E.J.’s Immigration Story – Pasay, the Philippines to Anchorage, Alaska

“Our people have proved our resilience over and over again throughout history. The issue is not our resilience – the issue is oppression. Our resiliency is not permission for others to keep oppressing us.”

Jeepneys

One of E.J.’s earliest memories is of his dad driving a jeepney in Manila. Jeepneys are remnants of America’s military presence in the Philippines. They were left by Americans, modified by Filipinos, and are now the country’s primary form of public transportation. Starting at three years of age, E.J. worked as his father’s “barker” (the person sitting up front in the jeepney barking out to possible passengers on the street where they’re headed). He specifically remembers yelling out ‘highway, highway, highway!’.” (audio below)

E.J., his older sister, and their parents lived in a little shack with a bathroom, a kitchen, and a bedroom, where they all slept in one bed. But when E.J. turned four, his father moved to the United States to find work. By the time E.J. turned six, his family built a house in Las Piñas, a nice suburb of Manila, with the money his father sent home.

A lot changed in E.J.’s life at age nine when his parents divorced.

“A lot of the responsibility for trying to better my family fell onto me because it was my dad who left. I took that to heart, and I wanted to help my mom.”

USA is Better

From an early age, E.J. learned that the United States is a better country than the Philippines. E.J’s mother used to take him once a month to buy an action figure from the toy store. The price of almost every toy was negotiable, but his favorite, the American G.I. Joe was not. E.J says his mother, “the best bargainer in the world,” would try each month to bargain down the G.I Joe price, but she never won. All the sellers had to tell her was that the toy came from the USA. (audio below)

The idea stuck with E.J. – everywhere else has a lower value than the United States.

“The message I received as a kid is that anything made in the USA is more valuable, more precious, and better than anything made in the Philippines.”

Pizza & Honey Buckets

After leaving the Philippines, E.J.’s father settled in Barrow (as of 2016 it is Utqiagvik), Alaska, remarried, and started a second family. He worked at the post office, as a cab driver, and at a pizza place. E.J. remembers that job because whenever his father returned to visit them, he would make delicious pizza. After that job, his father drove the town truck that retrieved “honey buckets” (sewage). 

“Disposing of human waste was the job that helped my family a lot.

Carrying Crucifixes

At 14, E.J.’s parents decided to send him and his little brother to Barrow to join their father. E.J. remembers feeling excited – especially about a trip to Disneyland and Universal Studios – but he was also unhappy to leave his mother behind. 

“My mom put her two very young children on a plane to cross the Pacific Ocean and go to a place she had never seen before. She didn’t even know if she would ever see it! She did this just because life would be better for my brother and me. That was a big sacrifice for my mother. In the back of my mind, I didn’t know when I would see my mom again, if ever?”

Aside from their checked bags, E.J. and his brother each carried a four-foot-tall crucifix as carry-on luggage. His dad had requested these from Pampanga, his home province – one for his house and one for the local Catholic Church in Alaska. 

 “We were walking in airports and onto airplanes carrying crucifixes all the way to Barrow, Alaska. It’s funny, but also symbolic. We were literally carrying crosses on our backs.” (audio below)

Los Angeles vs. Barrow

E.J. and his brother first arrived in Los Angeles, where their aunt lived. Even though their stay was short, she took them to Disneyland and Universal Studios. This initial experience set the bar high for what E.J. expected from this new life in the United States. 

Barrow, Alaska contrasted drastically with Los Angeles, California – no paved roads and wooden buildings that sat on stilts to avoid melting the permafrost. E.J.’s dad took him for a drive around the remote town of about four thousand people. E.J. asked to go to the city to get some clothes. His father informed him that the only way in and out of Barrow is by plane! 

Above: E.J. wearing #34, the jersey of Pamiuq, his late best friend.

Basketball

E.J.’s dream growing up in the Philippines was to one day become a professional basketball player. He believed it was the one way he could make enough money to help his mom. Luckily, basketball is popular in Barrow, and this helped E.J. adjust to life in the United States. 

“Basketball kept me straight, away from trouble, and it gave me something to dream about. Basketball forced me to stay in school. To do well enough in my classes that I could remain eligible to play ball. In the process, I ended up doing pretty good in school!” (audio below)

Above: Junior year with his basketball teammates

Margaret

E.J. had been going to an all-boys school in the Philippines, but when he started middle school in Barrow, he had girls in his class. It didn’t take long before he noticed Margaret, who is Koyukon Athabascan (indigenous to Alaska). E.J. knows that Margaret’s fair-skin increased his initial attraction to her. 

“I thought I was going to marry her, and we were going to have light-skinned kids together, and I could show them off to my Filipino family.”

Today E.J. recognizes the problematic origins of where the attraction to pale skins comes from.

“I grew up in the Philippines in a context where anything American is better than anything Filipino and being American is equated to being white, and anyone who is lighter skin is more attractive than dark skin folks. I grew up in a context when people were using skin whitening products – soap and bleach. People tell you not to go in the sun, and skin whitening clinics are everywhere.” (audio below)

They talked for the first time when E.J. asked to walk Margaret home. She let him walk her to the corner of the street, but no farther. E.J. reflects and laughs, “She didn’t want me to know where she lived!” E.J. and Margaret dated for a few years, broke up, then got back together in their senior year of high school. They’ve been together ever since.

The Santo Niño

Two years after arriving in the United States, E.J. and his brother went to the Philippines to visit their mother. His brother decided he didn’t want to leave. The Santo Niño (Santo Niño de Palaboy) has always been important to E.J.’s mother. She prayed to it for a child, and then became pregnant with E.J. Then before E.J. left the Philippines the second time, she gave him a Santo Niño de Palaboy (known to watch over the homeless and those with nowhere to go) [see the above photo]. She hoped it would take care of her 16-year-old son, who was leaving her again, but this time without his brother. (audio below)

Homeless

E.J found it hard to live in his father’s house in Barrow, with his stepmom and step-siblings. He felt a lot of anger towards his father and consequently only went home when he had nowhere else to go.

“I ran away a lot and slept in friends’ homes and on couches. I spent my entire senior year of high school sleeping on my friends’ floorI really didn’t have a home. Basketball was my home.”

 Above: E.J.’s birthday with his dad and two of his three half-siblings in Barrow

Filipino

After arriving in Barrow, E.J. tried to become as American as possible. He watched a lot of Boy Meets World and Saved By the Bell  – where he got a lot of ideas about how an American teenager should be. But Barrow, due to the Utqiagvik indigenous community, was different than the America depicted on these shows. Ironically, while watching this proud community resist the erasure of their language and culture, E.J. was trying to rid himself of his.

“Not only did I literally leave my country, but now that I’m here, trying to erase or hide the little bits or pieces that are hanging on to me. It got to the point where I was discriminating against other Filipinos.” (audio below)

In his junior year of high school, someone left an anonymous message on his locker: “You are Filipino. Act like it!” E.J. knew that they had a point and started to reflect on his behavior towards other Filipinos. He realized he was trying to lose his “Filipino-ness” when most of his family and friends lived in the Philippines.

“Have I abandoned them? Have I forgotten them? Why was I trying so hard to get rid of my accent and be ‘American’?” (audio below)

Without the questions that this note spawned, E.J. wouldn’t be doing the academic work he does today. 

Alaskan Myths

E.J. knows that there are a lot of myths about Alaska. 

“We don’t live in igloos, or swim with whales, or hang out with polar bears!” 

One predominant myth E.J. often comes across is that Alaska isn’t a multicultural state. He explains how it is diverse not only because of immigrants but also because of the different indigenous groups in Alaska. Anchorage is exceptionally diverse. Some studies say the most diverse neighborhood in the country is in East Side, Anchorage.

Filipinos are the largest immigrant group in Alaska, and also the largest undocumented population in Alaska. E.J. explains how Filipinos have an expression for their undocumented population – “TNT” (Tago Ng Tago) – which translates to “always hiding.” 

“Filipinos are virtually invisible when it comes to the national conversation about immigration and undocumented immigration.” (audio below)

E.J. believes many Filipinos aren’t vocal about this situation because they want to remain under the radar. Their priority is to continue being in the United States and supporting their family – not change laws.

Above: E.J. wearing the uniform of his best friend Pamiuq. E.J. put it on, thinking he would have a uniform of his own soon.

Lucky Timing

E.J. didn’t grow up with a plan to go to college. As his dreams of playing professional basketball faded, and he found himself needing money, he enlisted in the U.S. Army after his junior year in high school. He planned to fly to Alabama and start basic training after graduation. 

In E.J’s senior year, Alaska started a program where full scholarships to the University of Alaska were offered to the top ten percent of the state’s graduating class. E.J. found himself in that top ten percent and in a position he could never have imagined. He decided not to attend basic training, as planned, and instead started studying psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“I fell in love with psychology because it was helping me with my personal struggles. In eight years, I went from not going to college, to having a Ph.D.!”

Academia

E.J. works as an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His focus is on the effect colonialism has on how people think about themselves, their culture, and their mental health. 

“I turned my personal experience into a career.”

Internalized oppression” is central to E.J.’s research. When groups of people are repeatedly told that their language, worldview, traditions, skin color, etc. aren’t good enough, these messages eventually seep into their minds. You don’t need to tell them these oppressive messages anymore because they start telling themselves those oppressive messages. They start believing it.”

“I see [internalized oppression] with my people. Skin whitening products are all over the Philippines, and nobody questions it anymore. The English language is the language used in all of our schools in the Philippines. The message is that English is the language of education. In this case, the idea that American things are better than anything Filipino has been internalized and institutionalized. We have built institutions that reflect this oppression.” (audio below)

E.J. has published four books so far [see the above photo]. His most recent, We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet (2018), is a series of letters to his Filipino-Athabascan family highlighting issues around colonialism, sexism, racism, and internalized oppression. 

“Oppression is redundant; it is nothing new. Be ready, but please don’t get used to it. Don’t habituate to it, don’t put up with it, and don’t accept it. Be fed up with oppression. Be sick and tired of it, be angry, be outraged, be devastated by it. It’s natural to be distressed by something so violent and wrong. I have been devastated by it many times, in fact, I am even permanently damaged by it.” (audio below)

Above: E.J.’s tattoo of his family that he keeps adding to

Paranoia

E.J. explains how Alaska is a “very red state” (that produced Sarah Palin) and the 2016 presidential election heightened E.J.’s fear and paranoia. At any time, he may be feet away from people who don’t want people like him around.  

