Faces of the American Family

 South Korean-born American Theresa Reese and her African-American husband Reginald tell their children every day that they are beautiful, that being different is okay, and that being different is beautiful. 

“It’s different trying to raise a child that doesn’t look like anyone else,” Reese said, “but I just love being a parent to three different kids.”

Theresa was adopted out of Puson, Korea by Caucasian parents when she was 10 months old, and has lived in the United States ever since. While Reese’s family is not an immigrant family, their multi-cultural, multi-ethnic blend is a microcosm of the larger American family.

“I don’t think if I was still living in Puson, I would have what I have now,” she said.    

America has always been the land of opportunity for those who seek it, a nation so rife with opportunity that people will abandon everything they know to take a chance on a better life.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” said Maria Reyes, director of the YWCA’s immigrant and refugee program.

More than likely, unless you are Native American, you can trace you own family lineage back to the boat. Our immigrant heritage is something we Americans celebrate. In the minds of immigrants, America has always held with it the promise that people of every color and background can be transformed into “Americans.”  As new Americans they become precious metals, forged in the fabled melting pot that is this country, though they may not always be greeted as such. 

“Each successive wave of immigration takes the place of the previous wave on the bottom rung of the immigrant ladder,” said Tena Peña, Peruvian immigrant and assistant professor of Spanish at Tulsa Community College (TCC), “and yet, time and time again, in spite of the scorn, derision, fear, and hostility, by some obscure alchemy, a new cultural synthesis emerges and the American dream is renewed.” 

Peña left her family in the ‘80s because Shining Path, “a brutal terrorist group,” was creating chaos in the region.

“Economic reasons and the desire of higher education urged me to leave my family,” Peña said. “I left my family in the midst of terrorism and [feared] that I might not see them again. I arrived here without being proficient in the language and culture, but with a great desire to get ahead and reunite with my family some day here in the U.S.”

Eventually, Peña petitioned for each of her family members to join her in the United States, starting with her father, then her mother, sister and two brothers. One brother stayed behind to work as a missionary.

In many ways, immigrants epitomize the American spirit: they are pioneers who whole-heartedly embrace the idea that if you work hard, you can make a better life for yourself and family. 

Peña said that career opportunities for women are better in the U.S. than in Peru, where “machista” society makes it difficult for women to further their careers.

“No matter what your level of education,” she said, “if you were not male, your career opportunities were very limited.”

Now, besides teaching at TCC, Pena hosts a Spanish TV program for the Latino community in Tulsa that focuses on “increasing awareness of the importance of education and issues that are endemic to the Hispanic community.”

Peña said that her experience makes her want to give back to other immigrants.

“Getting ahead in the new and bigger culture was not an easy task,” she said. “It has taken a great deal of effort and ambition to achieve the goals I had for my life and my family. Now, I am determined to help the newcomers to make it easier for them, since I have already been down that path.”

While it is true that America is a land of opportunity for immigrants, it is also true that there is a startling amount of anti-immigrant rhetoric being tossed around, not only by individuals, but by federal and state legislative bodies as well.  This is nothing new. Right behind the fervor of celebrating what it means to be American often hides the common fear of strangers.

“When people see a large number of other people coming into the country, they feel threatened, and they don’t understand,” Reyes said. 

Today’s immigration wave, largely Asian and Latino, is the largest since the turn of the last century. Before the Asians and Latinos were the Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans. Before them were the Japanese, and before them the Chinese, the Germans, and the Irish. Any time there is an interval of large-scale immigration, and assimilation of a new people into American society, fear-based backlash seems to follow suit. If we let our fears get the better of us, and forget that people new to this country share the same aspirations as our own, we risk slumping into a fractured country of detached social groups with no shared sense of community. It is Reyes’ contention that if you take the chance to get to know these “new people,” you’ll find that they’re just like you. Legal residents, prospective citizens, and current citizens all share a common desire: to be afforded a better life. 

“If you go to a naturalization ceremony, you will see people more patriotic than those who were born here,” Reyes said, “and they want what everybody else wants — to improve their family’s situation.” 

That’s precisely why they have packed their lives into suitcases, abandoned the country of their birth, and traveled here. In the naturalization process, which Reyes’ program at the YWCA prepares immigrants for, new citizens “pledge their allegiance to their new country, the United Stated of America, and they have to renounce their old country.” 

Renouncing your country isn’t something you do unless the potential opportunities far surpass what is currently available to you.

“Everyone should have the opportunity to become an American,” Reese said. 

New American Citizen and TU graduate Paolo Garcia embraces his adopted country.

Paolo Garcia, a new citizen and TU graduate, left the Philippines with his mother and brother at the age of 13 in order to seize that opportunity. 

“Even though I was leaving 90 percent of my family back in the Philippines, we moved to the U.S. for a better future with more opportunities for success,” Garcia said. 

Garcia lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident (green card holder) into his early 20s before going through the long and costly process of becoming an official American.

“I really do love America,” Garcia said. “I love that you have absolute freedom, and you can truly do whatever you like. The society does not tell you what you should do, but you tell society what you want to do.” 

The opportunities available to potential-Americans come with their own set of obstacles, obstacles that may discourage those who appear “different” from leaving their own social enclaves. 

“Even if you were born here,” Reyes said, “but you look a certain way, people [may] have a prejudice against you.” 

This is a worry that Reese has not yet seen with her own multi-ethnic children. Reyes contends that children may face these cultural issues with a little more ease than their adult-counterparts, as “kids are pretty resilient and adaptable.” Yet, Reese has “typical mom worries,” about her children being bullied or picked on because they look different from the majority of people around them.

Often, disadvantages of looking different are fueled by the myths and misconceptions about legal immigrants, which often become unfairly tied to illegal immigrants. 

Some of the more common myths, according to Reyes, are that immigrants don’t want to learn English, they don’t pay taxes, they usurp our jobs, and thus hurt the economy.

“Ninety-nine percent of immigrants know they have to learn English to get ahead,”  Reyes said, but it is a process that can take years. 

As for taxes, legal residents pay the same taxes that citizens pay, and any time they buy goods or services, they pay sales tax. The act of buying goods and services, in turn, stimulates the economy and potentially creates jobs.

(L to R, Front) Members of TCC’s Hispanic Student Association Monica Sandoval, Kasey Hughart and Iris Bernal with sponsor Tina Pena (back) at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Gala where Edward James Olmos was the guest of honor.

Reyes acknowledges that immigrants do take certain jobs, “but in many cases these are jobs that no one else wants anyway. This country was built on immigrant labor,” Reyes said, “if we didn’t have immigrant labor, we’d be paying ten dollars for a tomato.” 

Immigrants may also be starting businesses that actually add jobs to the economy.

According to Reyes, these are the same immigration myths and worries that every generation faces. 

In light of these myths, it is all too easy to forget what immigrants bring with them. After leaving behind everything familiar to them, they bring “ideas, creativity, vitality, and the ‘I am an American now’ sense of allegiance,” Reyes said, “and when you adopt something new, you tend to really take hold of it.”

“I guarantee you that every immigrant embraces that ‘pioneer spirit,’” Garcia said.

Upon moving to the U.S., Peña recalled being shocked that average Americans expressed “total apathy for exercising their rights,” including voting.

“I just wish people who were born and raised in America would realize how wonderful these opportunities are, and take advantage of them,” Garcia said. 

“Immigrants are risk takers,” Peña said, “with great hopes and big dreams.”


Categories: Parenting, Suggested