If you’re like me, you grew up hearing the stereotypes of immigration from friends, family, and the media: coming to America is a miracle, an opportunity for a better life. Immigrants are wealthy and successful. They live in luxury homes with white picket fences and two American cars in the driveway. Immigrants are always grateful and don’t want to revert to their ways of birth or their culture’s old habits.
Having recently finished a college semester abroad in Madrid, Spain, I could hear from the source. What I learned from my time with immigrants and their families has shed light on my original conceptions of immigration.
First and foremost, coming to America is not a miracle; it isn’t an opportunity for a better life. It’s a matter of survival. The clichéd “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is deeply rooted in American ideology. We often hear, “If they can do it, why can’t we?” “If they can come here and get a better job, why aren’t more people doing it?” However, this ideology is not objective. I’m sure that it took great effort for the early immigrants to leave their homes and travel thousands of miles in search of a better life, but those first immigrants had an option when crossing the border. They could quickly go back if they wanted to. Today’s immigrants don’t have that luxury, as living conditions in certain parts of the world are so horrible that people would rather die trying to make it to America than remain where they are.
I spent time with a family in Madrid, my host family, “Los Rodriguez.” Monserrat and Jose Rodriguez come from Mexico and have lived in Madrid for twelve years. They have three children, two sons, and one daughter. The children were born in Mexico but moved to Spain when they were four and eight years old.
During my time with the family, it was apparent that they were not living comfortably in Madrid. The Rodriguez is the “Las Pobres,” or low-income families in the neighborhood. Their house was small, 75 square meters, and had a dirt floor. They didn’t have a water heater or heating and no sink in their kitchen, so they also had to shower outside. They barely had enough money to buy groceries, but they were fortunate enough to have a temporary job with their employer and get paid twice a month. Unfortunately, the family was in debt. Monserrat’s temporary job ended, and she was unemployed, yet they were still in debt.
Monserrat explained that although they are still in debt, it is an old debt, and they’re not sure if they’ll ever be able to pay it off. Although they find it difficult to cope with money, their children are well cared for, especially their daughter (11 years old), who has all necessities like clothes and school supplies. They have everything they need except for a car.
The house had no running water on the day I was there, and the family was looking for a temporary solution. The day before my trip, a very well-known national politician in Madrid came to their house and spoke with them about their situation; because of this (unlikely) assistance from one of their local politicians, Monserrat was able to obtain a business loan from a bank that is attached to the local government. While Monserrat was looking for the bank to approve her loan, the family was able to clean up their house and get some water flowing. (This single act of kindness did not stop there. The politician also dropped off two bags of groceries donated by a local supermarket.)
Their situation is tragic, but it isn’t unique in Madrid or any other city in Western Europe. Living conditions are even worse in impoverished countries like Mexico, Africa, Colombia, and Peru; none of these experiences are new to Monserrat and Jose Rodriguez. They have lived and learned from the hard life their parents endured.
In short, immigration isn’t a miracle. It’s survival.
Since coming to America, I have realized that one of my preconceptions about immigration is outdated; immigrants cannot and will not magically become American overnight. Immigration is a process; it isn’t instantaneous. The more I learn about it, the more I realize that immigrants are like artists, constantly trying to improve their craft.