Immigration, Academics, and Family: The Success Story
of an “Open Minded Brazilian”
by Aaron Henderson, December 2013
While most of us go through good times and bad times with struggles and successes, it’s the overcoming of any obstacle itself that many would say best defines a person’s identity and character. When you look at the world as a whole, it would be tough to say that any obstacle is harder than emigrating from one country to another. When someone leaves a place that one has called one’s home (country) for any considerable amount of time, one is forced to adapt to his or her new home (country) and expected to do so quickly. The process can be stressful and can leave a person searching for his or her new sense of self. This can ultimately be positive or negative depending on the experiences each immigrant goes through. While keeping that in mind, it can also be said that America is arguably the toughest country to migrate to as the U.S. has historically benefited from immigrants’ undocumented statuses, thus holding them down in society while reaping economic benefits. The U.S. government does this by making it very difficult for most foreigners to gain citizenship here and without that documentation it is nearly impossible to obtain a decent paying job or receive any financial aid for school. This means all odds are usually stacked up against most immigrants in America, making the fulfillment of their goal to live the “American dream” very difficult. The story of Lohanna Pinheiro , an eighteen-year-old college student at the time of her migration from Brazil to America, has been a very positive, uplifting, and successful development and can give hope to other immigrants. While immigrating to America from Brazil for academic reasons, Lohanna had to leave much of her family behind in order to experience America and all that this great country has to offer. While interviewed about her journey, she spoke about many things, including expectations versus reality, academics, discrimination, and the American dream, and began to configure how all of this has shaped her identity and her sense of home.
In Goiania, Brazil, Lohanna grew up in a family of three. The Brazilian culture has taught her many great values including family, religion, and pride for her country. While Lohanna was young, she was introduced to God as she regularly attended church with family. Lohanna’s Christianity has humbled her as her faith in God has, in her words, “been my guidance all along and I know God has many great things in store for me.” At that time in her life, she also learned the family tradition of barbecuing after church with many of her cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, and siblings, in order to keep the family’s bond strong and stay close to each other. Their extended family would spend many days together throughout the week as they are all very close, but Sunday was the big family day. Music, games, food, and much socializing was the norm for the family as they would “live it up” together, acting more like close friends.
Lohanna’s family was not wealthy by any means so they tried to spend money wisely as many products are very expensive in Brazil. “In Brazil, many people work a full month to earn as little as five hundred reais, what would be something like three hundred dollars in America. That’s per month you know so they don’t have much to afford or buy a lot of exotic foods.” As described in the article “Global Production Networks, Chronic Poverty and ‘Slave Labour’ in Brazil”, many Brazilians work with no guarantee of regular pay while working in undesirable working conditions: “Workers’ perceptions of being thus ‘tied in’ to a job, even where the conditions of work classify as ‘analogous to slavery’, illuminate how the payment of an advance or the withholding of wages are the key mechanisms used by employers and recruiters to discipline the labour force and exploit workers’ situations of chronic need.” These unfortunate people are the byproducts a big issue in Brazil and that’s poverty. They work like everybody else but don’t get paid until the employers are ready to pay them despite needing to house, clothe and feed their families. While the strong family bond, religion and food are some uplifting aspects of Brazilian culture, the negatives are the economic problems and the poverty in which many live in. With that being said, Lohanna’s family would create a strong bond of togetherness as they spent many days and nights together doing recreational things and made their own fun. Lohanna’s childhood was filled with love and joy, but unfortunately her father passed away when she was seven, thus leaving her behind, along with her sister and mother. It was a very sad time for the family but this left an everlasting bond between the three girls as they have remained close ever since.
Throughout Lohanna’s childhood, she developed a negative view on Americans as she thought all people in the U.S. were snobs that held biased opinions about their country, thinking Americans were better than those in the rest of the world. She didn’t really care for America and focused her efforts on the country she stood on.
“But that was the reason I never learned English in Brazil, because I just hated it! You know, because I always thought it wasn’t fair for one country to try to dominate the world, and that’s how I viewed America. Like America would try to go out of their way to work on other country’s businesses. Like in Wars and stuff like that. And so (giggling) I just hated the United States because of that. I think that’s the way a lot of Brazilians view America”
This just goes to show how many others view the U.S. as it seems we have made a few enemies over the years. Lohanna must have been expecting many ignorant people here and probably wasn’t looking forward to coinciding with them. On the flipside, however, Lohanna was curious about the “American Dream” and what that stood for. She had seen American movies, movies that had rich families with big houses and very little poverty. She was excited to see if it was all that it was cracked up to be.