“Bigotry and racist ideologies and anti-immigrant sentiments have always been a part of America. These are stolen lands – especially here in Alaska. We are aware that those things have always been a part of this country – colonialism, racism, and cultural genocide. 

On the positive side, E.J. believes the 2016 election encouraged more people to fight back and resist oppression.

Audio: An election focused reading from his book We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet (2018)

Respect

E.J. thinks it is essential to include America’s indigenous peoples in the national immigration conversation. He feels like his mixed indigenous-Filipino family is at the intersection of the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between indigeneity and those trying to immigrate. 

“As immigrants, we need to acknowledge the indigenous peoples of this land and work with them. Until this day, they are still fighting the oppression of their culture. As immigrants, it is our responsibility to pay respect to the people and respect the lands. The most important way we can respect indigenous people is to work with them to make sure these lands stay welcoming, and that injustice and oppression do not happen here.” (audio below)

E.J. believes people should be careful when repeating statements like “immigrants make America great” or “America is the land of immigrants.” 

We cannot advocate for immigrant rights at the expense of further erasing indigenous people.” (audio below)

Beyond Economics

E.J. also thinks it is problematic how society often judges immigrants solely on their economic value.

“We shouldn’t put a price tag on people’s humanity and dignity. We play into this system that says we are only valuable because we contribute this much money. Are immigrants any less of humans? We don’t do that with the native-born, so why are we doing that to the immigrants?” (audio below)

Above: Margaret works as a midwife, focused on intergenerational healing and wellbeing. She is holding an Athabaskan baby belt, used to carry babies on one’s back

Colonialism

E.J. thinks it is important to question why people immigrate, and why life is better in one country and worse in another. A lot of answers lie in colonialism and exploitation. Unlike how a salmon instinctually swims upstream, humans aren’t naturally inclined to migrate. 

I wasn’t born with a ‘go to the United States instinct’ – to leave my family behind, and my culture. Nobody is born with an instinct to sacrifice everything you are familiar with. Why did I develop this dream along with so many others?”

E.J. explains how it becomes easier to understand why people want to leave the Philippines and move to the U.S. after one studies the Philippines’ complex history of resource and labor exploitation.

I’m here because America went there first.” (audio below)

Creating Superheroes

E.J. & Margaret want their kids to grow up understanding their Koyukon Athabascan and Filipino heritage. While E.J. tries to share Filipino culture, Margaret shares her language, food, and the stories her parents told her growing about her people’s history. These stories grounded her, and she hopes they do the same for her kids. 

“We try to tell stories, read stories, and talk about our family. They have the privilege of these different heritages. Along with that, they have this responsibility of figuring out how they want to help our community.” 

E.J. wants them to see their own diversity as a privilege. 

“I want my kids to use their roots and see them as their superpowers. Just because you have superpowers doesn’t mean you are a superhero. You have to use your superpowers for good, otherwise, you are a villain. I want my kids to be superheroes.” (audio below)

*Update: Since the interview, E.J. and Margaret have welcomed the newest member of their family, Tala Raine Nodoyedee’onh.

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Vicky’s Immigration Story – Slough, the United Kingdom to Lexington, Kentucky

Childhood

Vicky was born in Slough, a town she describes as a “busy dirty place” (right next to the “very posh” Windsor) and says British people make a lot of jokes about Slough. Vicky’s sister used to go for riding lessons and Vicky tagged along. For the first couple of years, she was terrified by the thought of riding. Once she got over the fear, she fell in love.

“When you are little, they are huge. You’re not strong enough to hold them, so you fall off. You have to be quite tough to get going. When I was 11, I got my first pony. He was like a dream pony. I used to go to shows, do jumping, and win rosettes. My biggest dream was having a room full of rosettes.” (audio below)

Vicky’s grandfather was really into horse racing – specifically gambling at horse races. He would take Vicky to the tracks, and she was awe-struck by these “big beautiful animals and their power and strength.” When Vicky was 19, she got her first chance to ride an actual racehorse.

It is like driving a mini and then suddenly going and driving a Rolls Royce. You just can’t believe it. Wow, this is amazing! When you are going flat out on them, it’s the best feeling in the world.” (audio below)

Pat

Vicky’s husband Pat was born in New York City to a third-generation Irish bricklaying father and a mother from the United Kingdom who taught Irish step dancing. Pat’s father passed away when he was five, and his mother wanted to go back to the UK to be with her family. Despite leaving the US at five, Pat always held on to his American identity. He figures it was his way of holding on to his father. (audio below)

He spent a couple of years in London with his grandparents, and then his mom married another Irishman. They moved out to the quiet suburbs, near Epsom, home of the famous Epsom Derby. When Pat’s parents took him for pony riding lessons, he was instantly hooked. Pat ended up getting his own pony, doing show jumping, and then getting into horse racing. He tried to become a jockey [see the photo below] but discovered that it isn’t the best choice for an asthmatic.

Pat loves the connection he feels to the horse when riding and also the adrenalin rush. He finds the features of horses comforting. Even though they are big and robust, they aren’t aggressive. 

 “It is a timeless thing. Horses really were the things that first helped people be more than they could be on their own.” 

Pat also feels like horses bring him closer to nature. 

 “If you are out riding on a trail, you have a different perspective than on foot. You can see more, and wild animals don’t scatter. It’s a nice experience. Except when you are on a thoroughbred, then it is a frightening experience. Some people get a bit addicted to it. You feel alive.”  (audio below)

Equine Studies

Pat and Vicky both enrolled in Equine Studies – the first one of its kind in Europe – at Warwickshire College. They studied anatomy, physiology, nutrition, biomechanics, and everything else required to become a “competent horse person.” 

It was at the “Horse Racing Club” Pat organized where they first saw each other. Vicky remembers Pat getting up to talk, and saying to her friend, “oh, look at him, isn’t he awful!” Three months later, they got chatting at a college bar and began dating. 

 “It was easy being around each other from the start.” 

Vicky jokes that they have been together so long; she could have murdered Pat and gotten out of jail by now! (audio below)

When they finished their finals at college in 1994, they decided to take a summer holiday to Kentucky. They had a great time, and the night before they were going to return to the UK, Pat turned to Vicky and said, “this is where we want to be.” Vicky didn’t think so. 

 “I literally begged Pat to come back to England with me.” 

Above: Jack, first day at school, age five

Jack

Vicky and Pat married in 1996, and by that point, had their own stable yard with horses where Pat trained, and Vicky helped him. That same year they had their son Jack [see the above photo].

 “The first thing he ever saw when he went out of the house after coming from the hospital was a horse’s head over the door. He’s been good with animals his whole life.” 

When Jack was a boy, and people would ask what he wanted to be, the answer was always a “jockey,” and that dream never died. Pat and Vicky signed Jack up for pony racing.

 “I didn’t think he would have the strength to get the pony to the start, let alone ride in the race. But he did and fell off at the start. The race was off, and he finished third. I thought, ‘Oh, hell! He’s going to be a jockey!‘” 

They tried to steer him away from working with horses, but Jack just got better and better, and admittedly, Pat and Vicky have put some of their own dreams into Jack. 

United States

Vicky tried to convince Pat and Jack they had everything they needed in England. Jack went to Kentucky for a week exchange as part of the British Racing School, and after returning, every day, he asked when he could go to the US again to race. 

They waited a year so Jack could finish school. Vicky and Jack applied for visas through Pat, to help make their son’s dreams come true, It took 18 months, and when the green cards were approved, they only had six weeks to pack up 25 years of their lives together and leave before they expired. Vicky had expected they could leave England whenever they wanted, but that wasn’t the case. 

When they landed in New York in 2014, it was Pat’s first time back to his place of birth since he was a kid. 

“The things you don’t do are the biggest regrets in your life, and I had it in me to come and spend time in America where I was born, and I’ve done it.” 

Adjusting

When they arrived in Kentucky, Vicky couldn’t stop crying and continued to have “tears for the first month”. She felt useless and lost. They needed to find a place to live, and she hated driving the big truck they got. The second time Jack raced in Kentucky, the horse broke its leg, and Jack went down with it. It gave them a real scare, and Vicky started to really question why they had moved to the US. 

Vicky had to stop watching Jack race – it is easier on her nerves. 

“The way I deal with it is I don’t watch him, yet when he does win, and you are there, it is the best thing ever. When he does fall, your whole world stops. We’ve been lucky so far. I always say to him the day you don’t want to do it, you stop. It’s been a roller coaster.”

Above: Pat watching Jack’s race from his living room (audio below)

Jack says he hardly remembers England now, but Pat is much more reflective. He realizes had they come to the US for a year, then headed back to the UK, it would have been enough for him, but he knows how much Jack loves living in the US.

“I know a lot of people emigrate out of harsh economic necessity, but even when you have a choice, it’s a tradeoff you gain something and lose something.”

Lexington

Ultimately Pat and Vicky like where they live in Kentucky – rolling hills and giant trees. One thing that stuck out to them when they first arrived is how many people wear jeans and t-shirts. It’s a lot different than the New York Pat remembers of “slacks and collared shirts”. They like how laid back everyone is in Kentucky.

 “I thought the Irish were laid back, but the Kentuckians make us look like strung-out messes – and in the summer, they’re even more laid back!”

Father & Son

When they arrived in the US, Jack, age 17, didn’t have a driver’s license. To race, he needed to travel to nearby states and the five different Kentucky tracks. That first year, Pat, as Jack’s “chauffeur”, drove 80,000 miles. They would leave at four in the morning and arrive back home at midnight. That year of being together non-stop involved a lot of tears and laughter, as they tried to get Jack established in the racing scene. Pat was doing something with Jack that he never got to do with his father. 

“It was the first time in my life that I ever really thought about my father. He was gone, and I was in another country. When I came back here, it felt quite strange. In the end, I saw a counselor and spoke about it. It was quite emotional. I never really grieved for him.” (audio below)

After a year and a half, Jack got his license and could drive himself. Pat cherishes that extraordinary experience of spending so much time on the road with his son. Pat was a racehorse trainer for nearly two decades. It was so special that Pat decided to take time off to write about the experience. In 2018, he published Around Kentucky With the Bug.

WinStar Farms

When they arrived in Kentucky, Vicky didn’t plan on working with horses. She had so many incredible years in England with horses and figured nothing would be the same in the US. 

