Summary: It takes sociability, hard work, determination, resilience, love, and the benevolence of strangers for an immigrant to prosper. What’s not to admire?
Though some immigrants enter the United States with skills, or money reserves, or family members already arrived to keep them afloat, in the beginning their story typically is one of poverty, of hardship and of lives tested, despite the help they are given, despite the myth abroad of the gilded path this country is not. Opportunity arrives within the belief of the supplicant and in her own resilient determination to make something of the new life, most notably for her children, who become students in our schools.
By chance a family friend, call her April (all names changed), relayed just such a chronicle of two immigrant families, one of them Iranian, and the other Mexican. April first became acquainted with the families through the mothers, the Iranian Aisha and the Mexican Leticia, both of whom she tutored in math through an adult literacy program. Over time she would become cultural guide, a source of practical information, a confidant, a friend, and even a financial angel.
Lest the relationship seem too one sided, April jokes emphatically that she “doesn’t cook,” inside information that led to many dinners for her at the homes of both families over the years. What at first seems like patronage becomes more like friendship, and an exchange of giving.
Aisha, her husband Amid, and daughter Mina five years ago won the immigration lottery and were granted entrance to the United States. The family came from an upper middle class background in their native Iran, but in that theocracy the options for a young woman were limited; the inclination to the States was for Mina’s future. Both parents had a high school education. Amid had some college, enough to learn nascent skills in web design, which he expected to parley into a job at a Seattle tech giant, an aspiration in which we shall see him stymied.
Leticia and her husband Francisco lived “dirt poor” in Oaxaca State before the destruction of their home by a hurricane impelled them North as agricultural workers. Their first child, Brian, was a baby. Leticia had shown scholastic promise early, but her conservative parents were reluctant to allow her to move to an urban area to pursue her education, a disappointment that fueled her determination that her kids not suffer the same fate, and lent motive to the immigrant road.
We know with hindsight that both sets of parental dreams have borne fruit. Mina has finished her freshman year at the University of Washington and Brian has recently graduated from Seattle University. Brian’s US born siblings seem well on the same path. This arrival has not been without trial as the families’ native strengths and weakness played out in this alien culture.
Aisha, the Iranian mother, is a natural net-worker, the prototypical extrovert who did not let her mixed command of English defeat her. While walking in a Seattle park she met an administrator at a local private school. By her sociability, her work ethic, and effectiveness with kids she converted a subsequent volunteer position into a paying job in her new acquaintance’s preschool. With her family in need of money, she baby-sat and taught swimming evenings and during her days off (and did all the household cooking, cleaning, and laundry). Eventually the school rewarded her capacities by sending her to school to become a Montessori teacher.
As Aisha grew in skills and professional stature, she thought to open her own daycare, which would be more lucrative than working for someone else, and so approached her husband about renting a house in a less expensive suburban neighborhood, in order to have room for her day care.
Here the story turns more troubled. Though Amid had arrived with a job in hand, it eventually ended. In seeking new employment, he limited himself to online application and refused the various overtures from both April and Aisha to network in the Iranian tech community and with American friends, or to upgrade his skills by taking classes. Nor would he temporarily apply to the post office or for abundant retail positions. Inflexible, convinced he had the job-seeking culture deciphered, he turned inward as the months went by, compounding his isolated nature.
His rigidity extended to any move to a house with capacity for a day care; to date Aisha’s plans are on hold. Family relations appear tense; frustration seems not to have resolution in this family system.
Amid did follow through with a suggestion to become an Uber driver, that clever respite for the marginally employed. He needed a car. Here April became a financial angel; she paid the $2000 down auto payment, and so may have helped squeeze the family through a tight spot in their survival.
Both parents, at least for the moment stymied in their respective quests, of late show signs of bitterness, to the point of lamenting that they “are no better off” than when they arrived. It was not a moment to remind them that if they came to this country for their daughter’s future, she at least is well on her way. Aisha is momentarily victim of her husband’s obdurate nature and he seems there imprisoned. The high expectations of a son and daughter of the Iranian upper middle class may lend a shadow, as well.
By comparison, the Mexican arrivals, Leticia and Francisco, were borne out of poverty, seem to have come to this country with nothing to lose, and remain grateful for every step up.
Leticia is Aisha’s twin in that she communicates well with people, impresses with her determination, her work ethic, and her good nature. She has navigated her own growth as a person as well as the cultural pathways of Seattle with energy.
Unlike Aisha, the Mexican couple is advantaged by a cohesive marriage. Not only is Francisco a consistent bread winner, and is a more available partner, but important decisions between the couple are made on a collaborative plane, which seems to strengthen their spirit. Francisco appears to have his own distinctive and competent character – the owner of the small business where he works has asked Francisco to take over its ownership.
The family is deeply religious. As with Mexican immigrants before them, the Catholic Church with its traditions and iconography brought from Mexican culture may serve to strengthen them as a bridge from home.
From a parent hesitant to enter a teacher conference without friendly support (April) in tow, Leticia now marches boldly in by herself with hard won command of English and security about her right to inquire of the school professionals. Unsatisfied with what she saw as treatment of her kids in their public schools, she researched and found funding to attend private Catholic schools; currently two kids continue to attend the secondary version, and one has graduated. The younger daughter attends a public school with which Leticia is satisfied.
Leticia’s amiability and competence eventually prompted the adult education program where she and April met to employ her. Funding as always short, Alice stepped in and paid her protégé’s salary. I know, extraordinary.
That wasn’t all. Leticia suffered from poor dental hygiene and lack of ready access to a dentist. With April as compass, they found a dental agency that did the needed work at a reasonable price. In the end, April herself footed the bill.
In these stories, Leticia, Francisco, Aisha and their respective children, embody the characteristics of those who thrive as immigrants — the ability to learn and to adapt, to work at whatever they must, to make human connections across cultures, to be determined and resilient, to work hard with commitment to the future, to have courage, to be grateful. And then, as with all low income folks there are tight financial times that can make or break their enterprise, and here a financial angel like April is a godsend.
Again, extraordinary. Why April loosens her purse is an inevitable question. Admiration for the quality of person that has landed in this country and not only survived, but thrived. The connection to other human beings who have become an integral part of her life. The grace of personal fortune that has gifted April with enough of a standard of living to be able to share it with someone demonstrably worthy. Giving back, gratitude to a higher power. On some level, love.