Growing up as a child of immigrants in the U.S., sometimes I felt like an outcast.
Often as a Mexican-American, I thought only folks from Latin America had immigration stories and struggles — these struggles ranged from language barriers, diasporas among immigrant children, culture shock, etc. As I got older, I realized this narrative of only Latinx immigrants being here was not true. I never thought folks from different backgrounds would have such similar immigration stories as I do. While many immigrants have different backgrounds, languages, and cultures, many of our struggles in the U.S. and our immigrant stories are so intertwined. Many folks flee their countries due to violence, food scarcity, job scarcity, or simply for better schooling opportunities.
After realizing this, I started wanting to work more with different communities! Making my activism more intersectional by actively going into different communities and showing solidarity with them is extremely important. This is why, as an intern for NCAAT participating in our Youth Summer Workshop series and listening to Jimmy Patel-Nguyen from REFUGENE speaking on his family’s story was really eye-opening! (REFUGENE is a Vietnamese-American led story collection project and an apparel brand that honors refugee stories through designs on their t-shirts.)
NCAAT’s summer speaker series is an amazing way to hear different Asian American stories and perspectives, especially if you are trying to build more solidarity with Asian communities. Every speaker panel has a new person speaking on unique topics with a question panel at the end. Some of the speakers have been Dr. Heidi Kim, a professor of English and comparative literature at UNC Chapel Hill, and Neel Mandavilli, who works for the Caldwell Fellows program at NC State. Both talked about what struggles they faced as first-generation students in the U.S.
COVID-19 has affected how we share our stories and organize. But with this speaker series, sharing our stories and listening to other folks’ stories is easier than ever! Attending the speaker series is an amazing way to show solidarity with the Asian community as a non-Asian. Showing up to other communities’ events is especially important right now to build communities within the BIPOC groups! We as a collective can build a stronger community.
It’s important to listen to immigration stories like Jimmy’s family refugee story. Like many other children of immigrants, Jimmy knew the minimum of his family’s refugee story. But after his father had a heart attack, it was his wake-up call to begin asking more about his family’s history. This is what led to Jimmy recording these key stories for future generations.
Like many other immigrants, Jimmy’s father had never anticipated coming to the U.S. After being enlisted into the Vietnam war as a teenager, he decided to leave Vietnam in 1975. Keeping these stories alive and passing them on to the next generation is vital to keeping cultures and practices alive! Having these conversations about why exactly they decided to immigrate can connect you more with your parents and culture.
Why is knowing your family’s immigration or refugee story important? As children of immigrants there’s often that disconnect with your parents because of culture shock. Oftentimes immigrant or refugee parents will not go out of their way to talk about their feelings or life story to not seem as a burden or “weak.” Reaching out to your parents and actively listening will not only make you more mindful, but it can also deepen your relationship with your family and culture. Knowing your family’s story can help close your disconnect with your culture. You can also pass on these stories to the next generation of your family to keep your culture alive. These stories hold so much power and show how strong your people are as a collective.
How are immigration stories from different communities similar? Many folks who leave their home country never actively planned or dreamed of leaving their country. The decision is generally made in the spur of the moment, after realizing there’s nothing left to stay for in their countries of origin. Jimmy’s grandfather used his life savings to buy gold bars and told his daughter (Jimmy’s mother) that if they were to be separated, use the gold to make a life for herself. This led them to immigrate to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Personally, my father made the decision to leave his country, Mexico, in a two-day period after his family’s farm was failing.
My grandpa used what little money he had and sent all six of his sons to Houston, Texas, to escape starvation and poverty. The sacrifices a parent makes for their children expand ethnicity, language, and country. Listening to the REFUGENE workshop was an eye-opening experience! It inspired me to continue to work with different communities because we’re all more similar than we are different. For more in-depth conversations, sign up for the remainder of NCAAT’s summer workshops at ncaatogether.org/youth/workshops.
María José is 16 years old and a rising senior at Garner High School. She is an intern at NCAAT and a senior fellow for ACE (Alliance for Climate Education)! She has worked with other organizations like el Pueblo as a youth council member before. She is really excited to be working with NCAAT and voter registration!