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by Carol LeMon Houchin, LPC, LMFT
Counseling Director, North Stafford High School

They can tell many stories in a school counselor’s office. Tears spill as one student recalls her 15th birthday without so much as a call from her estranged parents and not a mention of a “quincinera,” the traditional Hispanic celebration and rite of passage for girls at fifteen. A young man speaks of the death of his grandfather and father figure in Central America whose funeral he could not attend. A girl recalls the heartbreaking deportation of her brother and the shame she feels over their father’s incarceration. Another fears he must drop out of high school to work full time to send the family money since his mother lost her job. Others with loving, intact working families struggle to straddle two worlds with different languages, value systems, and customs.

Last school year I asked my students to help me help others understand. With their names changed, and with permission, here are their own words:

Melicia G., junior, plans to be an immigration lawyer and hopes to attend George Mason University in fall of 2009:

Q: What is it like to be the child of immigrant parents?

A: It is very hard and very stressful. My parents are legal now, but it is still stressful... stressful. There is always pressure on you. They do all this stuff for you so you can have a better life than they did and they work their butts off for you—they work their butts off! Sometimes you can be snotty and bratty and take for granted what all they do for you and then you feel bad.

Then you are worried that people will treat you different because your parents are immigrants. You worry about what people are saying about people that are immigrants especially like in Prince William. Everyone here came as an immigrant, and I don’t see how it is different, because they are trying to make something better for their children than what they had.

Q: What can the school do to make it better?

A: I used to live in Arlington. They did things for the parents so they could be in the activities of their children. A school bus would actually pick them up and take them to the activity so they could be more involved. My parents always used to go, because they wanted to be proud of me. I would always want my parents to see my art work, plays, and stuff. I was happy.

The program was called YES, and they did a lot of things. …there were different activities where you would learn how to interact with other people, no matter what age, race, or culture. Like they did a Passport Night where you could take your passport to different ethnic areas where you could taste different foods—Salvadoran, Ethiopian, Dominican—and get a stamp on your passport. It was fun.

Then I moved to Woodbridge. They would have people to translate, but they didn’t do the same things they did in Arlington. They would invite you, but they wouldn’t encourage or try to go out of their way to get you there, such as transportation.

Ariceli F., age 16, 9th grade:

Q: What is it like to be the child of immigrant parents?

A: My parents and my brothers have been through that. I have been living here my whole life. I was born in Virginia, but I know it is really hard for a teenager to be from another country and get used to another country where they only speak English. They feel stressed out and they don’t understand everything. Knowing that other people talk about something that you don’t know sometimes makes you start crying. For a teenager, it feels like the whole world leaves you alone.

If someone from here went to El Salvador, how would they feel? My first language was Spanish and it took me three years to learn English, kindergarten to 3rd grade. When I couldn’t understand things, I would cry. I used to tell my mom they didn’t like me, but really I didn’t understand. They would ask me in the sweetest way, but I didn’t understand.

Sometimes people tease them or bully them. There are bad kids laughing at them saying bad words they don’t understand.

Q: What about bullying?

A: Hispanic boys and girls don’t think they are protected by anyone. If they have a sister or someone they talk, but otherwise it is hard for them to be friends. When that happens other people take their lunch money—elementary, middle, and high school. Not all Hispanic people are like that, but many are. Some may have problems at home and feel peace at school. I was desperate to get to school for peace, to talk to friends, play, and not to see my mom and dad fight. Then when bad people come to you and bully or tease, you feel bad again and don’t know where you fit or feel comfortable. (School) is a place of shelter and torment.

Because I went through that sometimes I help them (fellow immigrants) out. I didn’t have anyone. Now that I see that I can do it—tell someone to stop and stand up for the person being teased or bullied—I feel good about myself.

One girl who came from El Salvador picked me to help her out. I was telling her where to go, where her classes were. This other girl didn’t like me and I didn’t like her either. She comes and starts to talk about the girl and laughs at her right in front of her. She says something really mean with a smile acting like it was something good she was saying, and my friend smiled at her and said hi because she had no idea what was going on. When I saw that I stood up and got really mad at her. I put her in my own friend’s shoes. “How would you feel if you went where my parents are from and people treated you that way? How would you feel if someone was saying mean things and you had no clue?”

