I am Unique and So are You
by Michi Hosokawa, May 22nd, 2013
When a guy moved in next door to my house last year, he started on building a deck in front of the door of his house. This guy, wearing a T-shirt and a cap, has been working hard on the project every weekend. This is Mario Morento, whose friendly smile makes wrinkles around his round eyes. When I was assigned an oral history project, I noticed that he spoke Spanish with a carpenter, which made me wonder if he was an immigrant. When I called up my courage and talked to him about my project, he pleasantly agreed to do an interview with me; he said, “It’s me. I will volunteer for it,” with his friendly wrinkled smile.
He was born in Argentina as the second child in his family, whose family tree has roots in Ecuador. His skin is dark due to his family roots, which make up a minority group in Argentina, whose people’s roots are mostly in Europe, and his mother tongue is Spanish. His parents were skilled leather artisans, but their life was in poverty due to economic crisis in Argentina in the 1960s. When Mario was eight years old, his father left Argentina, first for the U.S. to escape from poverty, and called for his family, his wife, his daughter, and Mario, three years later. While Mario hardly had opportunities to see new things and places in Argentina, he traveled through the nation and saw a lot of new things in the U.S. While he adapted himself more and more to the U.S., he gradually lost his physical and psychological connection to Argentina. Now, he feels that he is “home” in California, where he lives. On the other hand, he identifies himself as an Argentinean; he is proud of being an Argentinean. How has his identity and his concept of “home” developed in such way? Interestingly and uniquely, his nostalgia and experience have developed them. While Mario’s nostalgia for Argentina has allowed his sense of identity to become solid and fixed as an Argentinean, his different experiences in the U.S. have allowed his concept of “home” to have flexible content, wherever he is.
His nostalgia for Argentina, where he was born, survived with his family, and emigrating from Argentina has allowed him to strengthen his sense of identity as an Argentinian. In the article “The adaptation of migrant children,” which is about emigrant children’s assimilation to a new country and preserving their home country’s languages, values, and customs, Alejandro Portes, a sociologist and a scholar of Princeton University, and Alejandro Rivas write, “Place of birth and length of residence in the host society are powerful determinants of self-identity. The native-born second generation is significantly more likely to identify itself with the United States than are youths born abroad and brought to the United States in infancy.” This idea applies to Mario’s case, too. While he identifies his family members as Ecuadorian because his family is from Ecuador, he identifies himself as Argentinean because he was born and grew up in Argentina after his family left Ecuador for Argentina. Although he has lived in the U.S. for more than forty years since he left Argentina at the age of eleven, he still retains his sense of identity as an Argentinian. Where he was born and where he was a resident in his early life is the “determinant” of his identity.
Moreover, Mario’s experience with his intimate family has allowed his sense of identity as an Argentinean to strengthen. Even though the boy “Mario,” whose family is of Ecuadorean descent with a darker complexion, notices that people treat him differently from traditional European-Argentineans with fair complexions, he says, “I am proud to be an Argentinean in many ways, the culture, the food, and my memories.” His family lived in poverty due to price inflation in Argentina; however, his parents do their best to give their children, him and his ten-year elder sister, opportunities to have good education by paying for school shoes and uniforms on installment plan. They lived in a tenement house in Buenos Aires and slept in one bed all together. When he was eight years old, they had a family meeting about how they could leave their poverty. When they agreed that the only way was for his father to leave Argentina for the U.S., everybody in his family gave money for his father’s journey to the U.S. The boy, “Mario,” had to do his best to live up to his parents’ expectation and trust them to be a big part of his family’s responsibility. The gender roles at that time may have influenced him because he was going to be the only “man” in his family during his father’s absence. Being a part of his family meeting, understanding his family’s decision, giving money for his family’s future, and waiting for his father’s calls, was a huge responsibility for the eight-year-old boy; however, he completed all of them. His unforgettable accomplishment has allowed his pride and identity as an Argentinean to develop.