“I said, ‘I’m never going to ride a horse again. I was done with that.’ And then you find you miss them, they are in your blood, and you just can’t get away.”

She started her job at WinStar Farm in 2016, working as the Barn Foreman, who oversees the smooth running of the barn and assists the trainer.  

“Just being around horses every day is good for your soul. They don’t ask too much of you. I mean, they drive you crazy: they bite and kick, and push you around and don’t do what you want them to do, but they are so beautiful. I prefer being around them to people, I guess. They don’t judge you, and they forgive you. I guess I’m a half-horse!” (audio below)

Vicky loves the people she works with and finds that, in general, people in the US are more open and easy to connect with. Christie, from New Jersey, is one of Vicky’s coworkers [see the above photos].

“It is nice being around young people. I think it is a bit of the mother thing. We don’t have that much in common, and Christie’s so much younger than me, but when you work with horses, you have them in common.” (audio below)

Home

Vicky and Pat miss their family in the UK, including two horses they still own back in England, that they consider part of their family. Vicky went back to the UK recently and was surprised to find herself missing Kentucky. 

“It was weird; I wanted to come back here to Kentucky. This is home now. I prefer the weather here. It makes you feel great to be alive. You don’t get that in England. Everyone is miserable.”

Audio: Vicky talking to the horses

Future

In the future, Pat and Vicky hope Jack continues to pursue his dreams.

Pat says he has passed the stage in his life of grand ambitions and feels grateful for what he has. He jokes that he hopes his book “sells better than Harry Potter”!

Vicky hopes that Jack will one day have a family, and she will have grandchildren, but she emphasizes that it is all up to him. She also would love to open a cat sanctuary one day, with a few horses there as well.

*Update: Since the interview, the two horses (who are like family) in England, have now immigrated to Kentucky too. At the beginning of 2020, their son Jack bad accident breaking a collar bone and smashing his whole face. He fought hard to return to racing and is now competing again. Vicky and Pat, are happy (for their nerves’ sake) to know that Jack only plans on competing for a couple more years tops.

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Laura’s Immigration Story – Quevedo, Ecuador to Houston, Texas

“I feel like Ecuador is one of those countries you don’t really hear about, but it has so much to offer. Some people call it the country of “four worlds” because every region is so different – the Galapagos, the Coast, the Sierra, and the Oriente.”

Childhood

Laura was born in Quevedo – “a little city where everybody knows everybody.” Her best childhood memories are of running around with her cousins on her grandfather’s land.

“We would eat in the morning, get lost, and when we got hungry, we would crack watermelons open.” (audio below)

Laura’s dad worked with computers, and her mom stayed home with Laura and her older brother. Her dad was the type of man everyone knew in town. At the time, cars weren’t as accessible. For practical reasons, her dad opted for a motorcycle. Laura dreamed of one day having her own turquoise Yamaha Passola moped.

Washington?

When Laura’s parents left Ecuador for the United States in 1998, she and her older brother moved to Guayaquil to live with their paternal grandmother. The goal was for Laura and her brother to eventually join their parents. Laura’s parents lived at her paternal grandfather’s house in Houston until they had enough to move out on their own.

Laura knew very little about the United States, aside from how everyone wanted to go there. After her parents left Ecuador, Laura went to school and told her teacher that she would be moving to “Washington” soon. She has no idea why she thought they were going to Washington! (audio below)

In 1999, a year after her parents left, Laura, age seven, and her brother flew to the United States. When she thinks of that day, she remembers chewing gum, wearing Winnie the Pooh overalls, enjoying her first plane ride, and smuggling soup. Her father had such a craving for grandma’s soup that the family had Laura bring a concealed jar of grandma’s frozen soup in her backpack. (audio below)

 Above: Laura at Mission West Elementary in Houston, the second elementary she attended and where she became fluent in English

Supervised

“Meeting my parents in the US was like the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Laura felt lonely and out of place after the move. Although she noticed the streets were cleaner in the US, she could run around her grandfather’s land unsupervised in Ecuador. In Houston, Laura lived in an apartment complex. She had to always be supervised and the only kid Laura played with was her brother. She didn’t like this new life. 

“I kept telling my mom I wanted to go back to Ecuador.”

When Laura started first grade, she couldn’t believe it when another student talked back to the teacher and didn’t get hit. She had never seen a lack of respect like this in Ecuador. Making friends didn’t come easy at school. In Ecuador, Laura loved playing soccer at recess. When she tried playing in the US, all the girls called her a boy and teased her. Even though some of the kids in her class were Spanish speakers, Laura couldn’t understand some of their words. Nobody had ever told her there were different dialects and ways of speaking her language. When her parents finally bought a house, Laura transferred to the school where her cousins went, so she became friends with their friends.

Audio: Laura reading her poem “English as a Second Language”

Confidence

Trying to fit in was a predominant theme of Laura’s adolescence. She went through all sorts of stages – lots of makeup, dyed hair, colored contacts, and at one point, an emo look. (audio below)

It took Laura until freshman year at George Bush High School to adapt to American culture. She became part of the dance team and found it to be a “gateway into self-expression.”  It’s also where she made friends.

Above: Senior year photo from George Bush High School

Body Art

When Laura got her first tattoo as a teenager, she knew her parents wouldn’t approve, so she didn’t tell them. 

“They thought tattoos are only for criminals and gangsters, and here I was getting flowers and all these colorful things!”

Eventually, Laura’s mom spotted her tattoo. Although she did cry when she saw it, Laura thinks her mom and dad have grown to understand and appreciate that body art is part of their daughter’s creative side. 

“I see my body as a canvas – a visual narration of my story.” 

Family Business

Laura’s dad worked in insurance, and her mom’s first job in the US was at Popeye’s and then McDonald’s. Her parents were continually sending money back to Ecuador to help the family. 

Laura’s mom missed being at home with her children like she was in Ecuador. When Laura was in middle school, her mom came up with the idea to start a dog grooming business. It was surprising, as they had never owned a dog before. Still, she took a dog grooming training course, got a loan from the bank, and opened Norma Petcare in 2007. They have since expanded and now offer boarding services as well. 

It has truly become a family business – Laura, her older brother, and sometimes even her grandma help out.

Working with dogs inspired Laura to get one of her own. Clutch is a “little fluffy guy” who has stolen a large chunk of Laura’s heart. She explains how her dog was a little worried when she started helping out at her mom’s business.

“Why are you coming home smelling like all these other dogs? Now he’s used to it. He loves going to mom’s shop and looking at the girl dogs.”  (audio below)

Military

In 2009, Laura’s senior year of high school, she found herself unsure of what she wanted to do next. When her school held a career day, Laura had forgotten to sign up for a presentation, so they sent her to learn about the military. As Laura remembers, they showed a video with all these people doing cool things, and by the end of the presentation, she had signed herself up to join. Laura didn’t want to tell her parents, but as a 17 year old, she needed their signature. Her mom surprised Laura by signing the form right away.  

After graduation, Laura left for basic training, and then to military police school. She graduated in 2010, as a 31 Bravo (military police). After graduation, she joined the National Guard and prepared to go to college. When she reported to her assigned unit, they informed Laura, “You are on the list to go to Africa.” Laura put college on hold and started a year of training to go overseas.

Africa

As a part of Task Force Raptor, Laura was deployed in 2012 to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti [see the above photo] and then to Camp Simba in Kenya. As the Military Police, her unit’s job was to provide security patrolling and guard the bases.

On Laura’s days-off, she often went to volunteer at an orphanage.  

“Anything where I could interact with the locals I did. I want to be able to say that I didn’t just come here and stay on base. I wanted to see what else is out there. I’m just curious about the rest of the world.”

Above: Art that hangs in her home in Houston, that she purchased while deployed in Africa

Laura never thought she would spend her 20th birthday in Africa. 

“There were a couple of moments where I was like, ‘what am I doing here? I was born in Ecuador, moved to the US. I’m here in Africa? What is going on?’” (audio below)

American?

Laura spent six years in the military and overall considered it a positive experience. The military is where Laura matured and learned that she could depend on herself. 

“I was so far from home, and ya, my ‘battle buddies’ were my friends, but at the end of the day, I had to depend on myself.”

Before the military, Laura didn’t see herself as “American”. She learned to feel proud of the flag, wearing the uniform, and the US Army name tape. 

“It allowed me to connect with a society that I felt rejected me before then. I’m part of the one percent of the US population that decides to join the military, and on top of that, I’m part of the one percent who are women. As an immigrant, a woman, and small – the military allowed me to gain confidence in myself. I can do as much as the six-foot guys!” (audio below)

#HoustonStrong

Laura appreciates Houston’s diversity, especially the variety of Latin foods – Cuban, Colombian, Peruvian. She isn’t a fan of Mexican food because she doesn’t like spice, and she especially can’t stand Tex-Mex

In 2017 when Hurricane Harvey left Laura stuck for two weeks, surrounded by flooding. She loved how people from all over the US came to help people get out of their flooded homes. She feels like this tragedy highlighted what a great city Houston is.

“The hurricane did bring the city together. Houstonians helped out each other more than the government did. #HOUSTONSTRONG, you see that everywhere now.” (audio below)

Venting

Laura grew up surrounded by books because her father has always loved to read. She started writing in her youth as a way to vent her frustration.  At community college, Laura took a creative writing class, received positive feedback from her professor, and decided to pursue this path further. When a friend texted Laura to thank her for something she had written, she knew she had to keep working on this craft. Before Laura was writing for herself, but after that, she saw how writing could be a way to connect with and inspire others. (audio below)

“The country is so divided because of politics, and writing is an opportunity to bring people together. I owe this to the world. I love to read, and I love to write, so why not use that for the good of humanity.”

Laura writes mostly non-fiction about immigration, being Latina, and self-love: “I like taking the facts and making them pretty.” In 2017, Laura transferred from her community college to the University of Houston where she studies English with a concentration on creative writing.

Above: From 1947 until 1989, the U of H had a live cougar as their mascot named Sasta. “Before an exam or before finals they say it’s good luck to high five the cougar.”

#MeToo

Today, Laura’s experiences as an immigrant, soldier, student, and woman influence her writing. The #MeToo movement has had an enormous impact on Laura and made her reflect on her own experiences. While she remembers the military fondly, she admits that at times she experienced sexism and sexual harassment. At the time, she treated the harassment like it was just part of the job, but now realizes she shouldn’t have accepted it. She always felt like she “needed to suck it up”. 

