The immigrant parent has worked for many years with great personal sacrifice, depriving himself/herself of many things he or she would have loved to buy or enjoy, so that she could save enough money to bring the child left behind. This means not just buying a plane ticket, or securing safe crossing of the border with a trusted “coyote” (the people who cross the undocumented traveler for a substantial amount of money), but also, if they choose to bring the children with documents, paying expensive legal fees to apply for his permanent residence papers. This is a process that goes on for a very prolonged period of time because the applicants are placed in long waiting lists and the government will only allow legal residence to a set quota of immigrants from each country each year. Often, it will take from 8 to 10 years for the applicant to be considered. It also involves many trips to the lawyer with the appropriate documents, before the final trip to present all the documents in the embassy of the USA in the country of birth. When this is finally accomplished, the parent has conscious or unconscious expectations for retribution from a “grateful child.” These expectations translate into demands that the child have excellent achievement in school, be obedient and also, happily willing to take over some responsibilities at home. Furthermore, that, just as the parent has, that he is equally willing to sacrifice his social and recreational life in order to master the language and the skills necessary to become successful when he grows up. As it is usually the case for both immigrant and just any youngster, the child starts to exhibit reluctance to perform domestic tasks, resistance to the academic demands of school and a clear preference for an exciting social life with his peers. At this point, the parent feels cheated and tends to view this behavior as ungratefulness on the child’s part. Great disappointment and angry frustration sets in, the parental criticism sometimes becomes harsh and the sermons long.
Facing real difficulties in school, sometimes due to a “spotty” and deficient education from financially strangled school systems or, perhaps never having developed the self- discipline necessary to tackle the academic world, especially when, growing up in their rural environment, he or she was expected to help the adults by working in the fields, early at dawn, before school or as soon as the school let out, so they were too exhausted to do school assignments. Or, maybe even as a consequence of an undiagnosed specific learning difficulty, or simply because he is taking his very needed time to adapt to this new and emotionally challenging environment. This child feels misunderstood, rejected and humiliated by an angry parent who will not accept any kind of failure at school, now that he has this great opportunity of attending an American school. This wonderful opportunity is something that the parent, of course, never had and would die for. This state of affairs confirms the youngster’s worst fears of not being loved and appreciated as a son or daughter within this newly started and tenuous bond and helps to confirm his nagging doubts that he will fail miserably because he is not good and smart enough, or worthy of love. Conflict begins to grow in giant steps between them, as everything continues to be taken by both as a personal injury, rather than as the typical problems parents and adolescents have to negotiate, especially in a new and challenging environment. When seen from the outside, this sad situation appears very puzzling to teachers and school administrators. To them it is simply a matter of setting firm limits on the part of the parent; so that the child can learn that school requires sustained effort on his/her part, rather than avoidance behaviors. However, the feelings in the players of this game are very complex and deep rooted, obscuring the problems that appear in the surface. Behind it all, the separation in their relationship and the fears of not being loved and being abandoned again on the part of the child and the parents fear of never being loved by the child just complicate everything. The frustration in the parent revolves around his/her feelings of being taken advantage by an ungrateful child who is not willing to do his part of the deal and also, at a deeper level, feelings of guilt at having left the child and lost their love perhaps forever. This emotional storm muddles greatly their ability to set rules and consequences. Unless these feelings can be dealt with, little progress happens in solving the problems of school achievement for the parent and the child. And yet…if only both could hang in there and have faith, they would see as many of us professionals have seen, so many of these same kids are able to finish high school or take a paralel route that will allow them to have success and a better life. They do learn the language, they do learn to write and read in English, they can even end up going to higher education. They just need to hear this over and over from a trusted adult to survive the first difficult and slow part of the begining of the road.
Beyond the separation issues clouding any conflict between parent and child, the parent feels that the child just needs to work harder, because that is the way he or she has been able to get ahead in this country: by putting long hours of hard work. Thus, it is very difficult for them to understand the child’s resistance to do just that. They may express this as: “I don’t know why in the world you can’t get good grades, when all you have to do all day long is to study. I wish I’d had it that easy”. Or, when the child fails to interpret for them, after only a few months of their arrival: “I don’t understand how come you have been here this long and you still can’t speak English, when you are having English classes every single day.” “I wish I was that lucky, instead of trying to learn it on my own”. The child is unable to explain to them all the myriad struggles he goes through every day, trying to understand this new system. Often feeling like he will never be able to speak this new language, much less write it, and then giving up completely in despair. Struggling at the same time to fit in this huge school, because as a newcomer he still cannot speak English like the other students in the higher levels, or dress as cool, or catch the smile of the girls with a witty come back, like the others who have been here longer. Feeling scared of the threat of violence if he crosses the wrong group. Feeling overwhelmed at the completely new set of peers, whose unspoken rules he does not yet understand. Feeling inferior and confused about the huge decisions he has to make as he navigates the world of adolescence in a junior high or a high school in America and wanting so much to belong and be popular just as much as the next guy. This is a world about which his parents have no concept at all. They cannot begin to understand its complexities, even though they fear it, as they know many kids have gotten “lost” in it, succumbing to drugs, gangs and teen-pregnancy. They cannot understand either, how long it takes to speak a new language, even with regular instruction. They know that in Arlington, VA, there are four levels of HILT (High Intensity Language Training) before a student can be placed in the regular classes with the “Anglo” students. But they do not know, that even though some talented kids can go through it in 3 or 4 years, for others it just takes a lot longer, some never mastering the skills needed in writing and reading to get out of the last levels, even as they go to adult education, because the academic skills they came with were so inadequate. The parents just cannot understand how difficult and frustrating school can be. The kids feel like they can never live up to their unrealistic expectations, or combat the label “él es muy rudo para aprender, mejor es que se vaya a trabajar”, “he is too hard headed to learn, better he quit and start working.” Sadly, this is a thought the kids themselves have been toying with for quite a while now, because it is so much easier to give up. Furthermore, they are surrounded by adults that are making money without an education. For these young ones it is easy to ignore the tremendous sacrifices of working every day in jobs that require such physical hardships as their parents and older relatives do, while thinking only of the things they could buy with the money they would make.
Looking at this developing story from the parent’s side, they did not have the luxury of seeing their children grow slowly into adolescence as some other parents did. They are faced all of a sudden with parenting an adolescent and they feel so lost. They take any questioning of their rules as disrespect and the fear of losing control makes them adopt a style of parenting that seems unusually dictatorial and arbitrary to the youngster. This fuels constant conflicts between them and this sometimes just keep growing, with none of the participants knowing how to put an end to it. Sadly, at times, the parents just give up, or things get to the point of tragic outcomes like truancy, breaking the law or teen pregnancy.