Finally, Mario’s experience of “leaving Argentina” has firmly established his identity. Mario recalls when he boarded an airplane to the U.S. at the age of eleven and says, “This is probably the happiest time of my life.” He may be relieved very much, not only from life in poverty, but also from his father’s absence for a quarter of Mario’s life. He may also notice that he will never go back to Argentina as a resident, so that he has to adapt himself to the new place, the U.S. While his new life excites him, it may sometimes evoke his nostalgia for Argentina, which emphasizes differences with Argentina, such as language and culture, of which he is proud. He may adapt himself to the U.S. very quickly in his adolescence; however, knowing that he has emigrated from Argentina and never gone back to “his” country highlights his sense of identity that he is from Argentina, his soil. From his birth, his identity has had a journey; however, it did not change but become more and more firm and solid because his nostalgia can become his psychological lens through which he may read the world to understand his identity: “I’m proud to be an Argentinean” (Morento). Although time and place can influence one’s self-identity, Mario’s nostalgia has developed and fixed his sense of identity as an Argentinean through his experiences since his identity was simply determined by his place of birth.
While Mario’s sense of self-identity has become firm and solid through his being in his birthplace and leaving there, his concept of “home” is quite flexible. Although the word ‘‘home’’ often carries strong sentimental connotations and refers to a past place, his concept of “home” is simply where he is because his new experiences have allowed him to update the concept through adapting himself to where he is.
Many people may think that the concept of “home” is a past place, which is strongly connected to nostalgia for “home”; for example, a synonym of the word “nostalgia” is “homesickness.” Both words of “nostalgia” and “homesickness” refer to emotional states of longing for home and sadness of one’s absence from there, and people believe that these emotional states are the main concept of “home.” Another example is in the article “Re-imagining home and belonging: feminism, nostalgia, and critical memory,” which is about how nostalgic longings for home create strong concept of “home.” The author, Samah Sabra, who is a Lebanese instructor of Carleton University in Canada, writes, “Home … refers to a past place from which one ‘comes’ and to which one desires to return.” She considers that nostalgic longing for home are a necessary aspect of the concept of “home;” however, the attitude can also recreate a romanticized, utopian concept of “home,” which is not actual place but a series of mental images. It is painful for people who left their countries, where they cannot return, to hold such illusory state. In the article “What Is Home?”, which is about different aspects of home, Natania Rosenfeld, who is a professor of English of Knox College, writes, “New York is a city of immigrants…; hardly anyone has deep roots, and that rootlessness, paradoxically, creates the sense of home.” Immigrants in New York represent immigrants in the whole country. They create a sense of “home” where they are residents because what they need is flexible, multiple concept of “home” rather than holding illusory images. Otherwise, they may have to live as “forever foreigners.” Thus, the concept of “home” can be a mental image of a past place where they lived; however, it can also be a present place where they currently live. In other words, the concept of “home” can be flexible and multiple. Since his birthplace determined his identity, Argentinean, his unforgettable experiences of surviving and leaving Argentina have allowed his self-identity to be reinforced.
Compared to Mario’s sense of identity, his concept of “home” is flexible and simple, which is quite interesting and unique. In her memoir The Invented Country, which is about her nostalgia for her homeland, Chile, which exists only in her mind, Isabel Allende, who is a journalist, playwright, children’s writer and novelist, writes about when she arrived in California after visiting her homeland, Chile, thirteen years after she had left: “On the return flight, when I saw San Francisco Bay from the air, I gave a sigh of exhaustion and, without thinking, said: Back home at last. It was the first time since I’d left Chile in 1975 that I felt I was ‘home’” (192). After her marriage to an American guy, Willie, and moving into California to live with him, she often feels she is out of place in the new place. The culture she carries, her clothes and attitudes, feel like oddities in California. She also does not write her works in English but in Spanish. However, she feels she is “home” when she arrives in California because, there, or her husband, Willie, is the place to which she belongs.
Mario’s time probably has passed like hers. He actually forged through the period of adapting because it was not easy but necessary for the boy “Mario.” When he arrived in New York, his first place in the U.S., he might not have felt that he was home because of his language, culture, and attitude; however, while he was adapting himself to different places in the U.S., New York, Boston, Texas, and California— he gradually began to feel at home in the U.S., finally much more than in Argentina. He says, “Home is where I live today, [the] San Francisco Bay Area, and, it must be a good reason [as it is] where I always come back since I have left.” He does not say that San Francisco is the only place for his “home,” but implies any place can be his “home.” He started his new life with his family in the Italian district in New York. Children in his neighborhood speak Italian and speak English at school while he speaks Spanish. His happiest moment when he boarded the airplane to the U.S., dreaming of new opportunities in the coolest place in the world, New York, may quickly turn into the hardest time for the boy “Mario.” After New York, a melting pot of races, cultures, and religions, he moves to Boston, Texas, and, finally, California. While growing up and becoming independent in different states, he may not have the chance to look back to his past place, Argentina, but may force himself to step forward and keep looking forward.