“I wanted to be a part of the military, a soldier, and I didn’t want to be soft. If I said, ‘you were offending me’ they would say, ‘this is why we can’t have women in the military. You have to toughen up.’” 

Legacy

Making a lot of money in the future doesn’t interest Laura- she considers herself a minimalist – but she is ambitious.

“I want to make something out of myself and impact my community. What good is money going to do when I’m dead? A work of literature can stay long before I’m gone.”

Audio: Laura reading her poetry

After graduating from university, Laura plans to take some time off and go to Ecuador as a graduation present to herself. She wants to “soak in spending time with family”. 

Jorge Carrera Andrade, the Ecuadorian poet, whose writing focused mainly on nature, inspires Laura. She dreams of one day being in Ecuador, staying on her grandpa’s land, detached from all technology, writing her first collection of poetry. 

Montañita is a coastal town in Ecuador, full of Americans who have immigrated there as retirees. Someday Laura would love to spend time in Montañita and write about the experience of these American immigrants in her country. 

*Update: Laura graduated from the University of Houston and is now focusing on finishing her poetry manuscript centered around identity. You can find her work at llquinton.com

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Yin’s Immigration Story – Tainan City, Taiwan to Acton, Massachusetts

Nine Generations

Yin can trace back her family’s history in Taiwan nine generations. She grew up the youngest of five children, and even though her family was not well off, she was the most spoiled. Her father read three newspapers a day and worked as a chemist for a wine company, so he was rarely home. 

“If I inherited anything from father, it is that I am pretty daring.” 

Yin’s father would often recite a haiku, which she translates: 

“I love life. I love food. So I’m going to eat blowfish – that would be the ultimate taste of my life.” (audio below)

Yin’s parents lived through Japan’s occupation of Taiwan. Consequently, they both spoke perfect Japanese and used it to communicate with each other. Yin, who didn’t learn the language, wasn’t able to understand. When Yin was a child, Taiwan was under Chinese control. Her school forced her to learn and speak Mandarin (Chinese). Today, Yin considers Chinese to be her intellectual language, and whereas Taiwanese is her emotional language. (audio below)

American Apples

Yin lived near a US military base that occupied the best beach in Tainan City. She knew little about America but quickly learned about the American dollar. It was incredible how much you could buy when you converted one dollar to Taiwan’s currency (NT). One item that she remembers being very expensive and sought-after growing up was the American apple. (audio below)

Yin studied English literature at a college in Taiwan. She met an American cultural anthropologist who was there researching, and they soon were married. After their marriage, he couldn’t find a full-time teaching job in Taiwan, so they moved to the United States.

I wish we had stayed in Taiwan.” 

Suffocation

It was the day before Christmas 1982 when Yin arrived in Connecticut. Yin, age 24, and her husband moved in with his parents. 

Yin had “feelings of suffocation” when she witnessed the first heavy snow of her life. She tried to convince herself that this cold fluffy white stuff is harmless and saw other’s having fun in it, but reflects, “I don’t think I ever got rid of that feeling of suffocating.” (audio below)

Yin’s father-in-law was a well-respected lawyer. He made sure everyone in their small, predominantly white, Connecticut town knew that Yin was his daughter-in-law. In retrospect, she sees how much she struggled to fit in. Her husband’s family – affluent and educated -contrasted with her humble upbringing. Yin always felt like they were above her, and this feeling became a source of constant stress. When her parents visited Connecticut, they found her in-laws to be arrogant, and over time, Yin started to see what they had seen too.

Artistic Expression

From an early age, Yin was passionate about art, and in high school, she would make seal carvings on tiny stones. Still, her parents never supported her artistic aspirations.  

After getting settled in Connecticut, Yin started traveling to New York to study sculpturing at the National Academy of Design. She remembers her studies as being fulfilling and intensive. This experience made her believe that she could be an artist.  

His Depression

Yin’s husband, a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, was always in and out of the United States consulting for international development projects. Aside from being away all the time, he had ongoing battles with depression, something Yin tried to understand, but could not. 

“I’m a very upbeat person. I had never known what depression means. I was dealing with his depression.”

They eventually moved to Ithaca, New York, so that her husband could earn a second Ph.D. at Cornell. Yin spent her days alone in the apartment, isolated and without friends. 

“Enjoying life became very hard.” 

Yin started a master’s degree in fine art at Cornell but she dropped out after a professor accused Yin of working too hard and exhausting the school’s resources. (audio below)

Above: Yin standing with her “Our Goddess” Sculpture

Nepal

Yin’s husband received an offer to work on an international development project with USAID (United States Agency for International Development) in Nepal. Yin encouraged him to take it. They spent five years in Tulsipur, where they had two children, and Yin spent a lot of time painting in the backyard. They had seven “servants,” who could take care of the children, giving Yin time to focus on her art. She was able to learn the ancient tradition of bronze casting from a Nepalese master. (audio below)

Disconnection

Yin and her family returned to the United States in 1988 and decided to settle in Massachusetts. Yin, curious about the academic side of art, started a master’s program at the University of Massachusetts. 

Yin’s loneliness increased, as her husband’s depression deepened. “We drifted apart gradually”. Yin threw herself into her art to distract herself from her failing marriage. Her husband would usually leave on four-month contracts. At one point, due to a commitment associated with the Bosnian War (1992-95), he left for a full year and a half. When he returned, it was only for ten days. 

Looking after her children, cooking, taking care of the house, and studying and creating art was a lot for Yin, especially after being used to having “servants” in Nepal. Yin felt like a single parent – she and her husband had stopped communicating. 

“He would always tell me when we were driving to the airport, ‘Yes, I think we need to talk’ Then, two months later, I would pick him up [but we never talked]. If you really meant to talk, you would say this to me when I pick you up at the airport, not when you are leaving.” (audio below)

In 2005, after 23 years of marriage, they separated. Despite the failure of their relationship, Yin says her husband was always a gentleman.

Quarry Life

Yin created a sculpture of Aristotle and Plato but felt like bronze wasn’t the correct medium. She imagined it in stone and reached out to a professional stone carver to see if he could teach her. He took her to a quarry in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, helped her choose a rock, and began to teach her the art of stone carving. Yin spent six months completing her first piece at the quarry, carving in all types of weather –  snow, freezing rain – it didn’t matter.

“I had children back home, so I would run home to cook, send the kids to school, and then run to the quarry.” (audio below)

Above: Yin’s sculpture of her “Quarry Father”

The family who owned the quarry didn’t charge Yin for using their land, and they went on to develop a strong bond. Yin calls the owner her “quarry father.” He would often leave one page of the bible on her stone and a piece of chocolate. She remembers him remarking to her, “You know I have never seen any man work this hard in my life.” Over the course of almost a decade, Yin carved at least 40 pieces in the Chelmsford quarry.

Container Man

In 1994, for the first time, Yin tried to create a sculpture that involved sound. After creating it, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it and stored it away. Then six years later, in 2000 at an art symposium, she met a Hungarian artist named Viktor. She was impressed by his ability to create instruments and invited him to collaborate with her. In 2002 she received a small grant and they were able to start their collaboration. While working on the project, their connection grew.

“I fell in love with him. He sees what I don’t see.”

In 2005 Container Man, which consists of 14 mechanical kinetic musical instruments and equipped with a sound system and multimedia projection capabilities, went to Europe. Yin felt refreshed being around Viktor’s creative mind.

Above: Yin standing with “Container Man”

Contemporary Arts International

Eventually, Yin’s “quarry father” told her, “You have got to find land for all these sculptures!” He helped Yin find a quarry in Acton, which she bought in 2003 for “a very good price.” The person who sold the land believed in Yin’s dream of using it to create art. 

While working as a Chinese court interpreter, Yin spent weekends with Viktor at the quarry cleaning it out.

“It was a very dirty jungle – millions of bullet shells, broken glass, 27 cars, household goods, cabinets, and chairs!”

When it was ready, they started constructing Contemporary Arts International – a large studio and residency house- from the ground up. 

“We built up this place with our bare hands.”

This mission of Yin and Viktor’s nonprofit is to promote the creation, understanding, and appreciation of contemporary art in the global context. On their land, visitors can find more than 100 stone and kinetic metal sculptures.

A Place to Stand

In hindsight, Yin feels lucky to have been so protected by her former husband and her father-in-law when she arrived in that small white Connecticut town. 

Above: Yin standing on her lookout over the quarry that Viktor built Yin for her birthday

Yin explains how she is enjoying the efforts of people who immigrated to America before her. She appreciates that those people established the rules and regulations that make the country the way it is today. It is for this reason that in American, Yin says she has willingly been “secondary.” Still, today after decades in the country, she feels like she has earned the right to raise her voice. 

“I now am contributing just as much as you to this country. Therefore, I have my place to stand, and you cannot move me.” (audio below)

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Sarah’s Immigration Story – Ottawa, Canada to Terlingua, Texas

Family

Sarah’s parents were born in the US and met in Watertown, New York – right across the border from Canada. Her mom was a young reporter for the Watertown Daily Times about to go study at Harvard, and her father was a new graduate of Columbia’s journalism program.

“My dad waltzed in with his big-city look with bell-bottoms and platform shoes. He was the new editor.”

Sarah’s grandmother did not like her 18-year-old dating this 25-year-old. They dated that summer and then Sarah’s father moved to Sudbury, Ontario to work in radio and television. After Sarah’s mother graduated from university she joined him and got a job at the local Sudbury newspaper. 

Above: Sarah, age five, with her older sister

Sarah’s parents moved to Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, and had Sarah, their second child. When she was three, they moved to Toronto, Canada’s largest city. While in Toronto her father founded YTV, a popular children’s TV channel. When Sarah was 12, the family moved from Toronto to the nearby suburbs of Oakville.

Trash Talking Canadians

Looking back, it bothers Sarah how so many Canadians “talk trash” about the US. She felt defensive from a young age as a daughter of Americans. Sarah wanted to ask those critiquing the US: “what do you really know about America?” For example, Canadians like to pretend that they are more environmentally friendly than their American neighbors. In reality, Canadians just have more space, but individually, they still create just as much pollution.

“Canadians spend so much time looking at what’s going on in the United States and laughing. They don’t stop and look at what’s going on in their own country.” (audio below)

California Dreaming

Sarah’s childhood dreams transitioned from being an astronaut, to an archeologist, to camp director, and then a teacher. The one dream that stayed consistent was for Sarah to one day become a professional singer.