I know this country needs Hispanics for housekeeping, construction, grass cutting. Hispanics do it. It is not to say that we are the best, but as long as we have a job we are happy to live in this country. We work for money to send to our family. That’s what my mother does. That’s why every immigrant makes the effort to earn for their family, to save up for their family.

Q: What about values?

A: Our culture has the mentality of someone that wants to save up money for the family and just thinks that he is going to come here and start to work. But when he actually comes here he sees everything different. He has to get a work permit, papers, and something to identify him. How can he identify himself just to get work anywhere? Some jobs ask you for some English. Back at home you just to work for $5 a day, and you don’t need any identification—you just work. But not so here. No one is prepared for that. Before it was easier.

When my mom and dad came, President Ronald Reagan was here and he was giving out residence to every person that came. He was helping them out. My mom got a job fast and she started working as housekeeping. Thanks to her I have what I have and dress like I dress. My mom brought one by one each of my brothers.

When a child is born, they always say: When a tree is growing you could actually put it straight, but when it is too big you can’t do anything about it. That’s how it was with my brothers. They weren’t raised with my dad but with my grandmother. They would listen but they wanted to be like they were with grandmother. Then Mom was soft on them but dad was strict. They said to him, “You don’t have the right to tell me what to do because you weren’t with me.” Dad said, “Who dressed you when you were growing up? Even though I wasn’t there I sent the money.”

Wendy D., 18-year-old senior, wants to be an immigration lawyer and attend Marymount University:

Q: What has life been like for you in North America?

A: In my case I didn’t ask my parents to bring me here, I was living with my grandmother in El Salvador. My parents came to the US when I was still a baby and got their papers through their jobs. (My mother is a legal citizen now. My dad is still a resident legal resident and waiting for citizenship.) When they sent for me, a friend brought me to Florida where I was left by myself and Immigration got me. I was saying I wanted to get back to my grandmother, and I don’t know how they got in contact with my parents.

It was a good change for me because I have had a good education and it’s a better atmosphere for me to live in because over there is all the crime and gang stuff. But they didn’t think about the other things like my future. Because when I was younger things didn’t really matter whether I was legal or not, but once I turned fifteen everybody started getting their drivers license and things. Everyone would ask me and I would have to make up excuses like “I am not allowed to get it yet.” I still do that today. Now I tell them that I am scared to drive. The working issue too, is harder to me. If I don’t have transportation I can’t work where I would need transportation. Plus specific jobs where I would need documentation I can’t work.

When Congress came up with the Dream Act Bill it got my hopes up, but I think it was defeated two or three times. Right now I couldn’t see myself going back to El Salvador because I am almost an American. I grew up here my whole life and I don’t know anything else. I have seen stuff about El Salvador in pictures and on TV, but I don’t know how I would do living there if for any reason I couldn’t get my documents fixed and got deported. They are deporting a lot of people nowadays especially in Prince William. If you get stopped for a traffic matter and if they ask for your papers and you don’t have them, they take you straight to Immigration. So that’s like a worry.

Q: What is preventing you from becoming legal?

A: Every single time I ask, the only thing they tell me they need $2,000 for a lawyer, but they don’t go on further than that. My aunts and uncles, some are legal and some are not. My uncle has stopped visiting us because they are afraid of getting stopped in Prince William. My grandmother used to live with us. She has to go to dialysis three days a week, but then with the new law in Prince William County my uncle no longer wanted to come here, so they took her back with them. So now I don’t see my grandmother anymore.

I don’t want other students to know I am illegal because some of them are very against it, feeling they should send all immigrants back to their countries because they don’t pay taxes and they are not really needed. I don’t know everybody’s opinion , so whenever someone asks me if I have a green card most times I try to pretend I didn’t hear or change the topic because I don’t like to say I don’t have it.

