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The Day a Window on Immigrant Life Opened Wide

The heavy Florida humidity filtered through the air conditioner outside Sister Margaret Mary’s office. My labored asthmatic breath left me in a position to simply observe the goings-on of the school secretaries as I waited for my mom to pick me up early from school. Mrs. King or Mrs. Johnson — I don’t remember who — was trying to talk with my classmate’s mother.

I’ll call him Jaime Fernandez. He was in the second grade with me. I’m guessing the teachers and all of us kids pronounced his name Jay-me because the Spanish Hy-me didn’t fit within our English language framework. Given that it was the 1970s in South Florida, Mrs. Fernandez was probably from Cuba, but I don’t know for sure. I wasn’t that close with Jaime and in all the years I knew him, I never thought to ask him where his family was from.

Mrs. Fernandez was fighting back tears at first because she didn’t understand why she was being called to talk with the principal. Something needed to be conveyed. Maybe it was a form she was supposed to fill out; maybe it was an issue Jaime had at school. I didn’t know the particulars. All I knew was that nothing was connecting. The adults in the office only spoke English, and Mrs. Fernandez, from what I could tell, only spoke Spanish.

The conversation quickly escalated in volume, because that’s what people do when they aren’t being heard — they get louder. But nope, that didn’t help. Maybe different phrases or words were tried, but they didn’t get past the tears now forming in Mrs. Fernandez’s eyes. I don’t think my eight-year-old self had seen an adult cry like this. The image of her tensed-up face fighting embarrassment and filled with frustration is seared in my mind. I’m sure I was relieved when my mom came to pick me up.

Fast forward four decades and I’m sitting outside a classroom in Genoa, Italy. My family had just moved there for a year. We wanted to go back to our roots; to see a different part of the world; to give our children and ourselves a second language; and ultimately, it turned out, to experience being “other.” I had stepped out to take a call from a doctor my 10-year old daughter needed to see. The specialist called to tell me what we needed to do in advance of an upcoming appointment.

She didn’t speak English. My more limited Italian didn’t have a robust lexicon of words that included medical terminology and my ears had not quite tuned to the fast pace of native speakers. My stress quickly ratcheted up, along with the embarrassment of my faulty Italian. With each exchange over the phone, I could feel my identity slide one step further into “immigrant,” “second class citizen,” “other.”

I was immediately transported back to Sister Margaret Mary’s office in 1973, only this time I was not in observer mode. This time I could feel the lump in Mrs. Fernandez’s throat. And the tears I saw in her eyes then, became steady waterworks streaming from my eyes and nose in 2013. It was not a pretty sight.

As the doctor tried to explain what tests she was ordering, I haltingly countered in my inadequate Italian. Predictably, we got louder with each exchange. But that couldn’t get us past the hurdle of unknown vocabulary words. The conversation only served to increase my stress and my fear that I was failing my daughter. Any attempt to save face in front of the students or teachers milling about the language school in Genoa was completely abandoned.

It didn’t matter that I had a college education from a respected university in the US. It didn’t matter that I came from a “good” family, or that I was raising good children. It didn’t even matter that we had resources and weren’t seeking any kind of State assistance in Italy. We were Other, and we did not easily flow with the familiar rhythm of the way things were done there.

In that one phone call with the Italian doctor I better understood the masses of immigrants who had come to my own country since its inception:

I fully grasped why they required special services — and how government agencies and nonprofits filled that need.

I realized why it was hard to assimilate, and how it might take a generation or two for a family to really feel woven into the fabric of the culture.

I felt in my bones how a constant sense of insecurity was pervasive: “Was I understood?” “Will my child get what she needs?” “Do we have what it takes to live in this country?”

And I got how despite 20+ years of language study, all it takes is one highly stressful situation with a few unfamiliar vocabulary words, and it can quickly go to hell in a handbasket.

I see now that the immigrant “Mrs. Fernandezes” of the world have a fortitude that doesn’t get recognized except as a mistaken sense of shame. Add in any financial or legal struggles and the burden they bear leaves little room left for ease, putting their children at increased risk for a variety of problems. And those who manage to put their kids through college despite the un-ease deserve a medal. But the reward they get is simply their own inner sense of pride — something those of us in the dominant culture enjoy as a default, without even realizing it.

No one would choose to have that awkward, stressful phone call with the doctor like I had. But it was our choice to live as immigrants in a foreign country, however temporary. And I would do that again in a heartbeat. Not only did it expand our affection for another part of the planet, but it also expanded our empathy for those in our own backyard. Imagine how much better this world would be if everyone could see life through the eyes of Other.

In the interest of creating that better world (and not just imagining it) I found the perfect nonprofit to address immigrant struggles here in the US. Learn more in Becoming People Who Help Immigrants Thrive.

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