Karla’s Immigration Story: In both worlds

No matter what side of the immigration and citizen debate one gravitates to, the inability of our nation’s leaders to find consensus has been distressing to watch. During one of our team meetings, we found ourselves sharing our own stories of what the word immigration means to us. We thought we’d share a little more about our team members over the course of time.


Have you ever been alone at night, in an empty office? The hollowness of the office at night is startling.

Many of my earliest childhood memories surround a recollection of nights spent in an empty office building. At the age of six, I would stand alone in the quietness of it all. Grazing through the meticulous arrangement of cubicles, smelling the aroma of paper in the air, and marveling at the faces of loved ones, captured in picture frames, on top of desks, I would think about who sat in these spaces during the day.  Almost immediately, I would think that one day, I would sit in an office too, and have my own pictures up.

As I stood thinking, my mother and father knelt cleaning. They were working the part-time shift at the very building I was captivated by. And at the end of every shift, we’d close up shop together – my sisters and I would run across the office to turn off the lights before returning home with my parents.

As I grew older, it dawned on me that these earlier memories were one of a kind. Not everyone took their children to work with them, as they cleaned office buildings at night to complement their full-time shift earlier in the day. Indeed, time told me my upbringing was unconventional, and absolutely magical.

I was born in Bogota, Colombia. My parents migrated to the United States with their three daughters (ages 5, 2 and a newborn) in 1992. Settling in the urban metropolis of Union City, New Jersey, I grew up speaking English with friends and Spanish with family; listening to Ana Gabriel’s latin ballads at night, and jamming out to Aaliyah’s R&B hits during the day; eating government provided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at school and consuming arroz con frijoles at home.

My two worlds co-existed, but in many ways were siloed from one another. As a young adult, I became more conscientious of this divide and have since tried to be more intentional about bridging my past with my present and future. I speak Spanglish with my cousins, cook vegan latin food, and try (albeit mediocrely) to dance salsa, for example.

But I often think of the parts of me that were lost through this immigration transition. “Who would I be had my parents stayed in Colombia?” Probably a better salsa dancer! But in all seriousness, I am so grateful that they did leave.

I am grateful that they sacrificed everything they ever knew to make a new life for their family here in the United States; that their perseverance and hard work translated in their determination to ensure their daughters all went to college; and that they took me with them, many moons ago, to the empty office building I once aspired to belong to.

[Picture above: A (grainy) picture of me and my family.]
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Alina’s Immigration Story: Different borders, different narratives

No matter what side of the immigration and citizen debate one gravitates to, the inability of our nation’s leaders to find consensus has been distressing to watch. During one of our team meetings, we found ourselves sharing our own stories of what the word immigration means to us. We thought we’d share a little more about our team members over the course of time.


When looking at the stories of immigration within my family, the story is very much split. For me, the movement of people beyond human-constructed borders have shaped our world as it is today, and I believe people as a whole are richer for this pattern.

My Grandma and Grandpa T immigrated to the United States, along with my dad in the 1960s.  While the internment of Japanese Americans had ended nearly 20 years prior, it was by no means an inherently welcoming country.  Conscious of the new ground they walked on, and accompanying cultural attitudes, my grandparents imparted on my father the importance of adopting the “American culture.” He was raised to only speak English and say his last name differently so classmates and teachers could understand (which still didn’t work).  They didn’t want to offend any US-born Americans.

My grandparents were not forced to immigrate, and yet in some ways it felt that way.  In Japan, they were often ostracized for being Christian. In a society where the level of personal success was customarily linked to the level of familial connection, opportunity to thrive was stifled by a generational history of hardship. Following their immigration to the States, my Grandma T won awards for her quilts and my Grandpa T personally contributed to research that won their research team at the National Institutes of Health the Noble Prize.  I believe they were proud of being Japanese, although showed it mostly behind the brick walls of their sweet Bethesda home.  I also believe they were proud to be Americans.

