prior to arriving in the boston area almost five years ago, I had heard anecdotally that a significant Brazilian immigrant population had been arriving en masse to the region since the 1980s. I could not have predicted then that, in my progression from observer to volunteer to researcher, participating in and understanding this community would become my main focus for years to come. I have spent most of my life in areas of the United States where I was often one of a few “token Brazilians,” but never lived in proximity to such a concentrated and organized network of Brazilian shops, restaurants and organizations. True, I still remain one of a few Brazilians inside the bounds of my academic world. Yet a quick bus ride to Somerville or across the river to Allston quickly immerses me—or any other visitor—into the world of Brazucas, the name frequently used to refer to (oftentimes undocumented) Brazilian working-class immigrants in the United States.
Antonia is one inhabitant of this world whom I had the pleasure of meeting and who later agreed to participate in my research. At the time of our interview, Antonia was in 8th grade (I’ve changed Antonia’s name, as well as those of other participants, to protect their identities). She told me that she had been in the United States for two years and two months, having turned 13 soon after arriving. Before coming to the United States, she had lived in Salvador (the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia) since the age of 8, but was born in the southeastern state of São Paulo. Antonia emigrated with her mother and her two younger brothers, while her father stayed in Brazil for nine months more, tending to the family business. An uncle who had already been in the United States for eight years received the family upon their arrival in Boston. From her tightly-curled hair down to her Lycra-infused jeans, she would likely be classified as Latino/a or Hispanic by an American, even though she self-identified as White.
Throughout our many interactions, Antonia always came across as talkative and perceptive, characteristics illustrated in her description of coming to the U.S. as an adolescent:
It’s not only the parents that miss Brazil. It’s not only the parents who…miss the heat, who miss their family; we also feel it….I missed my father a lot….I even missed the smell of my bed, when I awoke, of the bird singing by the door to my house. Of my dog barking. Each little detail we miss, because it is different. It’s a different country, it’s a different culture, it’s a different land. The land here has a different smell than it does there…even when you fill a pail with water and then you throw it down the [sink] drain. Have you seen how it turns differently? Here clockwise. In the South counter-clockwise. So, even this is different. Imagine. Each stone, each step that you take. It’s different. So, the things that you were used to, you miss.
Though perhaps more eloquent than other peers her age, Antonia’s immigration story and her perceptions are common to many adolescent Brazilian immigrants in the Boston area. At the same time, however, each immigration experience is unique in its details. Understanding immigrants (like Brazilians) as groups can be useful for the purpose of policy and measurement, but understanding individual experiences helps us to transform these foreign “others” into humans and neighbors. For youths like Antonia, the meaning of coming to the United States as an adolescent Brazilian immigrant varies by how the interplay of these components of identity—being an adolescent, being Brazilian and being an immigrant—defines the experience differently for each newcomer.
Youths who immigrate during their adolescent years are shaped by both cultural systems to which they are exposed: their country of origin (Brazil) and their host country (the United States). As Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco detail in their 2001 book Children of Immigration, these influences create a “dual frame of reference” for immigrants, leading to a constant comparison of the “‘here and now’ with the ‘there and then.’” Adult immigrants may compare both cultures, but their identity is firmly grounded in their native country.
Similarly, while second generation (U.S.-born) youths might share in the language and customs of their parents’ background, their reference is not grounded in personal experience of that country. For youths who immigrate during late childhood or early adolescence, however, their identities are being forged in and by two cultural spheres of influence; these frames act as two mirrors refracting one perspective of what it means to be an immigrant.
While I was too young to remember the first time that I moved from Brazil to the United States, comparisons made by adolescent immigrants like Antonia are not based on abstract images of the past. Instead, they rely on details—like smells and sounds—that highlight what is missing from or different between the two environments. Feelings of loss can be especially poignant for the many youths who experience periods of separation from one or both parents. If memories of past events are shaped by such dualities, so are decisions in the present; as Roberta, a 16-year-old carioca who emigrated a little less than two years earlier from the vicinity of Rio de Janeiro, told me, “when I make a decision, with anything that I do here...I also think there, in Brazil, like ‘Man, if I did this, there in Brazil, would I do the same thing?’” One’s status an adolescent immigrant can be seen as a matter of borders between Nation-States, but becoming an adolescent Brazuca is more about a State of Mind that shifts the meaning of “Brazilian” from being foreign to being American in some ethnic way.
While Antonia and Roberta look similar across many demographic categories like age, undocumented status and age of arrival in the United States, their Brazuca identities are very different. Tipping the scale at the Brazilian end is Roberta, who throughout our interview differentiates between “the Brazilians from Brazil, really, and here, the Brazilians in the United States.” Specifically, Brazilian immigrants are more financially-driven and “only think about money, money, they don’t think about their own families.” Though she immigrated, Roberta does not identify as an immigrant. She doesn’t like the immigrant identity because of how immigrants act and because, as she says, “there’s a big difference… between you, being an immigrant and you living in your country, understand, because I’m not as well treated as an American...I can’t accomplish as many things as an American can.”
Antonia, tipping the scale at the other end, consistently identifies as an immigrant. She certainly is proud of being Brazilian, and indicates that there are characteristics that unite Brazilian immigrants through culture and the necessity of having supports within the community. Still, she feels connected to a broader immigrant experience, telling me that, “when you say immigrant, you’re not just talking about Brazilian. You’re talking about Spanish, you’re talking about Argentine, you’re talking about Italian, you’re talking about Indian….even being different nationalities, different religions, different cultures, there’s that little thing that connects us; we’re immigrants.” Identifying as an immigrant—albeit a Brazilian one—moves Antonia away from a purely national and foreign identity, so that adaptation to and acceptance in the United States become achievable goals for her.
