Eugene photographer and digital artist Melissa “Mimi” Nolledo began work on this photographic essay shortly after the November election. Since then she has been reaching out to local immigrants from various ethnic backgrounds, photographing and interviewing them and posting their stories, lightly edited here, on social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram. She exhibited these photos for the first time at the Oregon Asian Celebration. Her dramatic portraits are accompanied by thought-provoking stories of what it’s like to be an immigrant in America.
“My goal is that through these photographic essays, we may build bridges of hope, strength and courage to inspire the people around us to see that despite our differences, we are connected and similar in so many other ways: our dreams, aspirations, our love for country and humankind,” she says.
It’s hard to be an immigrant and be away from your family for so long and know that even though there’s so much here that we are really grateful for, we really have that constant tugging feeling. For one thing, we are a little bit out of place here. And the people that we feel we are meant to be around constantly are a million miles away, and for them to come here would require enormous amounts of money and lawyers’ fees. I don’t know about other countries where other people come from. I know there are a lot of surprise fees along the way. I mean that’s a huge part of planning to immigrate.
I was born in Burundi, Africa, in 1991. I am 25 years old. I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where my dad was in graduate school. Later, I moved to Austin, Texas, and then New York, then back to Texas. Then I went to boarding school in Massachusetts. Finally, I went to college in Portland. Now I am a teacher in Eugene.
I have been really lucky in my life. My parents valued education. My mom really encouraged me and helped me throughout school and fostered and instilled in me the love of learning.
I feel like I’ve been incredibly lucky in coming here. But there were many times, too, when I felt like my identity was challenged in ways that I was not comfortable with, especially when integrating with different communities in the U.S. I have gone through a whole series of growing pains trying to understand my relationship with black and white America. How do I fit into that? And how do people receive me? But I have also gone through big changes in how I react to things. My assimilation is fluid. There are some things I don’t want to assimilate into and I hold onto my Burundi identity. There are also other things I love. I have no choice and no reason to choose one. I don’t have to choose, because — I have dual identities. And I don’t want to choose.
Juan Carlos Valle
One night I look at my surroundings: an impoverished, dangerous and economically depressed neighborhood at a tender age to see reality face to face. A place in the outskirts of Mexico City. To wish through the night for just a day better than the day before and to find a meal and perhaps steady shelter. That is what it means to be an immigrant to me.
As a kid, to leave behind the very few friends. To exchange the only pleasure of playing canicas (marbles) for long day labor in the unforgiving orchards of Medford. To feel the sweat down my forehead and my tired back, but to keep going forward so I wouldn’t go back. That’s an immigrant life to me.
To leave your family of eight plus parents behind. To leave behind the few but powerful childhood memories of your country. To encounter a new life — seemingly an oasis, but a real laborious future.
To constantly adjust to learn a new language, way of life, laws and even food. To plant your future in hopes of some day harvesting a better life. To be seen by segments of society as an overseas visitor when your ancestors were all from the Americas. To work hard to be better than you were yesterday. To turn around and give back and help others. To me, that is what it means to be an immigrant.
The future is brighter when there is a community and when we remember that all of us are immigrants. I am blessed for the chance of a better life.
I don’t really feel like an immigrant because I grew up here in the U.S. after coming here as a baby. I only notice I’m an “other” when I go to the airports expecting a certain level of increased scrutiny at security checkpoints, or if I happen to be the only person of color in a room of middle-aged white people — very common in Eugene. It’s definitely a strong dose of reality when it happens, but thankfully it’s few and far enough between that I’m able to recognize my treatment is much better than that received by those with darker skin than mine or heavy accents (I have none).
But then I go to the Philippines and I basically feel like a white person because I don’t speak Tagalog and don’t even really have a strong desire to learn it — very uncommon for any sort of Filipino. The “other” side becomes more distinctly American when I compare my unconventional career path to practically any person my age from the Philippines who followed the traditional, obedient path of honor student at higher education institutions.
So I get to straddle two worlds: not fully American but not from the U.S., either.
It’s disturbing that racism is still so flagrant in our society and daily lives, because there are so, so many more important things we should be focusing on now. I’m thankful my situation is at least livable. I personally don’t have to worry about being shot on the street by a police officer, but I know there’s no way I’ll be able to stay silent on injustices endured by other ethnicities because I, too, know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. I hope we can start having those hard conversations that will move us past these issues in 2017, but in reality I know it will take a lifetime (maybe even more than that) to overcome the hate and prejudice sown into this country.
Maria Rungkat Warren
I am from Indonesia, a mixture of Dutch and Indonesian.
I moved to Eugene in the early 90’s from Karachi, Pakistan. I was working for the U.S. embassy at the time, then following the career of my spouse who was working for the foreign service. I lived in Asia, the Caribbean, South America, Africa and the Middle East during these years.