In fourth grade, Ken Whiteley, a Canadian roots music legend, visited her English class and helped the students write and record songs on cassette tapes. 

“I was already making songs and singing them to my stuffed animals, but that was the first time I realized it was a job!”

Sarah picked up the guitar in seventh grade and couldn’t stop writing songs. She dreamt of moving to California to perform.

“Singing is instinctual. It’s definitely therapy. It helps me understand things. If I’m writing a song, I might start with a problem and by the end of it have a solution. It’s mostly about feelings and relationships and experiences – difficult situations mostly.” (audio below)

University

Sarah studied English Literature and Film Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, thinking she would one-day work in film. The experience wasn’t as expected. Sarah didn’t connect with her profs, and it was clear it wasn’t what she wanted to do. Despite not liking her degree choice, she did enjoy the extracurriculars. Sarah worked for a poetry magazine and helped organize local concerts.

Open Mic

Sarah went home for the summer to Oakville to serve in restaurants. One of her coworkers had recently graduated from a prestigious music school. After hearing some of Sarah’s songs he dragged her to a busy local cafe’s open mic night. Sarah, 21 years old, hadn’t performed in front of a crowd since an eighth-grade talent show, but she got up and sang. When she finished everybody clapped.

“It was the most exhilarating performance of my life.”

After that Sarah played some shows at university pubs but she still didn’t believe that she could make a career of music.

Above: Sarah in the shack where she lived when she first moved to Terlingua

Backpacking to Busking

After graduating from university, in 2004 Sarah had saved up enough from waitressing to go backpacking Europe. Along the way, Sarah waitressed, had a desk job, and even worked as a preschool teacher.

Sarah figured that when the trip finished, she was going to return home and start a career. In the back of her mind, she knew that music was what she wanted to do, but she had never done it to make money. She decided to see if she could make money with her music on the streets of New Zealand. With a ukulele and a borrowed guitar, Sarah went out in Auckland to busk.

“Being originally a very shy kid, it was always the most terrifying thing, but I would fantasize about it as a kid. I would have to sing my way to make money to buy a train ticket to get home.” (audio below)

Soon enough, she was making more money in the streets than all her other jobs. Sarah started hitchhiking around New Zealand, busking on the road during the day, and sleeping in a tent at night. She even stayed in a commune for a bit.

Flailing Around

Sarah returned to Canada and enrolled in a music program at Seneca College. After graduating she “flailed around trying to figure out how to work as a musician.” Slowly Sarah started to make a living by touring and in 2010 she booked her first tour to California. After the tour, life wasn’t going so well: Sarah had a bad breakup, she put out a record that didn’t sell, she threw her back out at her waitressing job and played shows while in pain. She was depressed and struggling to make ends meet financially. Sarah decided that she needed to return to the US to tour again.

Sarah thought about how nice it would be to find a small town in a warmer place where she could plant some roots. She wanted to own a house – an impossibility in Toronto. A friend recommended that she check out Terlingua, Texas, so Sarah booked a gig at the Starlight Theatre for her tour.

Above: Sarah performing an acoustic version of her song “Desert Sky”

Moving South

It was April 2015 when Sarah first arrived in Terlingua, Texas, also known as, Ghost Town

I got out of the car at the Starlight, and I thought, ‘I’m finally hot enough!’ ” 

After that tour, she returned to Canada and started looking online at buying land in a warmer climate. She finally decided on Los Angeles. She was thinking she had to be in a big city if she was going to make it in music. 

The plan was to save up money bartending in Canada, return to Terlingua, chill out for a bit, and then continue to Los Angeles to live. But Sarah didn’t make as much money as she thought she would bartending- it wouldn’t be enough for first and last month’s rent in LA. Still, she got in her minivan and headed south, unsure how she would be able to afford life in California. 

To make financial matters worse, Sarah got robbed right after crossing the border. While she played her first show in Detroit, someone broke into her minivan and stole her acoustic guitar, laptop, and hard drives. (audio below)

Change of Plans

Despite the robbery, Sarah arrived in Terlingua in 2016. She still planned on only being there for a month before moving on to LA. Sarah lived in her minivan – a friend built her a bed in the back. She booked a bunch of shows, and before Sarah knew it, she was working three jobs.

“I needed the money, and there was a lot of work here. In this town, if you are willing to work, there is a job for you.” 

She decided to stay longer, work, and make money, still thinking she would go to LA. Then she met a guy and started thinking; maybe she didn’t need to leave Terlingua.

“Not to be a super cheeseball but happiness was something I was on a quest for. I never felt truly happy, and one day I was at brunch, and I was like, ‘I’m actually happy! I finally get it.’ To access it, I had to travel all over North America and find this little town.”

Terlingua

Sarah describes Terlingua as a hot, dusty, old mining town at the foot of Big Bend National Park. It’s a place with an eclectic mix of people: Mexicans because it’s close to the border, “wanderers”, “artsy types”, “lost souls” and, of course, tourists.

“It’s hard to say politically where the town stands, but everyone seems to get along. (audio below)

Sarah explains how some people hermit in Terlingua – people you would never see on the porch of the Starlight (a regular gathering spot). 

“Most people come here as far as I can tell because it’s a place you can start something from nothing. The house we’re in is a combination of a historic rock building and a bunch of garbage. There are a lot of places like that here.”

My Land

Sarah ended up buying a little five-acre plot of land on the outskirts of Terlingua [see the above photos].

They aren’t making any more land, so it’s good to have some. If all else fails and shit hits the fan in my life, there is a place I can go to that’s my own. (audio below)

So far, Sarah has made the driveway of her home by hacking the creosote – a plant that has solid roots – with a pickaxe.

“It’s quite the experience digging up creosote. It’s a good workout and good therapy. I took out rage I didn’t even know I had, building that driveway!”

Guns

“I know someone in this town that has held a gun to a person’s head for no reason other than being drunk and mad. That’s not cool. It is a gun culture.”

Many if not most people Sarah knows in Texas have guns. She remembers going on a date once with a guy in Austin who wanted to show her his gun collection. It felt incredibly uncomfortable for a first date. Sarah isn’t against guns when used safely for hunting or recreation. Her dad, a US army brat, grew up learning about guns. When Sarah arrived in Texas, she did some shooting with hunting rifles “that felt appropriately hard to use”. What she finds scary are these tiny handguns that are so easy to use.

“You have this militant nation where everybody is ready to shoot. It’s really scary. I don’t think people need to have their guns taken away. I also don’t think anybody needs a semi-automatic weapon. If you look at what other countries have done after their mass shootings and you can statistically see fewer gun deaths, it seems so obvious.”

Still, she sees things starting to change in the wake of recent mass shootings. She knows of one local guy who took his automatic rifle, destroyed it, and put the video on youtube. Still, Sarah finds the topic of guns a hard thing to talk about with people around Terlingua. (audio below)

Future

Sarah hopes to build a house on her land in the future. In the meantime, she will continue playing music, traveling, connecting with people, and trying to make music that has a positive influence on the world. 

Sarah says she used to be an activist, but found herself exhausted, broke and ineffective as an activist and a musician. Today she tries to live by the advice of Canadian-born singer-songwriter Neil Young who during an acceptance speech at the Junos told young artists wanting to create change to focus on their music first. He said they should try to reach as wide an audience as possible, and then think about what cause they wanted to work towards. At that point, their message will be a lot stronger.

*Update: Sarah moved back to Canada due to the Covid-19 and work no longer being available in Texas. Still, Sarah is building her house in Terlingua. She plans on dividing her time over the coming years between Canada and the US. To find more of Sarah’s work visit her website.

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Raul’s Immigration Story – Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic to Orlando, Florida

Childhood

Raul enjoyed his childhood in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital. He loved playing ball in the street on a rainy day or going to the river when the sun was shining. He and his friends never worried about their safety when they went out in the city unsupervised. Santo Domingo wasn’t the dangerous place that Raul hears it is today. 

Dominoes

Raul loves dominoes – a national pastime in the Dominican Republic. He learned how to play from his dad and all the men in his family play the game. Raul had his board and “bones” (the pieces) custom-made [see the photos below].

“My dad always loved to play dominoes. They would go out at six in the afternoon and play to four or five in the morning. I remember one time he was playing dominoes. He was so into it that he didn’t want to get up, so he gave me his cigarette so that I would light it!” (audio below)

Raul says that dominoes is more about the conversations with friends that happen during a game than anything else. He doesn’t think many things in life are better than a good game of dominoes with friends.

The Place with the Nice Smell

In 1981 his father left for the United States and lived with Raul’s uncle in New York. Raul loved the smell that would come from his dad’s suitcase whenever he came back to the Dominican Republic to visit them. 

When [my dad] would go back to visit us, I remember every time he opened his suitcase; there was this wonderful smell. To this day, I don’t know what it was.” (audio below)

In November of 1987, Raul, age 14, and his mother and three sisters arrived in New York to join his father. He remembers how cold it was, and he didn’t have a jacket. 

“I walked out of the airport – the doors open, and I felt this cold hit me straight in my face. I thought I was in a refrigerator. That totally blew my mind.” (audio below)

When they arrived, his father informed them they wouldn’t be living in New York – it was too dangerous and corrupt. Raul’s father decided to move the family to Providence, Rhode Island. Raul loved his high school in Providence and still gets excited every time he returns to visit his parents and sister Dhamarys, who still live there. 

“When I go back to Providence, it is like I’m going to the Dominican. Both places are very special in my heart.”

Florida

Raul’s friends in Rhode Island always talked about Florida. One day he decided to take a trip and see what everybody was talking about. 

“ The first thing I see when I walk out of the airport is people in t-shirts! No snow at all! What!? Where am I? That moment I said ‘I got to move.’” (audio below)

Raul has been living in Orlando since 1999. He loves how quiet it is in his neighborhood. Raul explains how Orlando is safe, primarily because of Disney.

“Disney has got a lot of power, so they are going to control crime and the nonsense of cities. Having Disney around is a major influence on the economy. They are always going to make sure the people who come here are going to feel safe. They try to help out the police in any way they can cause it’s to their benefit.”

Christ

In 2007 Raul “came to Christ”. He had been raised Catholic and went to church “once in a blue moon”. He was single and went out to a club where he met his future wife. She was part of the church and invited him to join her. 

“God started working in my life. Ever since then, it has been the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me.”

