When asked why she had emigrated to the United States from Nicaragua, a friend once told me, “Someone in my family — an aunt, an uncle, a cousin — has always gone north [to the U.S.] to work, to earn a decent salary and to send money back home to help support the rest of us. Especially the children, so they can stay in school and get a good education, and the ancianos who are getting older and can no longer earn a living. It was my turn, and I came.”
It is sometimes difficult for us in the U.S. to understand what compels Latino immigrants to come here, to leave behind their families and everything familiar, to come to a new place and start over. But these decisions are deeply rooted in cultural values and meaning, and a worldview that is often quite different from our own. The decision to emigrate is rarely just about what an individual wants from life. It more likely is made out of a sense of responsibility to do what is best for others, for one’s spouse, children, and parents. For North Americans, what may seem like a selfish decision to abandon one’s family is, to the immigrant, an act of self sacrifice to care for those he or she loves.
A starting point for understanding differences in worldview and culture is to look at the way we raise and socialize our children. As Americans, we value independence and self-sufficiency. White anglo parents emphasize self-esteem, autonomy, and self-confidence, while traditional Latino parents tend to place more emphasis on respect, obedience, conformity, and one’s place within the family. The most important message my parents instilled in me was this:You can go anywhere you want, be anything you want to be. And for my Latina friend, that message was:Never forget where you come from, or who you are.
And so when my friend says it was her turn to come to the US, her decision was not based on a selfish desire to come here and get a good job, buy a car, or live in a nice house. It was made because of her sense of responsibility to la familia, a way of giving back to those who enabled her to finish school and attend the university. Many immigrants cannot find work in their home countries to adequately provide for their families, and emigration is seen as their only hope.
As you hear the stories of Latino immigrants, take a moment to stop and ask yourself how that person fits into the bigger picture, into their familia. Did they embark on the journey to the U.S. as an adventure, an escape, or to get away from home? And what are they giving up? They may never see their parents alive again, and their children grow up without them. What sacrifices have they made, what losses have they experienced along the way?