I have four blessed children. My oldest son was born in Kenya, Africa, and my second daughter was born in Karachi, Pakistan. We decided to end our careers with the U.S. foreign service and moved to Eugene to provide more stability for our children. My third and fourth daughters were born in Eugene. I have lived here for the last 23 years, the longest I’ve ever been in one place.
I opened a home-catering business for the University of Oregon international students to provide them the flavor of home-cooked meals. That was quite a blessing to have my own business that allowed me to meet many international students. Over time I moved onto a different season of life, as my children grew older and I started focusing more on my rental and property management business.
I’m currently involved with the international community abroad and in my local community. I have hosted international students for the past 17 years. It is important for me that my children were exposed to and had opportunities to interact with a variety of people from around the world while they were growing up, and to learn about peoples from other countries and their cultures. One thing I believe is that our creator does not see the differences of our skin, but that we are all equally made in his image.
I love people, and I think I got that from my mother. My mom always said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass. So love is the greatest of all. If I look left and right I cannot be myself. I believe that we should respect each other and be kind to each other, and to help each other regardless of our differences.”
I’m very grateful that my children have the opportunity to live in this great nation on earth with many opportunities. God bless America!!
Sometimes immigrants call simply providing a better life for their kids living the “American Dream.” Immigrants work grocery stores, laundromats and the like to provide for their kids. But that is not my definition. While there are exceptions — immigrants who have wild success in America — understand that for every amazing story, there are thousands if not millions of stories where immigrants and their descendants continue to strive to reach for more. Sometimes the “American Dream” can take a while. Generations.
My father immigrated in 1958 as a student. His goal was to become a teacher and researcher. He has all sorts of stories of arriving in America with only $700, relying on fellow immigrant strangers he just met for basics like a place to stay. He didn’t realize his dream. He didn’t make tenure — despite his research being adapted by the entire industry. Possibly (probably) working in a white-dominated industry in a white-dominated department had something to do with it. Then the 1970s recession hit. He ultimately opened up a photocopy/print store to pay the bills.
My mother is sansei, third generation Japanese-American. Her father had worked hard, climbed the ladder of success. My grandfather was a hospital CEO at the time of Pearl Harbor. My mother’s family was sent to the internment camps. They lost their house, their assets. Mid-life, my grandfather was forced to start over. After the war, my grandmother opened a sewing school to pay the bills. My mother became a librarian, but had a stroke in her 40s. My dad has cared for her for nearly 40 years.
So I heard their message: Become a doctor, my parents said. How many Asian kids heard this growing up? It’s the safer path. So I did. And yes, I enjoy financial security. Something my parents did not have. Lots of Asian doctors, right? That’s good. America needs doctors. But how many Mozarts, Jobses, Einsteins, Baryshnikovs and Kings do we not have because they are doctors? It probably wouldn’t have been me, but we’ll never know. What did we lose?
In a slightly different way, less stressful to be sure, I am doing as my parents did. Working for the next generation — their educations, their long-term futures. But my message is different: You have a safety net. Pursue your dreams. Let’s see what you can really do.
My family moved to the United States from Bangladesh when I was seven years old. We arrived in New York City in 1997, and I remember that we lived in a two bedroom basement apartment in Queens, which we shared with a roommate. My older sister had her own room and I shared a bedroom with my parents. We didn’t own a house or a car but I remember always being a very happy kid and never feeling like we lacked anything.
My parents worked incredibly hard to provide a better life and future for their two daughters. They had great jobs in Bangladesh, working for the United Nations Development Program, but they knew that if they remained in Bangladesh, the opportunities were limited and the future uncertain for their two daughters. So, they left behind friends, family, their country, language and culture to start from scratch in a brand-new world with dreams for a better future.
My family and I represent the true story of so many immigrants who come to the U.S. for the American Dream. A chance at a better life. The American Dream is this idea that anything is possible, as long as you are willing to work hard for it. To me, being an American means exactly that: I can do anything because I live in America, where anything is possible as long as I work hard. My parents taught me this through their experiences, and worked hard every single day, sometimes more than two jobs, and eventually bought a house and cars and helped both my sister and me pay for college. They labored even harder to become U.S. citizens. It took them more than 10 years, but eventually with great financial investments, numerous courtroom trials, and countless visits with immigrations attorneys we finally became citizens.
Today I am a 27-year-old proud American woman with a great beginning career in international diplomacy. I have travelled the world and now find myself at the University of Oregon with a full scholarship to the International Studies graduate program. I believe all of this is a result of my immigrant parents’ dreams and endeavors. I’m an American, but my roots are those of an immigrant.
Today I am scared for my country and the direction the current administration is taking us. I hope that we can still be a nation that welcomes people from all over the world and be a refuge for those seeking equality, justice, or simply a better life. America is stronger because of our diversity in people and cultures.
Bob Keefer's name was mistakenly added due to an editor's error. All materials are from Melissa “Mimi” Nolledo.