The immigrant children arrive to the U.S.A. to join the parents, or parent and, perhaps brothers, sisters or stepparents. Thus, their life as a new family starts to unroll. Soon after, the children begin school, where, in this metropolitan area, they will be placed in a classroom for limited English proficiency students, in order for them to learn the language and academic skills necessary to succeed in an American school. In the company of other immigrant students like them, and others from many different countries, they will start the long journey of learning a second language and adapting to a new culture. Concurrently, another emotionally powerful journey is starting, not immediately apparent to the school staff, because it is unfolding at home. It is the child’s struggle to adapt and become a member of a family that to them is a completely new one.
The Honeymoon Period
Carlos remembers it this way: “Well, at the beginning everything was good. My parents were very nice to my sister and me. They kept saying: “this is your home “hijo“, (child) you don’t have to ask, just take anything you want.” “They took us to many beautiful places and out to buy clothes in these fancy stores. However, there was a feeling that burned inside of me and I could not put out of my mind, even though I tried. I felt so awkward with them, especially calling them papá and mamá, but I tried. They just felt like strangers to me!”
At the beginning it is like a vacation or a visit. Everybody is on their best behavior and eager to please. Sometimes the child did not want to come because of his attachment to the caretakers and life back home. The parents had to sell the idea to the child, perhaps creating unrealistic expectations: “You will love it there! You will see! You will have so much fun!” Often the child was not given the opportunity to express his/her feelings about coming over. At worse, he was never asked if he wanted to come. It was something he was just expected to do: his parents had made so many sacrifices in order to bring him that he was supposed to be grateful and happy about it.
End of the Honeymoon
Soon the daily harsh reality of the immigrant family’s routine sets in. The parents have to go back to work and they no longer have special time set aside for the newcomers. They come home late and exhausted, leaving them alone for long hours. Many times there is no time for any conversations or even a meal together, because often the parents have two jobs in order to survive in this very expensive urban community, or long workdays, or long commutes by bus. Even when the week-end comes, one of the parents is there, but never the other, as they take turns working. Suddenly, uprooted from the familiar, often rural or small town environment, where a relative or a friend was always at hand, they find themselves with no other companion than the TV set. After roaming freely with friends and cousins, in the small town where they came from, or the familiar neighborhood where they grew up in the familiar urban environment, they are now forbidden to go out, because “it’s too dangerous” and besides, where would they go? They now have a lot of new rules and responsibilities, and perhaps small siblings to look after. And to make things worse, they feel so jealous of those small kids: it is so easy for them to talk to mom and dad, while they feel so self-conscious. These feelings often translate into a quick assessment of the little ones as “spoiled brats” – malcriados – who do not do what they are supposed to do. While it seems like mother or father always find fault with what they do and they ignore the younger ones’ mischief. They would like to be hugged by mom as easily as the little ones receive her love, but something makes them tense up when mom approaches them and the hug does not seem that natural. Perhaps, the parents tell themselves, they are not supposed to baby their older son or daughter, and they keep their distance also, not wanting to face their own awkwardness with this adolescent who is a stranger now. So, then the newcomers start to feel unloved. Loneliness, sadness and homesickness start to set in and the scary realization that this is not a visit, but a permanent arrangement for everyone involved. In some, this turmoil of feelings inside of them takes the form of angry outbursts and acting out both at home and at school. In others, the depression is obvious, and they spend many nights crying themselves to sleep and seem distant and despondent at school and at home. It is particularly hard when they have come from a very nurturing situation, where they received lots of attention and affection. The advantage in this case, however, is that it is easier for them to admit and speak of their feelings of sadness, because it is easier for them to identify what they miss and how they hurt.
Feeling isolated, many of these adolescents are starved for love and attention in this new situation and, they so need reassurance! There is already an emotional void that comes from the separation as they lost their parents care as a small child and the present emotional distance reawakens those feelings. This loss is in many cases just like the loss of a child whose father or mother dies. Many mothers have described the reaction of their child when they left as one that looks like severe clinical depression: the caretakers communicated to them that the child was extremely despondent, refused to eat, isolated himself, hiding from other adults, and regressed developmentally. One devastating, nonetheless quite common occurrence, is that the young child is told by well-meaning adults that “mommy went to the store and she will be right back”, hoping somehow that the child will “forget” about mommy and thus spare mom and child from a painful good-by. The child is then left to deal all by himself with this confusing and increasingly scary reality of his mom’s disappearance and he has to build his own explanations. A difficult task, when he has to deny his own perception of reality and substitute it with a false one, in order to incorporate the adult’s answers. In the long run, the results of this might be an adult that is forever unsure of the validity of his own perceptions and a confusing sense of undeserved abandonment, or is it deserved? Few of the teenagers have a clear memory of the moment when their mother left them, unless they were old enough and many were too young. The mothers, on their part, frequently never get the report of the great impact this event had on the child, so they can easily go into denial of the painful impact of their departure for the child. When the memories stay with the youngsters, the descriptions are vivid and painful to hear. Monica and Francisco, both could remember every detail. Monica told the story of how she and her little brother tried in vain to stop the mother from leaving by both sleeping with her, each one holding on to one of her arms, only to wake up the next morning to the devastating realization that she was gone. Francisco remembers going to sit in the farthest corner of the big yard of his grandmother’s house to kiss his own hands in the same way his mother used to do.
It comes as no surprise then, that the youngsters experience resentment towards the parents for being abandoned at such a vulnerable age. Because the separation lasts so long, in most cases from 3 to 10 years, the natural bonding between parent and child is lost and reconstructing it becomes an arduous task amid feelings of ambivalence, mistrust and anger. Somehow the child wonders if he was left because he was not worthy of love, otherwise why would the parents choose to leave him behind. He/she feels different from the other children around him whose parents never separated from them and painfully lonesome. María puts it this way: “You have no idea how ugly it is to be left behind! I was in my aunt’s house, and they were very nice to me, but I always felt a sudden pain when I saw them playing with and hugging their own children. Why couldn’t I have parents that did that to me? Before I came to the US to live with my mother I had gone through three different households. I was longing to be with my own family! However, when I came here I didn’t feel any love for my mother. I just couldn’t make myself call her mamá or hug her. She would cry and say I didn’t love her. I would feel terrible! And believe me Señora Silvia, I would try! But I just couldn’t love her! I felt love for my grandmother, because she was the one that cared for me when I was little, but not for my mom. I know I will never separate from my own children!” Soon after she came, Maria, 16, was looking for love from an older lover and risking getting pregnant. When we talked, she was insightful enough to realize that there had to be a connection between this behavior and her feelings of emptiness inside her new home.