On the flip side, I recently learned – to my surprise – that my Grandma on my mom’s side, is also a second-generation immigrant.  It was to my surprise because of the way she’s always acted towards people external to herself and her culture, and how she’s contributed to the immigration conversation.  She has voiced adoration for her mother’s Canadian roots, and simultaneous scorn for those trying to seek asylum from violence at our southern border. To be quite candid, for her – it’s because some are brown, and others white. This juxtaposition of opinion baffles me, and yet somehow I’ve come to expect it from her (she was disapproving of my mother and father’s union, as “interbreeding” was not to be had within her family, or outside of it for that matter).

I’m proud of my Grandma and Grandpa T for the contributions they made to my life and to others during their time on this earth. I’m disgraced and disgusted that those within my family have contributed to the injustices and prejudices imposed on others that can has generational effects of trauma, just because of their own ignorance.

My Grandpa T, me, my sister, and our printed quilts.

In my upbringing, I similarly felt this conflict from two halves of different cultures.  I was made fun of a school for my “unusual” snacks.  I was the only kid of color in my class for the entirety of elementary school and on my soccer team.  Growing up, I only knew a handful of people who were bi- or multi-racial and who identified as such.  I was constantly “othered,” forever in the out-group. When I was younger, I didn’t fully understand why people put so much stake into pointing out differences, and so often with a negative connotation.

When looked at from afar, you can so easily see this world is a puzzle, all of the coast lines’ curvy edges fitting together. I wish that people could see that without each piece, the puzzle remains incomplete, and lacking. While I don’t believe everyone is made completely of where they came from, I recognize how much it can influence who we are, how we think, and where we’re accepted. I like thinking about how conversations about immigration might be different if Earth’s geography was still like Pangea, but unfortunately feel that humans would fall into our folly of blaming for being of a different place rather than celebrating the richness and wholeness diversity brings. To me, people are people are people are people, and should be treated as such. Celebrate the threads that connect us together, and those which make our fabrics unique. Celebrate your heritage, your culture, and allow others to celebrate with you.

[Picture above: My front-toothless self wholeheartedly beaming because the day came when I finally fit into my Grandma T’s yukata (kimono), in the backyard of their Bethesda home.]
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Contemplating Terminology this National ‘Minority’ Mental Health Awareness Month

In July, we celebrate National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in honor of Bebe Moore Campbell who was an African-American author, journalist, teacher and longtime advocate for raising awareness of mental health, also noted for writing about individuals and families confronting social issues, including mental illness. It is a worthy celebration, and organizations that make special efforts to highlight mental health awareness in diverse communities with the aim to improve access to and seeking of mental health treatment and services are to be lauded.

At the same time, we at Change Matrix wonder if celebrating ‘minority’ mental health month should be reframed. Not the concept itself, but the name which is now a misnomer given the demographic shifts that have led the nation to become increasingly diverse. (Most recent Census Bureau projections suggest the country will become majority-minority by 2044.) For many individual states, the tipping point is slated to occur much sooner. California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas are the only states where people who identify as a race/ethnicity other than non-Hispanic whites already make up the majority of the population. The latest estimates suggest the next states in line to surpass this threshold are Nevada (48.5 %), Maryland (47.4 %) and Georgia (45.7 %).[1]

Our desire to communicate quickly and concisely warrants the use of terms that aggregate and disaggregate population groups. In order to differentiate between ‘whites’ and other races, the term ‘minority’ has been used. But who wants to be a minority, or for that matter a ‘person of color’, ‘white’, indigenous or an aboriginal person, a resident alien or any of the other terms we currently use to describe different population groups that co-exist within the USA?

Each one of us at CM are grappling with this conundrum – how to honor and respect people from different ethnicities and cultures. When we speak with different ethnic/cultural communities, we should ask them how they would like to be addressed and respect their wishes as we communicate and work with them. However, when we are working with multiple ethnicities and cultures, how do we address them or refer to them as a collective?

Do you have thoughts on what terminology might be appropriate to refer to this broad population? Should we push the field to move away from aggregate language? We invite you to share your thoughts on our Facebook page!

“As I grow older, part of my emotional survival plan must be to actively seek inspiration instead of passively waiting for it to find me.” – Bebe Moore Campbell

Contributed by: Suganya Sockalingam

[1] Governing The States and Localities https://www.governing.com/gov-data/census/state-minority-population-data-estimates.html last retrieved June 16 2019.

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