November 10, 2009

Learning as We Go

My mom always says, tuvimos que aprender con vos. My parents moved to a small town in Virginia shortly after marrying in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was born one year later as my father was working to open his first restaurant that would fulfill my parents’ dreams for our family.

I am first generation in this country and the first-born out of three in my family. I grew up in this small town, watching my parents trying to communicate with others, noticing that they were different, and I could see that it was difficult for others to understand them.

As a child, I was confused and frustrated that people didn't understand my parents. It was evident to me that they were different from everyone else, and I learned early on that I would be an important resource to them. My parents depended on me to learn the nuances and systems of this country and guide them in the process. The role I took on also gave me great insight to the experiences of immigrants and their first-generation children, and the important roles played by education and helping hands in general.

To this day, my mother and father only speak Spanish at home (¡no saben cómo se lo agradezco!). I didn’t speak English when I entered kindergarten, and I fondly remember the amazing teachers who gave their time after school to tutor me when ESL programs didn’t exist. They also became a great resource to my parents, providing them what they needed the most: guidance, encouragement and confidence. But while we were helped by many people along the way, I also learned the hard way that sometimes you have to go it alone.

In high school, my counselor placed me in classes meant for students not interested in going to college. I never understood why this decision was made for me. But that didn’t dissuade me from getting myself on the right path. My parents were amazingly supportive, and encouraged me to make the right choices since they were unfamiliar with the education system. In 2003, I was the first woman in my family to graduate from college.

As an adult I appreciate the courage it took for my parents to come to a new country where they didn't speak the language or understand the system or the culture, and where they weren’t surrounded by friends and family to help them along. I feel honored and proud to have helped my family the best I could. This has shaped me into the person I am today.

It has become a passion of mine to help, as others have helped my parents and me. In college I tutored ESL students preparing to take their SATs and counseled them through the college application process. And I worked part time as an interpreter at an immigration law office. It was my way of paying forward the positive experiences I had growing up.

In my two years at RLPR, I’ve executed exciting programs at nationwide and grassroots levels where I’ve applied my experiences and observations of the immigrant population. I’ve learned that communications can inspire change, and I’ve seen the great impact an educational initiative can have on a community. I’ve worked with national and local media to inform the Hispanic community about important health topics like diabetes and obesity; organized health fairs to give local communities in Chicago and New York access to doctors, nutritionists and physical fitness experts; and developed bilingual materials for schools and clinics. Identifying a need in the community and providing resources and opportunities for education continues to inspire and motivate me.

When we develop communication programs at RLPR we first talk about our audience – acculturated, unacculturated, new arrivals, moms, urban youth, country of origin, etc. Understanding the needs, values and preferences of each segment is vital to successfully reaching them in a way that is relevant and meaningful. It’s empowering to me that my experiences and observations as the child of immigrants is critical to this process.

To this day, my parents still rely on me for many things. They still call me up when they need to order something online or need to find flights to Argentina. They say I find the best deals! And while, secretly I know they really could do it themselves, I do it con amor.

Who or what has had the greatest impact in your life? What immigration story has most moved you?