Vanessa Couto works for the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Portland, Oregon. She is also an artist; check out ArtbyNessa.
December 23, 1983 was the day my childhood ended and my life was changed forever. On that day, I learned that once you leave your home country, you are never the same.
In 1983, I was 10 years old and my parents decided to come to America. My father had just been laid off, and there was no way they would be able to afford their hefty mortgage with just my mother’s salary as a teacher. But behind the financial reasons was the fact that my father had dreamed of coming to America for quite some time. The plan was for us to stay only 2 years, save enough money to pay off the condo they had just bought, and hopefully buy a home for my maternal grandmother. The plan came undone within the first week here, when my father declared that he didn’t want to go back to Brazil. That was the beginning of the end of my parent’s marriage.
Our first home in America was in New Jersey, where my mom’s sister lived. But within 6 months of our arrival, our tourist visa expired and we were now illegal in the country. That didn’t stop my parents’ determination. My mother went from being a History teacher to being a cleaning lady who couldn’t speak English. My father went from having an office job in a textile company to working as baker’s assistant in a local Italian bakery, the first job of many. I went from being a straight A student in a private school, to learning my way
s around the English language and a public school with immigrant kids from all over the world. While my parents struggled with their jobs, I buried my nose in the books and dictionaries I got from the library, determined to learn English.
When I was a high school freshman, my parents separated and my mother and I moved to Cape Cod, where her younger brother was living with his family. In the late 1980s there was a small community of Brazilian immigrants in Cape Cod, and I was the first Brazilian and only immigrant in an all American high school. By the time I was a junior, the Brazilian community had grown exponentially, but those first couple of years were both challenging and rewarding for me. I was the only one in my family who spoke English, so I was the interpreter/translator for any situation or emergency. Friends of the family who needed help at the doctor’s, with their bosses, with their landlord, would request that I come along to help negotiate. I was 15 and I hated that. I wanted to be a ‘normal’ teenager, but again my life felt split between two different worlds. By day I was a straight a good student at the High School. After 3 p.m. I was a Brazilian immigrant, working my after school job to help pay for my own expenses, immersed in the growing Brazilian community and being the ‘to go’ interpreter/translator. High School didn’t afford me an experience of being the popular kid or any of the glamorized adventures we see in the movies, but it did give me space and opportunity to find out my own capabilities and hone my love for the English language and history.
Away from school, my responsibilities were much closer to adulthood and I was forced to grow up fast. My mother only spoke broken English and I was the one who helped her navigate the system. When I was a sophomore, she had breast cancer. I was the one who dealt with doctors, hospitals and health insurance, while working my afternoon/evening job at a fast food restaurant and keeping my grades at school.
As I mentioned, once you leave your home country, you are never the same. When you immigrate to another country, there’s a split that takes place in your soul. You get caught in this wild dance, between belonging and not belonging; forever caught in this threshold place. With time you may start to feel that you belong more, that you have acculturated enough, that you know the ins and outs of the culture and language. But deep inside, you have this outsider’s perspective not just on the country that you immigrated to, but towards your own homeland. You discover that there are many perspectives in which to see the world. The longer you live in another country; you learn that above all, we are humans, not just a nationality. Despite national fervor being rampant in uncertain times, at the end of the day, you have gained wider lenses in which to see the world. Your understanding of borders, national pride, culture and language becomes more fluid and flexible. At times it is very hard to be considered ‘different’ or an ‘outsider.’ However, with time you learn to appreciate this ability to see the similarities in our humanity, despite all the differences.
Growing up caught between the Brazilian and American cultures may have widened my view of the world. But being an illegal immigrant (or my hated expression ‘illegal alien’) added shame and anxiety to my life. Anxiety about being caught by Immigration, shame for being ‘illegal’–a state of non-citizenship that screams of ‘you don’t belong here’ – was a secret that I hated keeping from my American friends. Granted, before 9/11 and Homeland Security things were easier for immigrants. It wasn’t as harsh or stigmatized, but it was still a source of constant worry and an obstacle to better opportunities.
One question I often got when I went back to Brazil was if I had suffered discrimination while living here. I never was discriminated against by Americans, but ironically by other immigrants, especially some of the Brazilians. I was amazed by how America, at least in my experience, was welcoming to those who showed intelligence and determination to succeed. I only wish the immigration laws would have been more streamlined and forward thinking, so that those immigrants, who wanted to become legal, could do so sooner. At a young age, I learned that there were many shades of gray when it came to immigrants. Some wanted to milk the system, others, like my parents strove to be good, responsible people, doing what was right, while the only difference between them a good American citizen was their broken English and the lack of the Green Card.
Nine years ago, I finally became an American citizen. It was a circuitous road to get the Green Card and then to be able to apply for citizenship. I no longer have to worry about being caught by Immigration. I have the freedom to come and go as I please, things that were not afforded to me when I was growing up. It’s a relief not having to live with the shame of being illegal. But when I say, ‘Yes, I’m an American’, you can still detect my Brazilian accent, subtle, but still there. This will always remind me that I may belong, but I will always be different too.
In truth, I feel more like a citizen of this threshold, and that’s not a bad place at all. It helps me to keep my beginner’s mind when looking out into the world. Our world that needs us to have a more flexible and welcoming mind, now more than ever.