Interviewed by: Khaled Mohamed
Angela is a second generation Bolivian immigrant in her 30s. She was born and raised in Montgomery County, MD. Angela currently works for a firm in Maryland and has a 12 year old child. This interview sheds light on the role that residential and linguistic assimilation, in particular parental efforts to seek suburban residential areas and foster English language at home, have played in Angela's rapid integration into American culture. Yet she is able to rediscover her Bolivian identity with the growth of the immigrant community and her interest in Bolivian dance groups.
Reasons for Migrating to the United States
Angela's parents migrated from Bolivia in the 1970s. Angela’s father benefited from family reunification when his sister applied for his immigrant visa when he was 21.* Her mother, who was 16 years old at the time of her arrival in the United States, followed the same path as Angela’s father since her sister, who was married to a Vietnam War veteran, applied for Angela’s mother’s visa. The couple met each other in the United States where they eventually got married. Interestingly, although her parents were living in the same building, it was not until both of them were taking English classes in Maryland that they finally met each other.
Negative Experiences in the U.S
As many children of immigrants, Angela felt “annoyed” every time she was asked about her ethnic background because “if you were white, they wouldn’t ask you that kind of question.” Moreover, what bothers Angela most is when people would ask her if she could speak English because of her appearance. But in her mind, she had no doubts about her American identity.
Connection to Bolivian culture
Angela states that being Bolivian hardly played a factor in Angela's family life during her childhood and early years of high school. Although she did not participate in school activities due to her parents’ long work hours, interestingly, when she was about 15 years old, she started to participate in a Bolivian dancing troupe outside her school:
“I started to participate in Bolivian dancing troupe outside school. My parents used to get their taxes done by this Cuban guy in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has his own little “bodega” (store). There was a lady who worked in his store, she was Bolivian. Her sister had a dance academy. She recruited only tall Bolivians to dance in her group, so I joined. As you see I’m a tall Bolivian. That’s how I got recruited, and that’s how it all started.”
The dancing group was a way for Angela to discover the Bolivian culture and make friends from the Bolivian community in Maryland.
Integrating into U.S. Culture and English Acquisition
Angela describes her childhood as being more “Americanized” than “ethnicized.” She comments that her parents were more concerned with her and her brother being more Americanized. Angela says that she and her brother were never raised in a Latino area. The family spoke only English at home. Angela comments that she heard Spanish only when her parents were angry or emotional about something. However, they ate Bolivian food.
Angela believes that she was raised in a totally different way than other Bolivian families she met at later stages of her life. The reason for very different attitudes among different Bolivian cohorts is that “Bolivian Americans in the late 1970s and early 1980s were very different from Bolivian Americans now”, because there were not too many Latinos at that time, and earlier cohorts were trying to assimilate into the mainstream society.
School and Childhood Experience
Due to the fact that the family was living in a white neighborhood, Angela and her brother, in addition to two other people, were the only Latinos in high school. Angela describes her school years as very different from her Latino acquaintances. When she was in sixth grade, she moved to a school in Montgomery County, MD where she could count with "one or two hands the immigrant children in the middle and high school.” She did not remember seeing any apartments or condominiums in her neighborhood, as there were “just single-family homes.” Accordingly, all her friends were children of white middle-class families, and her best friend was Jewish.
Angela did not choose to marry someone from her ethnicity. She married interracially. She insists that ethnicity was not a factor in choosing her partner. Even when she began to date after getting divorced, ethnicity and race was again not a factor. This is what she had to say about her marital decision:
“My ex-husband is from Morocco. My mom’s reaction was all about religion. She said, ‘but he is not Catholic.’ But my dad was easy going. He embraced the idea that my ex did not have a family here. My dad thought the same way when he first came here, so my dad helped him out a lot. My mom, though, wished that I got married to a white guy.”
Experience of Second-Generation Immigrants in Their Parents' Home Countries
Angela knows plenty about her parent’s country and she visited Bolivia several times, and the last time she was there was three years ago. Despite visiting Bolivia many times, she recalls the first time she went there as a child, which is still very vivid in her mind. "That was kind of scary. It was when I was eight. I remember being in a taxi cab and seeing and smelling new food and seeing all those people. You know it is a poor country, but I’ve never realized how poor it is. But the overall experience was fun."
Thoughts about Identity
Angela lives ethnically between two worlds, celebrating ethnic holidays and occasions from Bolivia and Morocco. She is keen to celebrate Bolivian Independence Day every year, in addition to Catholic holidays and non-ethnic celebrations with “some Bolivian flavor.”
“On Christmas, we celebrate the (December) 24th and the 25th. We go to church on the 24th, then we go back home and we make pastries. It’s like a big deal, and you have to eat that on Christmas Eve. We eat that and we drink this red drink, then we go to my aunt’s house. We get gifts and we hang out with the family. I have a big family, mainly from my dad’s side. We also have a religious celebration on January 6th.”
When she was still married to her Moroccan spouse, she used to mark Muslim celebrations such as Ramadan and Eid. Even now, she makes sure that her son is connected to his father’s religious rituals.
Angela works in a firm where most of her coworkers are predominantly Jewish, but she does not feel that her ethnicity matters in her workplace. In fact nobody refers to it in any context. Angela said that she never felt discriminated against because she is first of all an American citizen. At the same time, she is proud of her ethnic origin because it defines who she is. Angela said confidently that she developed her sense of ethnic identity through the years.
* U.S. citizens can petition for immigrant visas for their siblings.