What happens when a first-generation immigrant achieves a high level of success and their kids don’t know where to start?
In August 1987, my father, a kid from Miami that immigrated from Cuba post-Revolution, met a girl who worked at a movie theater in North Carolina. He was stationed there shortly after joining the military to pay for a college tuition his factory-worker mother and post office employee stepfather couldn’t afford. One completed GED, a very long bus ride and several months of boot camp later, and he needed to watch a movie to distract himself from the boredom he faced in the base town he was stationed in. He and my mother became close, fell in love quickly, and were engaged after just a few weeks. Both of them wanted to have children that had a better start in life than they did, no matter what it took.
They married the following July, and my older brother was born four years after that. My parents attended community college together as business majors, determined to be the first in their families to go to college. They wanted to pave the way for the generations that followed, and secure their children’s a place in the middle class. By the time I was born in 1998, my dad had earned his doctorate degree in IT Education. By the age of 30, he was working a day job and teaching college business classes at night while my mother worked for Hillsborough County.
When I was in kindergarten, my father rejoined the military via the Air Force. I spent my childhood bouncing from one state to another before we were able to settle in central Florida, where I spent seventh through twelfth grade at a private Christian school. My parents saved up money for my brother and I’s college tuition so that we would not have to take out loans as they did. For a second-generation Cuban-American, I was off to a pretty good start.
Children from more traditional Hispanic families, especially daughters, are expected to live with or close to their parents’ home through their adult life. Moving out happens when they get married or at least graduate from college; the latter is exactly what my brother did. I wanted to major in theatre studies at FSU, four hours away from my Orlando suburb. I didn’t know exactly if what I wanted to do was the right thing. In my family, the first-generation members achieved the American Dream at such great speed that there seemed to be no more room for upward mobility, only down. Was I going to be the reason for us taking a collective nosedive into Americanized mediocrity?
This made my senior year of high school miserable. Arguments were had, harsh words were exchanged, and it felt like I had fallen from grace as the baby of the family. I went from being “super smart” and “has a bright future ahead of her” to “do you know what the extended family is saying?” From my parents’ perspective, the lack of stability and lower income associated with a career in the arts was concerning, but to me, the one word that was said to me that stuck was “backwards.” Because I am likely to make less money than my parents, I was told I was moving backwards. I heard, “your parents and grandparents did not come from another country for you to go into a field that makes less and be less successful than them. You were to progress the family.” While this line of thinking was more present with my brother and male relatives since men are viewed as the breadwinners, I felt it as well. Since then, I’ve been bouncing between career paths and majors trying to figure some things out. What I do know is that the field I choose will probably bring at least some level of disappointment because, after a generation of American socialization, I view the concepts of success and progress differently.
Perhaps for them, the American Dream was creating an environment in which their kids could dream.
Many second- and third- generation young adults feel the same way. By exploring courses in environmental science, international relations, and film while trying to determine her major, my roommate let her parents down who both studied engineering. A relative of mine went to college to study graphic design, only to be told by her mother that her profession was useless and that she would end up on the street.
“It feels like you can’t win,” is a common sentiment I and others like me have expressed, as you are torn between exploring your interests and pleasing the people who have loved and provided for you your entire life. I am not saying that all kids of immigrant parents face this dilemma, though. For one woman I asked, her parents did not criticize her aspiration to become a journalist because she got a job soon after college, giving them “nothing to complain about.” One of my friends from high school had parents from Jordan, and they “only ever encouraged [him] to pursue what [he] was most passionate about.” Perhaps for them, the American Dream was creating an environment in which their kids could dream.
Anyone who has experienced that form of disapproval, however, probably felt it was like they got kicked in the stomach. Your American friends’ parents applaud and for the most part support the choices they make, and you get… a resigned sigh, a raised eyebrow, or, if you’re less fortunate, a burst of sarcastic laughter that just couldn’t be contained. What we’re searching for is respect that can only be earned once we “prove ourselves” enough to justify the choices we’ve made. Then, maybe then, we won’t make our mothers cry and our fathers no longer respond to your latest endeavor with “Why couldn’t you be like your (insert sibling or cousin)?”
In our parents’ eyes, success is about progressing from the survival mode they have been so used to enduring in their home countries and in their first years in the States, to living comfortably with savings. It’s financial. It’s barely being able to afford community college, even with loans, so that your kids have a shot at going to a four-year university like their peers. Their debt is more than they tell us so that we get to buy the clothes we want at the mall like our American friends do, instead of having their mother sew clothes for them after a long shift as a hospital nurse.
To us, it’s about being fulfilled. Am I able to afford what I need from a job that I am good at and don’t hate? How are my studies, job, and relationships impacting my mental health? To them, we are their pride and joy who have become too soft, too American.; to us, we’re just trying to figure out our place in this world with our relationships, careers, core beliefs, and identities as hyphenated Americans.
Explaining this to my American American friends can be just as alienating as it is to my parents. To my peers with fully American upbringings, you are who you are and once you’re 18, no one can tell you what to do. I can’t think of anything more foreign. Children of immigrants, especially families that are Hispanic /Latinx, are brought up in a very family-oriented culture. From the time I was 8 years old, my parents told me that the moment I stepped outside the front door of my house, I represented my entire family. It meant that your appearance and the choices you made were a reflection of your upbringing. My father’s mother told him the same thing. To be different is to be inconsistent, rebellious, the source of heartbreak and confusion— That’s the level of transgression I committed. For example, when my father compared my choice of a college major to the story of the prodigal son in the Bible.
I think there’s a root cause of our differences in what a successful life is. It’s the completion of the American Dream by one generation while the next tries to accomplish a unique version of it. But our version is not theirs. Maybe as an immigrant, you know you’ve really made it when you don’t understand your kids. Maybe when they walk out the door, they don’t just represent the family. They represent what you could have been if you didn’t have to leave to another country.