At first, America was a puzzle. I had to figure it out and find a way to fit myself into it. The pieces were made up of various aspects of life: language, customs, friendships. Because I spoke no words in English, I could not grasp where to start. So, at school, I would mimic kids and try to gather clues from the teachers body language. At a store, I’d listen to how a mom or dad responded to a clerk’s hello. All the while, the overwhelming feeling was that I was an outsider in this country. I knew that I was not wanted, here, and that at any moment, I could be deported.
Slowly, I learned to communicate in English and came to adjust to American daily life: peanut butter sandwiches, kickball and Happy Days on television. However, no matter how much I advanced, there was always a kid who would call me wetback or make fun of me if I spoke in Spanish. By high school, those kids moved on from such vocal prejudice, but inside, I was still the foreigner. I hung out with US-born teenagers. Most of us were in AP classes. I enjoyed advanced math, physics, art and literature. By the time I graduated from Madera High, I was fluent in three languages. Yet, no academic accomplishment expunged my illegal status. I finished high school with a degree of fear because I didn’t know what real opportunities there would be for me, though things looked promising for the first time since we arrived thirteen years earlier.
The Amnesty Law of 1986 passed as I began my senior year of high school. Though my father easily qualified, it still took three years of paperwork and waiting before we finally received our “green cards.” On April 9, 1989, I had my own card, in my hand. This was greater than my high school diploma, two years earlier. It was more exciting than my drivers license. This meant that for the first time, since 1974, where I stood, I had permission to stand and to walk anywhere without being a foreigner. I felt American.
I thought I’d ask others when is the first time that they felt American.
Fernando Jiménez, Mexico, United States Postal Service employee & musician
“When I was able to read! It was in the later part of first grade,” he says.
Fernando was already a permanent legal resident. In kindergarten, he began to speak English enough to get by in the classroom. First grade proved to be a greater challenge because reading and writing was a more complex way in which to communicate than through spoken words.
“We lived in Arizona. I was in the back seat and my parents were in the front. I began looking at billboards as we rode past them. Suddenly, I was able to make out the words. There was a billboard for car insurance and the next was for a strip club,” he shares. “I exclaimed, ‘I can read!'”
He says that his parents were happy, of course, but were unaware of how this skill impacted young Fernando.
Angie Livesay, Mexico, employed at Fresno Superior Court
Angie had a different experience than Fernando. Though she also arrived in the US as a child, it took a tragic event, many years later, to spur the feeling of being an American.
“9-11 made me feel like we were all one nation. For the first time, I felt a euphoria about being American,” she admits.
Before then, Angie says that she had simply was a member of the community. She didn’t feel unwelcome in the country but didn’t experience any sort of feverish nationalism either. The attacks on that terrible day changed this.
“It made me connect with the country and feel as we were one, in a way that I had not experienced before.”
Ani Chimichian, Israel, retired book editor
“When Obama was voted president,” remembers Ani. “I was in London on a business trip. It was Remembrance Day and most people wore a red poppy as is the custom. The Brits showed great happiness for everyone who was American because Obama represented great hope. And I never imagined that I’d see a black man in the White House, during my lifetime.”
Mario Echevere, Bolivia, auto mechanic
“I was twenty-six when I got my green card. For a week, it didn’t seem real. I was in a sort of shock,” recounts Mario, via a phone conversation. Mario’s first and only entry to the US was legally, with a student visa. He overstayed and then married a US citizen with whom he’s raising a family, in Southern California.
“What snapped me out of that shock was an accident on the road. I witnessed it and stopped to help. When a police officer asked me for my identification, I opened my wallet. My green card was on top of my driver’s license. The officer noticed it and asked where I was born. I replied, ‘Bolivia,’ and he said, ‘I’m glad you’re here.'”
These responses are fascinating to me and I hope that you also find them interesting. Changing how we think of ourselves, as an immigrant, entails far more than paperwork. It is a deep-rooted issue of identity. It also carries questions that we continuously must answer. How much did we leave behind? How much of is now, here? When do we finally feel a part of this country?
In late September, I’ll revisit this same question with others who make the United States their new home. In the meantime, feel free to leave a question or comment below.