As Lohanna and her family were planning a trip to Corte Madera, Ca to visit her Aunt and Uncle, they knew that they needed to obtain a Visa in order to travel to the U.S. They went to see a consulate in Brasilia to get permission to travel and got it easily. Now they could finally fulfill their curiosity and see for themselves what America was like. As they arrived, the weather was very cold as it was December. It was a shock to them as the weather back in Brazil never reached the low temperatures of forty degrees Fahrenheit. When the Pinheiro’s arrived at their relative’s home, they were pleasantly surprised: “It was interesting because it was everything beautiful, like in a dream. It felt like we were in a movie because the weather was different from Brazil and then we got to their house and their house was huge, just like in the movies. And then we saw all the Christmas decorations, and then it was like…living in a dream.” Lohanna was extremely blessed to have relatives who have prospered here in America so she could see the good part of America first. “I went to the ballet at the City Hall and I had the experience of watching that and, you know—I had never done that before. And it was magical. Then I went to Lake Tahoe and saw the snow for the first time. So I did all that stuff I had wanted to do ever since I was a little kid you know. And I went to Disneyland and I cried like a baby!”. This is very rare for most immigrants who are usually very disappointed with their first impression. However, Lohanna would keep experiencing more and more positive things that America has to offer.
Lohanna would also be shocked as to how cheap the food and clothing are as well as how safe the environment is compared to that of Brazil.
“Well the first night we went to Costco it was like…All those huge boxes! You know for so cheap. That was the first thing. I was like ‘WOW’, food is really cheap here compared to Brazil. I felt like it was awesome but at the same time it is kind of unfair because I know the reality of Brazil.”
This seemed bitter sweet for her and her family as they were happy to be in the position they were in but knew how much of a struggle it was and still is for millions of people back home. Later in the interview, Lohanna had mentioned that another good thing about America is how much safer it is. “You could walk down the street and we weren’t afraid of getting robbed”. Back in Brazil the criminality rate has risen greatly over the past ten years so you can see why the simple fact of not having fear of getting robbed was a sigh of relief for Lohanna. After asked to sum up what was better about American life, she explained simply that it was a better quality of life. Little did she know, however, that she was about to spend a lot more time here than she had expected.
As the Pinheiros’ vacation in America was coming to an end, Lohanna’s aunt and uncle offered to help Lohanna by asking her to stay in the U.S and study abroad, thus taking college classes here instead of in Brazil. Lohanna was very pleased by this and accepted without hesitation, stating that a degree in America had much more weight than a degree in Brazil. “I’ll have a second language and I’ll have experienced a new culture and, for God sakes, it’s America, and everybody in Brazil thinks everything here is better.” While taking college classes here in America had excited her greatly, she knew the first step wouldn’t be easy. She now had to learn English, the language that she thought she never would have had to or would have wanted to learn.
Lohanna quickly enrolled in an intensive English program, knowing she must learn it quickly in order to get into college. She speedily progressed and within months could speak in sentences. However, not knowing English too well at the time, Lohanna would start to encounter her first experiences of discrimination.
“I would go to the store and try to find something and because of my accent or because I didn’t speak English well, the white people would completely ignore me. But I noticed the other workers, like the Latino workers and people with darker skin, they were nicer to me. They would try to help me while the white people would just look down on me.”
I believe this kind of discrimination pushed Lohanna even harder to learn English. She committed herself to learning the language completely and within nine months Lohanna was ready for the TOEFL test. This test was for people that spoke English as their second language to determine whether or not they were in position to attend college. Incredibly after only learning and practicing English for a small amount of time, Lohanna passed the test and was on her way to College of Marin.
Arguably, the hardest part of assimilating to a new country is learning the language. As Lohanna had completed that aspect of joining America, the next part was learning and understanding the culture. Many people say that there is no true “American culture” as America is made up of so many different races and ethnicities that have different cultural expectations and traditions. Combine all of this together and America is just one big melting pot of the world, one big melting pot of many different viewpoints on life and what life is supposed to be. Meanwhile, all are living together in one democratic country. Lohanna has other ideas, however. When asked about American culture and what she viewed it as she replied with this:
“There are a lot of immigrants here in America, but I do think there is an American culture. I don’t want to speak for everybody but I think American culture is about money. You know, the American dream where you have to work and work and work to get what you have and you….You don’t have time to pay attention to the people around you. You don’t have time for your family, you don’t have time for your kids. Your kids are raised by nannies and babysitters and you don’t have time for anything. You know it’s just you working everyday, that’s all you pretty much do to achieve the American dream. And it feels like nobody really gets there because even though I think the people got that, they still working like crazy. So I think there is an American culture and it’s founded on money, unfortunately. I mean, it’s not everybody. I’ve seen people that like to have time for their families and kids but what I’ve seen…Most of it is money. Money is everything.”