These differences in identity help to explain why youths opt to tell their stories of immigration in a particular way, highlighting gains or losses in the process. Similarly, these differences frame youths’ opinions on which country provides a better life, a choice consistently defined through the educational opportunities that each place can offer. Roberta described her family’s decision to come to the United States as one of the hardest of her life to accept because, at the time, she had received good scores on her exams and had received a scholarship to a good school in Brazil. As she put it, “or you go to a country that is going to help you to learn other languages…or you stay there in Brazil, with the scholarship that you attained yourself. So it was a hard decision because, damn, I fought for what I got, I’m going to lose it…and I did, because I’m here today.”
While Roberta emphasizes her losses, Antonia frames her family’s decision to immigrate as the search for better educational opportunities for the children. She felt that “the middle class in Brazil is going through hardships” brought on by economic instability that forces people to make the choice to leave. One such person was Antonia’s mother who, in the teen’s words, said that in the United States “my children will learn English…They will have a better education. Because, when you learn another language, this opens the doors for you to any job.” In Antonia’s view, having these doors open is valuable “not for the money, but for you being able to do what you want.”
Of course, these individual views on identity and education do not exist in a vacuum but, rather, are influenced by attitudes in the immigrant community and the host society. For all of the immigrant youths that I have met, there is an apparent contradiction between their families’ explicit dialogue of choosing to immigrate for a better life based on education and the explicit or implicit messages sent that financial gain is valued above all. Parents often work long hours at multiple jobs in order to support family members here and back in Brazil. It was not uncommon for me to hear that these schedules sometimes made it impossible for parents to see their children when everyone is awake. And while they may have owned a business or held a college degree in Brazil, as Antonia’s parents did, they now clean houses or carry boxes at their jobs here.
One possible conclusion youths could reach upon seeing their parents’ choices could be that education cannot provide you with a better life, and that it is better to have a lower status job that pays more. Another possible conclusion, one Antonia makes, is to see parents’ lives as motivation to work hard in school; her parents struggle “so that I, one day, don’t do this…so I don’t go through what they’re going through.” But while both Roberta and Antonia see learning English as an educational achievement, I also see many youths in the community who view English as a necessary skill for getting a better-paying job in a fast-food restaurant or retail store; once this is achieved, the need to continue going to school disappears.
Another factor that defines the experience of adolescent Brazilian immigrants are the ramifications of being undocumented in the United States. Even when a youth is a U.S. citizen or has a Green Card, he or she almost always has friends or relatives who do not hold the proper documentation to be here. Historically, most undocumented Brazilians have been tourist visa overstayers whose “Disney World dreams” are used as a means of entry but, post- September 11th, stricter enforcement has driven many Brazilians to attempt the riskier and more costly trip across the U.S.-Mexico border. Youth often carry the weight of these decisions in their daily lives: just last week I spoke to a young man whose happiness over his father’s successful border crossing attempt was tempered by his mother’s recent deportation when trying to re-enter the United States at the airport.
Adolescent Brazilian immigrants may not differentiate between documented and undocumented immigrants, as the two often go hand-in-hand in this community. When Roberta says that she “won’t be able to get a license, now….because I’m not American” or when Antonia tells me that “when you’re an immigrant, you are afraid of doing anything and [the former INS] discovering that you are an immigrant,” they are actually voicing frustrations and fear over being undocumented. State and Federal policies also send mixed messages of belonging to immigrant youth. They are guaranteed a free public education through high school but, once graduated, cannot qualify for college in-state tuition in most states even if they have been in that community since preschool. For these teens, both the present and the future are shrouded in uncertainty.
Not surprisingly, youths’ narratives of past expectations and present experiences tend to align with future plans for living in Brazil or the United States. Roberta’s resistance to coming to the United States has translated into a resistance to incorporating anything ‘American’ or befriending Americans, and into a goal of returning to Brazil:
I don’t want to live here....I’ ll finish my ‘high school,’ and I’ ll go back....This is, what I think, right, because by then many things can change in my thinking, but until today it hasn’t changed.... I don’t like it here, I can’t get used to [being] here….it’s being a very good experience for me but, I miss my country a lot.
Antonia, on the other hand, feels she made the choice to come to the United States and sees her educational opportunities—and her family’s financial opportunities—as having expanded in this country, telling me, “I won’t go back, my life is here.”
One thing is certain: today’s globalized culture allows for greater transnational ties and identifications, so that youths who immigrate don’t necessarily sever communication with or plans of return to their home countries. Roberta’s desire to return to Brazil is made more feasible by the fact that her family is making payments on a house there. Her Boston home, though simple in other respects, does not lack the one commodity that so often suggests a Brazilian family dwells inside: the satellite dish attached to the exterior of the building, transmitting almost simultaneously the news and novelas (soap operas) of Globo TV to Brazil and the United States. Dozens of cheap phone calling cards, electronic messenger services and networking sites like Orkut help to bridge the gap across the ocean like never before, at least psychologically. Only time will tell whether these two girls (and many other adolescent Brazilian immigrants like them) will maintain a Brazilian identity or create their own version of what being Brazuca means.
Leticia J. Braga, a fifth year doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a 2006-2007 Graduate Student Associate at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. Her research interests include adolescent development, immigration, and access to education in Brazil, her native country.