At church, he met a former New York City drug dealer who now goes into prisons to tell inmates how Jesus can change their lives. He tells them a story about being shot at, yet none of the bullets hit him – an experience he believes demonstrates how God is real. Raul liked his message and was invited to join. Raul had never gone into a jail, but he felt God telling him not to worry, and he joined Orange County Jail Ministry in 2011. (audio below)

I’m the one who is going to guide you, I just need you to go there, and I’m going to speak through you. That’s what God has done. He speaks through me.”

He says it’s a moving experience seeing these tough grown men crying.

The Bible says that once you are in Christ, you are a new creature. That’s what we try to share.”

Audio: Raul sharing a favorite passage from the Bible

The Yard

Raul started his current job with Orange County in 2002. He does maintenance – roads, sidewalks, grass, trees, etc.

“We serve the community. Whatever the community needs, we go and do it. Hole in the road? Pipes leaking? We try to make sure the community is safe. I can honestly say, I love my job.”

His crew is part of the emergency responders, and since Raul lives closest to the yard (the place where equipment is stored), he gets called first. Technically he works regular hours Monday to Friday, but in reality, he is never off. When Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, he was the one in the yard for the storm, ready for anything. Immediately after the hurricane passed, his top priority was opening the road to the hospital, and that’s what he did.

Daughters

Raul has two daughters in their early twenties from a previous relationship and a lot of regrets. He feels like he was too young and stupid to handle his responsibility correctly. 

“I tell them all the time, ‘I love you to death’. I was young and stupid, so I wasn’t there to see them grow. That kind of created a barrier between us for years.”

When he moved south to Orlando, they stayed up north. Not only was there emotional distance, but physical distance too – he couldn’t afford to fly to see them every week, so they talked on the phone. 

“It is hard when you are not part of their life; you can be responsible financially, but later on, you realize they needed you physically. I made a mistake. I should have never left and should have been close, so they knew what having a dad is like. It was really selfish and I tell them that.” (audio below)

Raul says they are trying to work things out. He is trying to call more and spend more quality time with them in person. Still, there is a lot of pain. Now that Raul is getting older, he says he is starting to see life differently, and how it’s the little things that are important. 

Purpose

Raul hasn’t visited the Dominican Republic in almost three decades, but says that “the Dominican will always be in [his] heart.”

“I love and miss my country, but in all honesty, I love this country too. As much as I miss the Dominican Republic, I don’t see myself living there again.”

In the United States, Raul is devastated by all the hate he sees on the news and prays that things get better.

“What are we becoming as a society, as a nation? It’s sad. What I want for the future is for God to use me in an amazing way. We are living in the days when we need God more than ever.”

Audio: Raul sharing memories of 9/11 and hopes for the future

Ultimately Raul says his two main goals are to enjoy life and to be a blessing to the people he encounters. 

“I’m grateful for every moment that God has allowed me to live.” 

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Luis’s Immigration Story – Santiago, Chile to Morton, Mississippi

Childhood

Luis grew up in one of Santiago’s old neighborhoods. His father was a carpenter who had a small shop that grew bigger as Luis grew older. Eventually, it turned into a full-size furniture factory that made wooden furniture for radios (standard in the 1950s). When plastic came onto the market, his father’s business collapsed. “Plastic changed everything.”

Luis went to the University of Chile to become an agricultural technician. He ended up staying in Santiago for five years working in and studying Fruticulture (Pomology) – the improvement of fruit growing.

Above: Luis holding a manual on Fruticulture that he wrote

Luis grew up Catholic, and as he got older, he started moving up in the church and even planned on becoming a priest.

“I was called by God. I almost entered the seminary to be a priest, but I fell in love with the woman who was going to be my wife. Wife or be a priest? I decided, wife.” (audio below)

United States

Luis wanted to further his studies, but this time in the Humanities. The only problem was that in 1973 when Luis was a student, the dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power. Pinochet thought that anyone studying the Humanities was against him, so the University of Chile made all Humanities students, like Luis, switch to History. 

Luis’s brother-in-law, a Chilean tennis champion, went on scholarship to Mississippi State. He returned to Chile with a degree in accounting and married Luis’s sister. She was the first to move to the US, then Luis’s parents moved too. Luis’ first time to Missississipi was to visit his sister in 1974. 

“Mississippi was unknown to me. I was living with the judgment that Mississippi equals slavery, prejudice, and a lot of bad things. I was scared at first.”

To Luis’s surprise that first visit to Mississippi was a positive experience. In 1983, Luis did not like the way Chile was going politically or economically and applied for a visa to join his sister in the US.

Poultry Company

In 1990, after seven years of waiting, Luis was the last member of his family to arrive in the US. Luis, his wife, their three daughters (and little doggy) moved to Mississippi.

His brother-in-law, the former tennis champion, was now the vice president at a poultry company. That’s where Luis started working in Mississippi – on the plant’s floor. The company needed workers, as the local population usually didn’t want those jobs. If they did work at the plant, they would only work a few months, then quit. The company needed people who would stay and work – and knew immigrants would do that. 

Soon Luis stopped working on the plant floor and became the coordinator for a new project, tasked with getting 300 new workers for the plant in less than a year. The company trained Luis on identifying proper documentation, and he would regularly go to Texas’s border to recruit. One major problem was they didn’t have anywhere for workers to live, and Luis had to find Morton’s empty houses to rent out for them. Luis worked on the project for more than a decade. He had hired almost five thousand workers by the time the poultry company was bought out by a massive conglomerate. When this happened, they laid-off Luis. 

Luis, however, fondly looks back on this experience and feels like he helped many people. 

I am well known by the old people here. There are still families from that time that are here in the area. I came to this country as a worker, and I finished in a company here as a manager!” 

Educator

After being laid off, Luis tried selling cars but didn’t like it, so he applied to be a janitor at the local school. He smiles, “They discovered that this janitor was educated!” 

The school’s administration encouraged Luis to become an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher, and he has been teaching now for more than a decade. He is the only bilingual teacher and currently teaches at three different schools in the district. Luis loves helping the area’s growing body of Hispanic students. (audio below)

Church

After living in Morton for a while, he became involved in the local Catholic Church and eventually became a minister. He also started writing Christian columns in the local newspaper, something he has been doing for almost two decades. The more Luis learned about the Bible, the more he started to question some of the things the Catholic Church was teaching. 

After his first wife passed away, he ended up falling in love with a woman from outside the Catholic faith. She would go to the Catholic Church with him, but they also started going to a Baptist Church. This experience began Luis’s search for the right church. He left the Catholic Church and joined the local Church of God. On Sunday’s Luis attends an “American church” with 200 in the mostly white congregation. On Saturday nights, Luis delivers his Spanish language sermon out of a small trailer – his very own church [see the above photo].

“It doesn’t matter that we are very few. For me, what is most important is the mission. They don’t pay me as a pastor, but I accomplish the mission.” (audio below)

Above: Luis leading the congregants in a song during the Saturday night service

Mississippi

Luis points out how in Mississippi, there are different churches for the region’s different racial groups. He wishes Sundays could be less divided. 

“I personally believe we have to destroy these walls.” 

He likes living in a rural place with a population of less than four-thousand, like Morton. It’s quiet, things are cheap, and there is no violence. Luis is happy Morton elected its first black mayor, Gerald Keeton Sr.

“I don’t see any difference – people are people. I don’t care if you are black, white, yellow, or green – we are friends.”

Luis doesn’t like big cities like Chicago, where his daughters live.

“The north is not as friendly as we are. The environment there is pretty, the lake is fantastic, but all the time I am in Chicago, I’m missing Mississippi.” (audio below)

Above: Chilean art in Luis’s home

The Chilean community in Morton is tiny – just Luis, his sister, brother-in-law, and a few other people. He misses the deep friendships he had in Chile that he hasn’t found in Mississippi. 

I am friends with my neighbor – we talk, but all the time we keep limits.”

Lies

Luis is not a fan of the current president and thinks he is a millionaire only concerned about other millionaires.

“In my opinion, Trump is destroying a lot of things in the United States. He is a negative, racist liar. He is the worst leader. I am not satisfied with everything that is happening now. I have problems even in my church because here, the people are saying, ‘oh, Trump is the hero because they are ignorant and don’t know what is going on. The people believed all the lies he was telling them.” (audio below)

Luis thinks the situation in America will likely worsen before it improves.

“If I didn’t have my daughters and grandchildren here, I would go back to my country. See you later, Trump! For me, as a Christian, he is not a Christian at all.” (audio below)

Armed Congregants

Luis is especially concerned about the prevalence of guns in the US and the power of the National Rifle Association. Luis prays that the youth will continue to push for change.

“You don’t need a military rifle unless you have in your mind to kill people. We believe we are in the Christian ‘Bible Belt’. What kind of ‘Bible Belt’ is this when people are just arming themselves?” 

In the church Luis attends, they now have two armed congregants – one was a police officer, and the other was in the army. These men carry concealed weapons under their jackets for every service. (audio below)

Future

Luis, twice a widower, is now in his 70s. 

“I’ve been living alone for the last… I forget…12 years? It’s okay. I accept my reality.” (audio below)

He has been teaching for over a decade and a pastor for almost two decades. Luis believes that being a Christian is a 24/7 responsibility, not a few hours a week, and he tries to live that way.

“I’m worried about the future because I don’t see people committed to what Christ teaches us. That’s just a pastor’s opinion.”

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Nikos’s Immigration Story- Oxya, Greece to Appleton, Wisconsin

Oxya

Nikos grew up in a small village of ten families on the Greek Island of Skyros. He remembers a childhood full of challenges.

 “The clothes I was wearing as a kid had holes everywhere, and my mother was always trying to patch them. I was the fourth of seven kids, so I had to wear clothes from my older siblings. We didn’t have underwear to wear. I didn’t wear them until sixth grade.” (audio below)

Above: Nikos [right] with father and younger sister

The winters were harsh, but the summers were great – running, walking, and playing in the mountains. Nikos didn’t have a curfew, but he also didn’t have electricity. He remembers clearly how in 1976, when he was eight years old,  the village finally got power – “It was like heaven.”

Above: Nikos holding a photo of his mother

Parents

Nikos’s parents both came from hard-working farming families in the same village. Their families arranged their marriage, and after the wedding, his father moved to Athens to find construction jobs. He would return to the village once or twice a year – during Christmas or Easter – visit his wife, make a baby, and leave again. Nikos remembers how every member of the family was always working, trying to survive. While his father was away, his mother raised livestock and tended to the garden. Everything the family ate, they raised or grew. When Nikos’s oldest brother turned 12, he was sent to Athens to work; then, when his next brother turned 12, he was sent to Athens. His sister didn’t go because going to the capital city to work wasn’t for girls.

