Last month, at the start of Latinx Heritage Month, I did an IG Live with @Latinxtherapy and discussed the struggles and mental health concerns of first-generation Latinx. IG glitched and she was unable to save the LIVE for IGTV. Long story short, I wanted to capture the content we discussed and created a post outlining these struggles and experiences unique to us, first-generation Latinx immigrants. Folks, this is my most liked, shared, and saved post ever in the history of @themiamitherapist. So so many of my followers on IG felt identified with the content of that one post. It is so popular it even made it on Bustle's Latinx Heritage piece.
It was a simple and short post that resonated with so many, I thought I blog about it and expand some more.
First-Generation Latinx Immigrant, who's that?
Let's start by defining first-generation Latinx immigrants when I use this term I refer to, those who were born elsewhere and immigrated at a young age and those who were the first to be born in the US. If most of your school years were spent in the US education system, you fall into this group. If you identify as a first-generation Latinx, know that your experiences are unique. You may not identify with everything I write about, that's to be expected. Also, be aware that your reality is not everyone else's. Just because you have not faced certain situations doesn't negate other people's experiences.
Although, we all live in the US our experience of being Latinx and first-generation is going to look different based on several factors. Location is huge, being Cuban American in Miami, is a not that challenging, this is basically Northern Cuba. Being Cuban American in Garden City, Kansas is likely a completely different experience. Also, you might be navigating several different cultures. Maybe you were born in Costa Rica to Nicaraguan and Honduran parents and immigrated to the US when in 4th grade. Even though we all fall under the umbrella of Latinx, our culture is so rich and wide that there are many differences among countries and regions.
Anyways, my point is, that there are several factors and nuances to your experience as a first-generation Latinx immigrant and that's okay.
Fear of being different
As social creatures, we all crave belonging. It's hard to meet our needs for belonging when we stand out like a sore thumb, people usually stick to those who are like them. If you speak, look, behave, or think differently you run a higher risk of being rejected. For folks who did not grow up in a Latinx community, fitting in the American culture was a full-time job. Learning the language, idioms, jokes, and pop culture was a must. A lot of children and teens fear bullying by peers and even adults. They learn to hide their LatinXness (I just made up a term!).
Feeling stuck between two or more cultures
As I discussed before, some are navigating more than two cultures. Keeping up with the traditions, rituals, and expectations of all cultures can be taxing and leave you feeling frustrated and ashamed. Like you don't belong in either and can't fully identify with any. Feeling too American for your family and too Colombian for your peers. Like the Spanish saying says, "ni de aquí, ni de allá."
Pressure + guilt, un montón
Pressure to help our parents at home doing chores or babysitting our younger siblings. Pressure to translate important documents or attend medical appointments and serve as an interpreter. Pressure to do well academically and get scholarships for college. Right along with the pressure comes the guilt. When we feel like we are falling short from the expectations placed on us by others (usually family) or ourselves, the guilt takes over. We might also experience guilt when we realize that what we want for our lives is not what our parents desire. Maybe law school, taking over the family business, or picking up the trade isn't for you. You prefer to become a cosmetologist, teacher, or writer. Dissenting from what's expected comes with fear of rejection from others, which leads us to exile parts of ourselves. I created a post where I affirm that the American Dream can be toxic and this is exactly why. The expectations it puts on us can lead us to live a life that is not ours to live. There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to have a better life and striving to achieve your goals. It becomes problematic when the goals aren't yours but someone else's. It is too destructive when your goals are not realistic.
Learning a new language because we desire to be accepted. Needing to translate for the adults in your life. Being ridiculed over your accent or the time you mispronounced a word while reading aloud in class. Begining to lose your vocabulary in Spanish or dialect, therefore, having a hard time communicating with your family. Language plays a significant role in our lives, more than most would know unless they've immigrated from a non-English speaking country.
Trauma & lack of trust in the system
First of all, let's define trauma. Trauma is an event that makes you feel chronically unsafe. It negatively impacts your ability to restore your sense of safety. It leaves a mark on your life, a before and an after. It changes who you are and the way you view the world. Intergenerational trauma is the kind that is passed down from one generation to the next. For example, patterns of alcoholism, absent fathers, and sexual abuse. Basically, the traumas that we experience, if not healed, affect those who we come in contact with, including future generations.
People decide to immigrate for many reasons, some do so because of the trauma experienced in their home country. Maybe your parent's home country had a high incidence of violence and the government did nothing to protect its citizens. If your parents had decided to stay, they might have run the risk of losing their lives. Leaving your home country because it is physically unsafe to live there, is considered a traumatic event.
Some immigrants face trauma in their journey to the US. Maybe you and your parents had to cross multiple borders and pay thousands to cayotes. Or maybe your parents threw themselves at sea on a raft and hoped to touch land. For some making it to the US means risking their lives in the process.
Others experience trauma once they make it here. It can be the constant fear of deportation, feeling forced to marry to obtain legal status, tolerating acts of discrimination, etc. Sadly, not everyone finds the US to be a land of opportunities, freedom, and safety. Some come to find exactly what they left behind.
Traumatic experiences that occur as a result of a system that is not always just to us and was built to oppress minorities, can leave us with an overall sense of distrust in it. It can feel like we are fighting against a relentless current, so hopeless.
When we don't have the internal and external resources to cope with traumatic events, we become traumatized. As traumatized individuals, we go through life in survival mode. Staying busy, not leaving time to think or feel. We are always preparing for the worst. We don't trust ourselves, others, or the systems we live in. It makes it hard to create emotional bonds with other us because our guard is almost always up. We are in a constant mode of threat and survival trying to ensure our safety and that of those we love. Yet, we never truly feel safe.
Y colorín colorado...
As a first-generation Latinx immigrant myself, I believe we have unique experiences as a group. I think that there are great gifts that come from our parents choosing to leave their home country and make the US their new home. I am personally indebted to my grandparents for choosing to leave a communist regime so that my parents could have a better future, therefore, gifting me with a better life. The positives don't negate the costs. For some, the costs are much higher than for others and I think we need to recognize that as well as make space for it.
We can also reclaim our Latinxness and decide what aspects of all of our cultures we want to embrace. We can let go of pressure and guilt by redefining expectations, symbols, and terms. We don't have to strive to achieve the proverbial "American Dream," we can seek our own personalized version of it. One that is aligned with our values and the life we want to create.
I challenge you to honor Latinx Heritage month this year by reflecting on what it means to be the child of an immigrant. The gifts and losses that have come with that title. I want you to think of how you can become empowered by your Latinxness.