This is one of the things that pushes me to work even harder. Without papers I don’t have the opportunities and if they see how hard I am working they will give me a chance just like everybody else. Or they feel they can’t get any help because they need papers for everything—a job, health care, drivers license. They might not have enough money or make enough at their job, they probably don’t know about food stamps or how to get other assistance. This is one of the reasons I want to become an immigration lawyer. I want to help those that do not have the financial help that they need or the resources and information. They probably need somebody to push them a little bit to tell them this is available for you and you can get this here. In Arlington they have a program for families, and this one lady speaks Spanish and English and they take them to a food place where they can get food or furniture.

People sometimes withdraw; our family doesn’t talk to anybody in our neighborhood. My Mom doesn’t really talk to anybody and stays to herself. We say, “hi” and that’s as far as it goes. But in my uncle’s neighborhood they know where to go and have people who can help if they need guidance.

They are more protected there. Their economy would be affected because there are so many there. I don’t know what my friend would think if he knew I was illegal. He likes me and thinks I am a good person, but I am afraid people will make fun of me or start talking bad about me if they know.

(My mom) still wants to keep controlling me. She wants to have the last word. She wouldn’t sign for school because, no, you are to be working.

Michael E., senior, step-son of military officer and teacher:

Q: What was it like coming to North America?

A: I was age ten when I came—had finished 4th grade but needed to repeat it. Oh well, it was all right. The hardest thing was that people wouldn’t understand me. Like when I had to go to the rest room, the teacher wouldn’t understand. She would call for someone to figure out what I was saying and I had to wait so long.

Then I would get sent to the Principal. People would say, “ Say this to the teacher” and it was something you weren’t supposed to say. My brother used to hate going to school because he didn’t have friends and my mother would have to force him to go to school.

The best part of my day was ESL and recess. There everybody has fun and you don’t need to talk to anybody to have fun. When I learned to speak English I was afraid that others couldn’t understand. So even though I could speak I didn’t. I would go to the store and need to ask for something but would think they would wonder, What is he trying to say?, so I would wait.

Some of what happened made me not want to trust in people I used to think “everybody is good and nice.” One time my mom had bought me something and this one kid wanted it but I said “No it is mine.” So he told the teacher that I had stolen it from him. My mom called and said it was mine but I was mad and disappointed.

Sometimes I was tempted to get in fights but not on the school grounds because I knew I would get in trouble. Some teachers didn’t like me for some reason.

Q: What other adjustments did you have to make?

A: I think also the culture, since it is different. And the food. I did not like the food. I thought, I am going to starve myself to death it is so nasty. But you get used to it. We used to go to my stepdad’s parents’ house and she would make soup which I hated.

Q: What do you think has helped you keep such a good sense of humor and be so resilient?

A: Advice from my parents. Like when they have a hard time at work or with people at work, they say it will get better. And my friends—not everybody is like that.

The culture is different. Here people don’t spend a lot of time together as a family. Like at some of my friends’ house they do not eat together and for us eating together is a big deal. Also the family is very important. After school I take care of my younger siblings instead of day care.

People place too much emphasis on work and forget what home is. Like if they have a bad day at work they are angry at people in the house instead of saying, “Oh, that was at work”. No matter what happened, my grandfather would treat me so nicely, tell me stories and stuff. He would not yell. If I did something he didn’t approve of, he would focus on how to fix and not to do it again. I liked that.

Derek G., American born senior, planning to attend Southern Virginia University and become a military officer.

We need to understand the perspective of those who come to this country and what they go through to have a decent life. Even when they get here they are still improved, not by our standard but they are grateful to be here.

We may still have our opinions about how people get here, because nobody wants people just running into the country. We always see it in a negative connotation, but it is more than that. We need to share, understand, and work something out. We could be a little more accepting if we were just able to talk to them and get something worked out. They would be willing to deal with it.

Is it possible to make things better? If the best minds and the biggest hearts work together are solutions waiting to be found? These young people represent many others like them who think, feel, and care deeply. They are caught between two worlds through no fault of their own, a generation that has been growing and developing while society has been looking the other way. If we tap their creative energy and old world values, we may be surprised that the impossible is possible. What may seem like the problem may be part of the solution. What do you think?

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