Nikos remembers dreaming of moving to Athens like his brothers- fantasizing about the big city he read about in history books. Nikos wanted to go to school, unlike his siblings. None of his brothers made it past elementary school (the highest level of education available in his village).

Athens

When Nikos was 11, he and his mother moved to Athens so he could continue studying. While there, his mother couldn’t farm anymore, so she started washing dishes in a hotel. 

Nikos was 12 when he got his first paying job. He would deliver flowers at night – paid only in tips – sometimes taking the bus alone for an hour to make a delivery. At age 14, a hotel hired Nikos as a busboy and eventually promoted him to server. It was at this hotel where he started meeting lots of foreigners and dreaming of visiting other countries like Australia one day. Athens, the big city he once dreamed about, was starting to feel too small, and Nikos wanted to see the world.

Greek Navy

When Nikos turned 19, he did two years of mandatory service in Greece’s Navy. Towards the end of his service, he was back at the hotel bartending. It was here where Nikos met his future wife, a university student from Minnesota doing a semester overseas and staying in the hotel. They would talk as he served her coffee, and Nikos told her, “I’ll show you Athens by night”.

After becoming pregnant, she returned to the United States to give birth to their daughter. Nikos desperately wanted to be there for his daughter’s first moments, but his visa kept getting rejected. When he finally received the approval, his daughter was already six months old, and that’s when Nikos finally held her for the first time. (audio below)

Above: Nikos holding his daughter Selena for the first time

Marriage

They married in Greece and tried living in Athens. He had a decent job, and his wife could stay home with their daughter. But adjusting to this life wasn’t easy for his new wife. After two years of being in Greece, and the birth of their son, Nikos’s wife decided that she needed to move back to the US to be with her family.

Nikos felt like he had no choice but to try and join his wife and children in America. He also knew, from his previous visa experience, it wasn’t going to be easy.

“I was kind of forced to come to the United States. Every week I would go back to the American Embassy. Every week I would get rejected, and they would ask for another document.”

To get the visa, he went to a doctor for a physical he will never forget. 

“I walked into his office, he asked to see my hands and said, ‘I want to make sure you have strong hands. If you are going to go to the United States, you are going to work very hard.’ Oh, boy, he was right!” (audio below)

Wisconsin

On November 5, 1993, Nikos flew into Appleton, Wisconsin, to join his family and start their lives in America.

“I walked outside, and there was snow and was like ‘Where am I going? What the hell am I doing here?’” (audio below)

There were no other Greek people in Appleton.

“I had nothing in common with anybody. I faced discrimination. It’s not like I was in Chicago; I was all by myself. It was a shock, the first couple of years in Appleton.” (audio below)

Adjusting

Nikos’s first Christmas in America wasn’t like anything he had experienced in Greece. His family had been too poor to buy gifts. 

Above: Nikos first Christmas in the United States, 1993

“The only gift I ever got from my father was a bag of balloons. When he came to the village, he would give each of us boys a bag of about 20 balloons. I remember we would get so excited. Here I am, and I have these two kids, and we give them everything. I remember we had a Christmas tree and ten boxes under it, and it still wasn’t enough.”  (audio below)

Nikos recalls many moments in those first years in the United States, where he wanted to leave. 

If I didn’t have my kids, I would have left. 

Despite all of the difficulties adjusting, Nikos didn’t give up on life in Appleton. He wanted to learn the language and blend in too. 

His first job interviews in Wisconsin were in sales, thanks to his father-in-law’s connections. Nikos didn’t speak English, so nobody wanted to hire him. As a young man looking to provide for his family this rejection really hurt.

Above: Nikos across from the hotel in Appleton where he got his first job

Frustrated, Nikos walked into a local hotel restaurant and told the manager he needed a job, promising this stranger he would not be disappointed. The manager hired Nikos on the spot, “My gut is telling me you are going to be a very good server.” Nikos started out doing room service, preparing breakfast at five every morning.

In his second year in the US, Nikos heard that another Greek who had married an American was going to be opening a local restaurant – the Apollon. Nikos got a job working there until close after he worked room service at the hotel in the morning. Some days he would coach soccer in between his shifts.

Above: Nikos outside the Greek restaurant where he worked

Education

A turning point was when his daughter was in first grade. His daughter asked him how to spell a word in English. He didn’t know the answer, and it really affected him.

Nikos grew up without his father around, and he didn’t want to be that type of parent. He wanted to be there for his kids, to be able to help them with their homework, and have the time to show them how much he loved them. (audio below)

Nikos knew he didn’t want to be a server his whole life, and he decided to further his education. 

The University of Wisconsin accepted Nikos to study finance and international business. His life became even more chaotic: university classes, working at the restaurant, coaching, and trying to arrange all of this around his kids’ schedules. He remembers going whole days without sleeping during his midterms. Shortly after he graduated, the community bank hired Nikos and he has been there for almost two decades.

Above: Nikos at his graduation from the University of Wisconsin

Divorce

Nikos says he lost everything when he and his wife divorced. It was this shock that led him to take some financial risks that have paid off. He no longer lives paycheck to paycheck and now buys properties, fixes them up, and rents them. There were moments after arriving in the US where Nikos felt like he had lost his Greek identity. Since the divorce, he goes back twice a year to Greece. He feels like he has rediscovered his identity and feels more Greek than ever.

Soccer

“Soccer is my passion. It’s like the affair I had with another woman. It’s something I have in the bottom of my heart.”

Nikos played soccer anywhere and everywhere as a child. The village didn’t have a pitch, let alone a field, but that didn’t stop Nikos and his peers. He remembers playing soccer on the rocks. In high school, a club coach recognized Nikos’s talent and invited him to play semi-professional, which he did for five years. 

Soccer was also a crucial factor in his adjustment to Wisconsin. It was on the soccer pitch, where he met other immigrants.

“Soccer was a connection for me to blend in with others. No one made fun of my accent anymore. I was talking with my feet – it’s a universal language.” (audio below)

When the local high school needed a junior varsity coach, Nikos volunteered. Since then, Nikos has been coaching clubs, clinics, his son’s team, and now he coaches at the local university. He still plays, with passion, once a week. 

“You tell me to do something with soccer, I jump.”

Nostalgia

For Nikos, oregano is symbolic of summers in Greece [see the photo below]. 

“I remember my mother making us pick oregano, to sell, and to have for ourselves. We would go up in the mountains, pick it, let it dry out, remove the leaves, and fill up bags for money.”

When Nikos returns to Greece every summer, he still picks some oregano to bring home to America.

Audio: Nikos talking in Greek with his mother on the phone

Future

Today Nikos says he has made a name for himself in Appleton. 

Above: Nikos in his office at the bank

“I love people. I will talk to any stranger. That’s how I meet people. I have a personality that people remember me for. Not always good. Not saying that everyone likes me, but that’s the way it should be.” (audio below)

The restaurant manager who hired him for his first job in Appleton is now on the board of directors of the bank where Nikos works. Nikos will never forget the people who trusted him when he needed it most.

His hopes and dreams are now for his two kids, who are in their twenties. He wants them to continue doing well, start families, and keep decent jobs. Nikos wants them to feel successful and know that it isn’t all about money. 

He has always dreamed of building a house in Greece, and he finally did that. He also became an American citizen in 2011. Nikos’s ideal retirement would be living half the year in the United States and half the year in Greece. 

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Ben’s Immigration Story – Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Corvallis, Oregon

Childhood

Ben and his six siblings grew up in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His mother stayed home, and his father had a high-profile job, working as the financial advisor to the President of the Senate. Ben witnessed how hard his father worked so his children could have the best of everything from an early age.

Above: A photo of Ben’s father on his phone

“We were going to an expensive school when he could have put us in another school to save money. He did his best for my brother and me to come to the US and have the best opportunity.”  

Ben could see how fortunate his family was compared to many other families. Kinshasa is a busy city with many people out in the street finding ways to make some money – cutting hair, carrying things, holding open doors, selling candy. 

“There is a lot of joy in my country. Even if the country is in a very bad situation, they try to have fun and enjoy life.” 

Ben does not miss Kinshasa’s inefficient public transportation. He explains how it is common to have to fight to get on the bus at rush hour. Ben does miss how social riding the bus can be.

“You would be inside the bus, and then someone would comment on politics, or soccer or music. Everyone on the bus would start talking about that specific topic, and you would all be talking with random people.” (audio below)

United States

Ben didn’t grow up planning to study outside of the DRC, and he definitely didn’t want to go to the US. He had heard too many stories of racism there. 

Ben, who grew up speaking French, was attending a private American school in the Congo to learn English, and the school had a presentation about studying in the US that intrigued Ben. His brother already went to Portland Community College in Oregon, and Ben’s dad thought Ben should go to the US too. These events catalyzed Ben’s decision to journey to America. 

Ben flew into Portland, Oregon, in 2014 to join his brother and start classes at Portland Community College. He had to make a few adjustments: despite knowing some English from school in the DRC he found it hard to understand Americans, and the food in the US didn’t taste right. He felt like he was only eating it because he was starving. Ben missed dishes like fufu and pondu, which are popular in the DRC.  

Ben’s reaction when he couldn’t understand what someone was was to smile back, and assume they were saying something kind. Ben knew racism is a problem in the US, but he wasn’t expecting to encounter it within a week of arriving in the US.

“We were walking to the bus station, and there were two guys, one of them said something to me, so I smiled and walked by. My brother told me he was making a racist comment.” (audio below)

United States

Ben found it stressful being in a new place without family, compounded by the fact that he had no money. Ben’s dad lost his job right after Ben arrived in the US, so he didn’t know how he was going to pay rent, let alone stay in the United States. Luckily friends helped him with rent, and one friend from the student government at PCC helped with tuition. Ben went on to graduate with his associate degree and transferred to Oregon State.

Geology

Ben grew up on a continent with a long history of European resource exploitation, as well as human rights abuses of miners, who often are children. Learning about this led Ben to choose geology as his field of study. 

I wanted to study geology so I could eventually go back home and start a mineral company, hire the local population, and give them a good salary.

Above: A friend gave Ben this necklace so he never forgets where he is from

Africa

On-campus at Oregon State, Ben tries his best to be a cultural ambassador. He tries to be an advocate for “everything that is African culture.” 