The term “American Dream” was once made up by historian James Trusslow Adams in 1931 in midst of the Great Depression. His famous quote lies in the article “The Death of the American Dream,” in which he says, “It is not the dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” This is what so many men and women chase here in America: finical stability, personal growth, recognition from one’s peers, and so on and so on. Many Americans are chasing too many things while forgetting to take the time to enjoy life and the company we share in it. Lohanna has seen this firsthand while working as a nanny in Marin County, CA. She has worked for families that are made up of hard work., so much hard work that both mom and dad are working just about every single day. This forces the parents to leave the kids to be with trusted strangers Monday through Friday. This whole process is putting the nanny in the mother role as the nannies are watching the kids almost more than the mother. It’s a far cry from the family structure back home in Brazil where families are only raised by mom and dad and when help is needed, the extended family is looked to for support. Experiencing all of this first hand as a nanny in Marin County, Lohanna has realized how much she misses her home country.
As Lohanna has been in the U.S. for four years, she can see now what America is like and how it differs from Brazil. She expressed that she deeply misses her family as well as her native food. She has a hard time eating many things that most Americans enjoy regularly and also misses seeing her relatives on a daily basis. Even though they all stay connected through social media, phone calls and text messages, she explained that it is just not the same. When asked if she had to pick one place to call home, Lohanna stated “Brazil” without any hesitation. “Because that’s where I was raised. That’s where I got my sense of self. That’s where I learned to be myself and what I like and what I don’t like. That’s where my family is. You know, my first language”. I then asked that even though she has experienced so much here in America including having a serious relationship with a boyfriend, if after college she would drop everything to return home with her degree as planned or possibly make this her permanent home. She paused and thought about it for a few seconds then replied “um, that’s interesting. I want the good things from Brazil and the good things from the United States all in one place but that’s not possible, so I don’t know. It all depends when I graduate and if I get married. Where it’s going to be better but I definitely want the freedom to go back and forth.”
While Lohanna was thinking and talking about a very personal matters, I then asked her how this whole experience has affected her identity. She said that it really hasn’t, as she knows who she is. She is Brazilian—she knows that, is proud of that and she is not trying to be American. She stated that she still eats like a Brazilian, acts like a Brazilian and values her culture very much. I then challenged that, stating that one’s identity is shaped by not only the way one views oneself, but also the way others view that individual as well. She had explained earlier in the interview that her view on America had changed since her arrival in the U.S. Her viewpoint has changed as well as her identity as a whole:
“In Brazil, we are more open to other people. We are very welcoming. We are very receptive and we are very friendly people. See in that way, I’m still the same person. But they still view their country not as good as America and in that case, I think my view has changed because now I see there is no such thing as a perfect country. You know, there’s a lot of good things in America, but there’s a lot of bad things too. When you immigrate and assimilate to another country, you look back at your country and evaluate what is working back there and what doesn’t work. Then you can compare and grow as a person because now you can accept more the differences there are in the world. You’re not as judgmental and racist. So I guess my identity would be an open minded Brazilian. Or a um, self aware.”
All in all, it seems that Lohanna’s identity has changed. It has changed in a positive light as she holds her Brazilian values while learning American culture and she has taken the good from both while leaving what she deemed as the “bad” aspects out.
While Lohanna still lives here in the U.S., she is still experiencing and learning new things all the time. She is a Junior at San Francisco State University and hopes to graduate in 2014 with the goal of moving on to Grad school. As she has experienced many things in the past four years that have shaped her current identity, Lohanna’s story can be seen as a success by many including any immigrant who hopes to study here in America. While it would be beneficial for many of us to experience another country for personal growth, America should still be viewed as one of, if not the best, as the U.S. has much to offer students who are studying abroad. Diversity, solid academics, and heavy competition are just a few of those qualities here in America. Lohanna’s experiences in both Brazil and America seem to have had a lasting effect on her as she appears very open minded and can see the world with great intellect. Lohanna is a great example of what an immigrant should be about as she is motivated towards success, humble, intellectual, and diverse.
Philips, Nicola and Leonardo Sakamoto. “Global Production Networks, Chronic Poverty and ‘Slave Labour’ in Brazil.” Studies in Comparative International Development Vol. 47 Issue 3, Sep2012: p287-315. Print
Wright, Luke S. H. “The Death of the American Dream.” Critics Notebook Vol. 85 Issue 4 2009: p196-199. Print