Becoming American

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Recently, I shared a brief summary of my last four years in Brazil. It was essentially what I could provide as context; context into who I was before I was a DREAMer. When my dreams were theoretical, my identity was Brazilian. When I came here for the chance to live out my mom’s dreams of a more promising life for us, I slowly gave up every part of me that was foreign for the American Dream; the big things and the little things. Assimilation felt necessary, and my teacher for the third and fourth grades one day told me she’d never seen someone assimilate as quickly. 

I started the third grade in America knowing about five words in English. I walked into my classroom on the first day, sat down and looked around, taking in the many ethnicities around the room, as my teacher spoke in gibberish. As she spoke, I saw faces looking at me with empathy, curiosity, skepticism, and judgement. Then, hands shot up and one was chosen. A blond little girl was chosen to be my ‘‘special buddy’, my assimilation mentor. The administrators assigned me an interpreter, and enrolled me in ESL. It took no longer than one year. My school provided all kinds of tools and avenues, support and encouragement for my assimilation, but looking back, I received no support or encouragement to continue learning my language or learning about my culture. 

First, I stopped watching novelas, I stopped concerning myself with their concerns. Then, I stopped listening to Brazilian music, I stopped feeling their emotions. I then stopped reading Brazilian ‘Turma da Monica’ (Monica’s Crew) comic books, I was growing older and abandoning my inner child. My teachers begged me to stop writing in cursive, the official handwriting of Brazil. Gradually, I stopped having dreams in Portuguese. I stopped reacting to pain in Portuguese. When hurting myself on the playground, instead of “AYEE”, I trained myself to instinctually scream, “OWW!” Sometimes, I would hurt myself on purpose, to practice, because the former made me an outcast, and the latter normalized me. Then, with time, the words I heard were processed in English first, then my brain would translate them into Portuguese. When my native tongue became the one that needed translation, I proudly thought to myself, ‘I have successfully assimilated!’ My best friend in Brazil stopped writing to me. Even though I was maturing mentally, I avoided conversations in Portuguese that required a mature vocabulary. Soon, English words started to sneak their way into my everyday conversations in Portuguese. Even when I played with friends from Brazil, speaking in English was easier.

I was no longer Brazilian, I lost that identity, but I was not American either. Another aspect of my identity that needed to change was the way I presented myself. In Brazil, everyone in the middle class is well-dressed. If you walked out of your home in mix-matched clothes, other middle class people would look at you as if you have a screw loose. The four years we’d spent living in my aunt’s apartment, my mom and I were living as middle class Brazilians. She lovingly hand-made me clothes that fit the part, just as she had been making for herself as a young girl. My American friends didn’t dress that way, they dressed down. Throughout the first few years, I always looked overdressed. In an elementary public school, looking overdressed was not a good look. I looked different and because of that, I was bullied for many years. As I felt that social pressure, I also pushed away that part of my culture, and my mom. We fought every day, over clothing, for the sake of assimilation. 

A friend of mine from Pakistan wore colorful outfits, silky pants and a matching tunic, both with intricate patterns. Those outfits were traditional clothing from her culture that she wore throughout elementary school. In fifth grade, our group finally convinced her to wear ‘normal clothes’ for one day. The next day, we brought her options of jeans and T-shirts to change into during recess. The look of discomfort and shame I saw in her face still haunts me. 

Immigrant children haven given up so much to make Americans see us as one of you, but we were never allowed to feel like we were American too. When Arnold Schwarzenegger (a first generation immigrant) became California’s governor, I was in middle school, and word around the halls was that he was trying to ban immigrant children from public schools. Ironic as it was, it was a stark reminder that we were still not accepted. I couldn’t understand why. We had changed every brainwave we could control, trying to be just like you. I thanked God for policies like No Child Left Behind. We wanted more than anything for America to accept us. 

The longer we stayed, the less choice we had. We came here as children, some as babies, but when we became adults, we couldn’t go back. While we were learning your history, we were not learning theirs. While we were learning your language, we stopped learning theirs. While we were earning a high school diploma valid in your country, we did not earn one there. While we developed our mentality to survive in your country, we had not learned how to survive there. We were stuck in limbo, not only legally but culturally. 

Having held a green card for a couple of years, I still feel like I’m in limbo, as the Trump administration tries to revoke even permanent resident status. So what is it going to take for America to accept us, and for us to feel accepted? It sure isn’t documentation. It’s going to take Americans saying that they want us to stay. It’s going to take Americans responding to call-to-actions as if they know lives depend on it. It’s going to take Americans amplifying DREAMers’ voices to show to other Americans that those voices matter. It’s going to take Americans advocating for us with the same passion as they do for causes affecting Americans.


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