In addition, he very appreciates the opportunity to travel around the U.S. and to see many different things compared to when he could not have such experiences in Argentina. Mario says, “I see the U.S. as a heaven,” and he continues, “Our family’s economic reality in Argentina would have never provided the opportunities that we have enjoyed in the U.S., so in many ways, expectation were surpassed.” When he and his sister talked to each other by phone recently, they laughed at their dreams that they had before leaving Argentina for the U.S. because, although the dream was like an unreal image from American movies, their lives are more satisfying than those. They celebrate their life that they have in the U.S. His appreciation for the places he has lived and opportunities he has had in the U.S. reflects his concept of “home,” where he is. Thus, his experiences and his gratefulness to them have allowed him to have a flexible concept of his “home.”
Through the interview with Mario, I found that he has had three types of journey. First one is his actual journey, from Argentina to the U.S. and in the states of the U.S. The second one is the journey of his sense of self-identity. The third one is the journey of the concept of his “home.” My question, how Mario’s nostalgia for Argentina, where he was born, has affected his sense of identity, and how his experience has affected his concept of “home” through the passage of time, seemed like a riddle, and it interested me to read the riddle. Although some immigrant children flexibly combine their identities with American identity, Mario’s nostalgia for Argentina with his unforgettable experiences, has strengthened his self-identity as an Argentinian. On the other hand, he has flexibly updated his concept of “home” with appreciation for various opportunities, which he has had in the U.S. and would have never had in Argentina, although the word ‘‘home’’ often carries strong sentimental connotations and refers to a past place.
His three journeys are quite unique and interesting, but anybody can have an identity crisis and consideration of what home is. As Mario has done, these opportunities can be psychological journeys, which may be able to lead the person to a new awareness of his or her self-identity and his or her concept of “home.”
Allende, Isabel. My Invented Country. London: Harper Collins, 2003. Print.
Morento, Mario. Personal Interview. Apr. 2013
Portes, Alejandro, and Alejandro Rivas. “The adaptation of migrant children.” The Future of Children Spring 2011: 219+. Academic OneFile. Web. 12 May 2013.
Rosenfeld, Natania. “What Is Home?” Southwest Review 98.1 (2013): 45+. Academic OneFile. Web. 15 May 2013.
Sabra, Samah. “Re-imagining home and belonging: feminism, nostalgia, and critical memory.” Resources for Feminist Research 33.1-2 (2008): 79+. Academic OneFile. Web. 19 May 2013.
An Interview Transcript
His name is Mario Moreno, Argentinean. He is in middle 50s and a hospital eligibility supervisor at a hospital in San Francisco. He lives next to my house last December.
· Where are you from?
I am from Buenos Aires, Argentina (Yes, where the new pope is from and yes he is also named Mario) I’m sure just a coincidence …or is it?? What is actually interesting is that I am the only Argentinean in the entire family tree. Reason being that my family travel from Ecuador, where everyone else is from, and once they settled in Argentina, I was born, so even my own sister is from another country, kinda funny.
· When did you leave your home country?
I came to the US when I was 11 years old.
· How many countries or states have you lived?
Just Argentina and U.S., but I have lived in New York, Boston, Texas and now Ca.
· Why did you leave your country?
My mom and dad were self-employed designing and creating high end ladies leather handbags, snake, crocodile, cow, ostrich, etc. My parents always sacrificed to give us the best they could. They paid extra so we could go to catholic school and get a good education. We all slept one bed in a small tenement in Buenos Aires. Compared to many of my friends, we were considered poor; I was even embarrassed to invite my school friends over to our place.
When I was about 8, we had a family meeting and the decision was that US was the only way to open opportunities for us to get out of poverty. Every penny we had was invested in my dad coming to the US. My dad’s cousin brought my dad to Washington DC to test the waters and my dad was hired as a designer. He was then hired by Coach, yes that one!! He brought the rest of us over after 3 years of working and saving and we moved into our first apt. in New York.
· What do you see differences between your homeland and the U.S.?