The problem with a lot of immigrants is that we want to be part of this community so badly, and we think that by rejecting our origins or who we are, it will help us be accepted. I don’t think this is the case. Once you reject your origin or your culture so that you don’t have a unique identity, it is harder for people to accept you.” (audio below)

Most people Ben encounters on campus know nothing about the Congo, and very little about Africa. 

They assume it is in Africa because I’m black and my necklace. A lot of the time, people talk about Africa as though it was a country, not a continent. People will ask, ‘what is it like to live in Africa?’ I don’t know because I’ve only lived in my country!” (audio below)

Black On Campus

It isn’t always comfortable being black on Oregon State’s campus. Ben’s community in Corvallis comes mostly from the Black Student Union (BSU) – a place for connecting with others who are going through similar experiences. The BSU is a space where a lot of students can make connections and build community. There is a lot of conversation, listening to music and laughter. 

“You have something happen to you, and you think you are the only one. Then you get there, and you see it has happened to other people too.”

They have had hate crimes on campus, and in his time at Oregon State, Ben has heard a lot of racist jokes. 

“Oregon State is very white. You could find yourself in a room of 200 people and only two black people in the room. If a teacher starts a conversation about slavery or black people, you will have everyone look at you like you are an expert.” (audio below)

Above: The flyer from when Ben ran for student president and was the runner-up

Involved

Aside from the BSU, Ben is also a member of the African Student Association and the “Here to Stay Club” at OSU. He made several friends who are DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients since coming to the US. Ben could feel his friends’ fear after the 2016 election and decided to be a more vocal ally. 

The “Here to Stay Club” at Oregon State is working to create a Dreamers Center on campus, something Ben advocated for when he ran for student body president and finished runner-up.

Home

Despite some of the challenges Ben has faced, he considers Corvallis a beautiful place to study. It’s quiet, so he feels like it’s easier to focus on studying.

On his first day at OSU, he met his roommate Sierra from New Jersey [see the top right photo]. When Ben had to have surgery on his knee, she was the one who drove him to the hospital and cared for him afterward. She has also helped him when he hasn’t been able to pay the rent. Ben’s life in the US wouldn’t be the same without friends like Sierra.

The Election

The night of the 2016 presidential election, Ben was at a PCC viewing party with the rest of the student council. He was the last student to leave campus that day, and he called a taxi to go home. It was the first time Ben had felt unsafe in an Uber or Lyft. The driver asked Ben, 

“Did you watch the results?’ What are you going to do about it? Trump is President now. Are you going to leave or stay?’” (audio below)

Ben thinks America needed the 2016 election to mobilize people into helping marginalized communities. 

“If it weren’t for that election, some people would still be at home not doing anything. It brought people together.”

 Above: Ben loves listening to music to relax

International Student

Ben’s adjustment to being in the US has taken its toll on his mental health. He guesses that many international students share in this experience – especially those who come from countries where mental health is considered taboo. What Ben expected and what the reality was when he arrived in the US was completely different. For instance, the cost of living and the level of pressure at school both surprised him. All of this, plus the challenges he knew his parents were facing back home – like his Dad losing his job – made it much worse.

Since he arrived at OSU, Ben has been trying to talk to a counselor, but there is always a long waiting list.  

“When you are mentally not in the right place, how can they expect you to do well in your classes?” (audio below)

Future

Ben’s plan is to finish his bachelor’s degree, get a master’s degree, and then work in the US for a while. After that, he would like to return to the DRC. Ben had two dreams growing up. His first was becoming a soccer star, and that ended with a knee injury. His second dream was to one day become president. He still holds on to that second dream. 

As they say in the DRC,

“If you go first, it doesn’t mean you will arrive first.” (audio below)

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Joanne’s Immigration Story – Petaling Jaya, Malaysia to Columbus, Ohio

Family History

Joanne’s maternal grandfather came from a family of farmers in Kerala, India. The family poured what little money they had into Joanne’s grandfather’s future, so he could go to Malaya (now called Malaysia), get an education, and find a job. As he got older, pressure mounted for him to find a wife, so he returned to India for an arranged marriage. After the wedding, he went back to Malaysia with his new wife to start their lives together.

Above: Joanne’s mother’s cousin drew this family tree of how everybody is related when Joanne visited India in 2010.

Childhood

Joanne was born in Petaling Jaya, a small suburb of Malaysia’s largest city, Kuala Lumpur. It was a quiet place back then but is now a lively place, congested with traffic and people. Joanne’s mother worked as a software programmer, and her dad worked in human resources for a Japanese company. Her grandparents lived ten minutes away, so she saw them often. Joanne and her two siblings would often play in the evenings in the park by her home. 

Joanne’s father’s family is Christian, and her mother’s family is Hindu, but she was brought up Christian.

“Identity was tough because when you are Indian and Hindu, it is easy to define. Being a Christian Indian, I identified more with Western culture than Indian culture, but at the same time, I am Indian. People would say things like “go back to your own country”. I don’t think I could survive in India! [laughing]” (audio below)

Dreams

Joanne’s childhood dream was to become a pediatrician and work for the United Nations, but she quickly realized just how difficult that would be. She felt “stifled and stuck” in Malaysia. In this country, minority ethnic groups, like Indians, are at a disadvantage economically and socially.

“No matter how good I am, I can only get as far as my skin color would let me.” (audio below)

One of Joanne’s friends in high school had top marks but couldn’t get a scholarship to study medicine because she was Indian. Her classmates, who were Malay (the ethnic majority) and had subpar grades, were getting scholarships.

“I was so mad for her and for the students out there in the villages who would never get a chance no matter how well they performed!”

Joanne knew she needed to leave Malaysia someday. 

United States

In 2002, Joanne’s mother got a job as a software programmer in Denver, Colorado. Joanne arrived in Denver at age 15, but within two years, her mother’s company had downsized, and the family had no choice but to move back to Malaysia in 2004. In 2008 Joanne returned to the US to study actuarial science at the University of Illinois. After graduation, she returned to Malaysia, looking for a job. Joanne saw that The Edge Malaysia (a financial newspaper) was looking for a writer. She knew she could write, so she applied, got the job, and ended up working as a financial journalist for a few years.

“Writing has been something that I’ve always done since I was young. I’d get tons of books for Christmas and birthdays. I remember having a journal when I was eight or nine – just observing people and writing about it.”

Winners

In 2011, Joanne met Bryan, the man who would later become her husband. She had just returned to Malaysia from Illinois, and he had returned from Florida. After their marriage, she and her husband also entered the US green card lottery system – even though Joanne feels like she “never wins anything.” She couldn’t believe it when they both won! 

The weekend before they left Malaysia for the US, their friends threw them a barbeque party. Everyone had written them a letter, and Joanne’s siblings gave them to her at the airport. It was emotional, waiting for the plane, reading these letters.

“There were rough times in the first few months after getting to Ohio, so those letters were a big help.” (audio below)

Ohio

Joanne and her husband moved to the US in 2014, first to Virginia, then to Columbus, Ohio.

“Columbus still is not a big city. I miss that a lot. I miss taking the train somewhere. It’s been an adjustment, having a more quiet life.” 

The Hoover Dam, near her home, is a place where Joanne loves to go to reflect. 

“It gives me the perspective that there is a road ahead, and to never stop exploring because there is so much out there. I am afraid of falling into a rut. I don’t know if I will stay in Ohio for that long, because there is so much of the world to see.” 

Grandmother

Joanne often thinks about her maternal grandmother migrating from India to Malaysia. She was 16 when her family arranged her marriage to Joanne’s grandfather, who was 32. India’s caste system had a significant impact on their lives – her grandfather was from a higher caste. He was actually supposed to marry Joanne’s grandmother’s older sister, but when he saw her grandmother, he chose her. After the wedding, she boarded a ship for a country unknown to her.

“My grandmother left her entire family to go to Malaya with my grandfather – a man she barely knew. She then had five kids, and her whole life was devoted to her family. That’s all she knew. I connect with her story now, as an immigrant myself, and try to live my life to the fullest, realizing that she never had the same opportunity.”

Joanne has always been incredibly close to her grandmother, and her aunts often joke that Joanne’s her grandmother’s favorite.

Joanne asked her grandmother how she felt about getting on that ship to an unknown country. She told her she was scared but also excited. Joanne felt the same way coming to the US but knows that she had the advantages of knowing the language and a husband she knew. (audio below)

In 2012, her grandmother started giving her jewelry away to her grandchildren. She gave Joanne some gold bangles [see the photo above].

“These bangles are a nice reminder of her, and gold is so important to our culture. I hold on to them and hope that one day I can pass them on to my grandkids. My grandmother is one of the few people I miss a lot.”

Batik

Joanne has always loved batik, the fabric artform of SouthEast Asia. She came up with the idea for her own company and launched Kain & Co (Kain means cloth in Malay) on Etsy in 2017. She hopes that the company can help the women who make the items, as a portion of the sales goes to an education trust and to help the women develop their skills.

Above: A pillow with a Sarawakian design from Kain & Co

Differences

Joanne feels like she can truly be herself in America, whereas in Malaysia, that was never the case. She hopes Malaysia will become a place where all people can have opportunities regardless of their ethnic background.

“I hope younger people across the races will see the importance of being united and look past the old way things were done.”

Still, Joanne misses her family in Malaysia and how easy it was to make friends there. 

In Malaysia, anybody was willing to help you with anything. Here you are more alone. I remember the day my grandfather passed away. He passed away in the morning, and by 10 o’clock the house was bustling with family friends who brought food over. I don’t see that as much here. I miss that dependence on the people around you. (audio below)

Recently Joanne’s husband decided to fill their wall with iconic pictures from Malaysia’s famous tourist sites like the Cameron Highlands and Malacca as a reminder of home [see the above photo]. (audio below)

Future

Today Joanne works as a User Experience Content Strategist at an Insurance and Financial Services Company. Her husband is Head of Department at an international energy company.

Joanne and her husband initially connected over their shared interest in adventure and exploration. A big part of why they moved to the US was to try something different. Joanne isn’t sure where they will live in the future, but she has always dreamed of moving to Europe. 

In 2015 Joanne visited Ellis Island for her first time.

“I remember standing where immigrants used to come in. I was thinking about how it is in human nature to want more for yourself and your family no matter what time in history or what place you are from.” (audio below)

#FINDINGAMERICAN

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© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.