In terms of the country’s themselves, they could not be more different. In Argentina, the economy has become awful in that what it costs to buy milk today would go up or double the following week as the “peso” would just devalue. Mostly due to corrupt government that mismanaged (stole) the value. As an example we were laughing with my sister the other day remembering that my parents would have to buy our shoes and school uniforms on credit! Crazy huh … So being poor really becomes a lifelong sentence. We hardly traveled in Argentina, so I did not know many places that I do now.
The one major thing, that I told my friends when I went to visit for the ’78 Soccer World cup, was that while I may have opportunities and things … they have a solid family unit. Every Sunday, you can walk down the streets in the barrios of Buenos Aires and smell the delicious BBQs and families getting together.
In the capital, where I lived, there’s more of an upper society feeling for a good part of that area. Much like US, once you get outside into the provinces, they don’t like the “spoiled” Buenos Aires residents, they are more cowboys like.
Since my mom passed some years ago, my dad went back to Ecuador and my sister lives in Dallas and Chicago and my grown son lives in Fremont, so “which is better ? ” is really a relative question. But of course, here once can be much more in charge of their destiny as in Argentina.
· Do you like your homeland? Why?
I am proud to be an Argentinean in many ways, the culture, the food, and my memories. However, Argentinians are traditionally European decedents, including many Germans that escaped there during the war, but most have solid roots from Italy and you can see that flavor mostly in Buenos Aires. Therefore, since I was descendent of Ecuadorans, a darker skin culture I found myself being treated differently than the typical euro-like Argentinean. My friends from school saw me as one of their own.
· Do you like the U.S.? Why?
US, like Argentina, has different regions that are night and day to each other so it’s hard to paint with a single brush. As a whole, however, I see the US as a haven for many cultures and opportunities to those who are willing to risk and work hard with dedication. I would never have had similar opportunities in Argentina, just not possible. I have seen more of the country here than I would ever had while living in Buenos Aires
· When was the happiest time in your life? Why?
While I treasure many childhood memories and the day I jumped on that plane when I was 11 years old; this is probably the happiest time of my life. To have my own little place, making come out to what I want it to be and living in a cool little town close to the nicest city I’ve ever lived in.
· When was the hardest time in your life? Why?
Besides my divorce when I distanced myself from my son, I could not compare too many other times. But, I do recall being sad when we were waiting for my dad to call us to come to the US. We were alone, I was not allowed to tell anyone that we were planning to leave the country and we felt that everything could fall apart any minute. I learned about risk in a very real way !!
· What do you think is your ethnic group?
I consider myself a Latino, don’t much care for the description of Hispanic, I don’t have any panic (lol)… Latino best describes me because I come from Latin America. We are a proud ethnicity that oftentimes in extreme situations causes friction with other cultures. At times, young Latinos will act out with violence to prove their identity, which in some ways embarrasses me.
· Where do you consider your homeland?
Even though I am the only Argentinean in my whole family tree of Ecuadorians, I do consider myself Argentinean since it is all I know, I have only visited Ecuador a few times, and do not find much resemblance other than my skin. Most Argentinians are European decent and I may have at times not fitted their view of an Argentinean
· What is a concept of home for you?
Home is where I live today, San Francisco Bay Area, since I have left and always come back, must be a good reason for that.
· Since moving, how has your perspective changed about your homeland?
Since I left Argentina when I was 11 years old and really no relatives left behind there and few friends; I don’t really miss it. I do not follow politics or other news. As a soccer enthusiast I do follow the sport to some extent, but that’s it, I have lost the connection
· Since moving, how has your perspective changed about yourself?
I feel very independent and self-sufficient, which is very different than the common family units know to be prevalent in Argentina. People don’t; must have around much there, due to the economic limitations, so families tend to live near each other and therefore enjoy the benefits of family’s’ support, very different than my situation.
· While your voyage, what did you expect your life in the US?
I’m not sure I understand this question. But if you’re asking how I viewed the US before coming here, it was just the images we saw in movies growing up, vast landscapes, warm, riches, etc.
· How was your life different from your expectation?
While I am not be enjoying all the things I saw as other’s experiences living in the US from the movies, I see that my dreams as a child to be even at a reach of such beauty is now closer than I would ever be living in Argentina. Our family’s economic reality in Argentina would have never provided the opportunities that we have enjoyed in the US. As an example, my sister and bro -n-law own two huge homes in Texas and Illinois and live in each for 6 months at a time. We laughed recently, that those thoughts were not even in our minds growing up as a wildest possibility. So in many ways, expectations were surpassed