“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
George Bernard Shaw
Multicultural Identity of Prominent Outliers
My interviews for the upcoming book clarified how prominent immigrant women have been making a progress in the US. Many immigrant women are struggling to survive and thrive – which was thoroughly examined in the book Immigration and Women, Understanding the American Experience. Only a small but essential subset of them makes it big in America—and I focus specifically on these outliers with multicultural identities—to portray them as inspiring role models for the rest.
The five domains where the immigrant women of the first generation recreate their new lives have important implications not only for the immigrants’ success but also for coaching, mentoring, and training all migrants for relocation or immigration.
Five Key Domains
Developing multicultural identity may present the steepest challenges for all people – migrant or local-born – who try to “find” themselves in a new land or a new occupation. In fact, establishing oneself in any unfamiliar territory—as George Bernard Shaw pointed out—is more about recreating self and continually working out towards flexing certain muscles of cultural/personal identity. It is my observation that this workout happens in five key domains:
- Cultural integration
- Language mastery
- Enhanced creativity
- Sense of belonging
- Reinventing self.
Within the limits of this blog, I’ll address domains No 1 and No 5, cultural integration and reinventing/recreating self. A case of an immigrant woman who made it big in America starting from scratch will illustrate this.
Cultivating Cultural Integration
Immigrants’ cultural and personal identities evolve slowly but surely, and when cultural integration happens, it’s irreversible. Let’s look at work ethic as an integral part of cultural integration.
In some countries/cultures, a “work-to-live” principle dominates: people generally work from 9 to 5, and then comes their quality time — for family, friends, and fun. In some other countries, including the United States, a “live-to-work” principle is king, trumping everything else. Research shows that the latter attitude has saturated the American psyche since the time of the first settlers, whose very survival depended on their work. Handed down for generations, it may have morphed into “live-to-work” ethic becoming part of the American cultural DNA.
People who immigrate and succeed in the US are workaholics by design anyway, regardless of culture, so they fit in on that dimension. And in America, their personal identity shifts to the live-to-work ethic even more. Here’s one immigrant woman who integrated in-depth and became a role model whose personal work ethic fits the mainstream American as a glove.
Veronica Montes, from Mexico: The Integrated Educator
Verónica Montes started from scratch. The daughter of a divorced immigrant mother who, working as a seamstress, brought her four children to America in search of a better life, Verónica’s personal stamina led her to become an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow, and later, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Bryn Mawr College (pictured).
Verónica understood that success in the U.S. required cultural integration, nevertheless she found it hard. There is a saying in Spanish “ni de aqui ni de alla,” meaning “neither here nor there,” which is commonly applied to Mexicans living in the United States. It implies that people belong neither to the U.S. nor to Mexico. Not so for Verónica, whose advanced sociology degrees brought her to the point in her life where she’s confident that she’s both “from here and from there.” It may have taken her twenty-five years, but today she articulates that “Mexico complements my life, as it is my inner-energy source. However, I realized that my life is already settled here in the U.S.” She is perfectly happy here, with her family (pictured).
While molding her multicultural identity, Verónica’s learned to modify her behaviors: shake off the taboos of Mexican culture; become more assertive; and adjust to a more stressful lifestyle. She now feels free to express her opinions: a huge leap forward for a girl from a culture where women are supposed to know their proper place—behind the men. These changes are normal. Immigrants need to accept them however hard this may be, to become part and parcel of America.
Recreating herself as integrated educator
Completing a Master’s and Ph.D. program in sociology is a great achievement for anybody. But the advanced cultural integration and language skills necessary make the challenge so much greater for someone who is not a native English speaker. This is perhaps the reason why Verónica feels satisfaction every time she lectures: being able to express her thoughts in English adequately has required many years of hard-work (pictured with students).
But sociology was Verónica’s dream, something she felt she knew instinctively, and intimately. There, she could apply her insider’s perspective to the examination of migration from Latin America to the U.S., providing valuable insights to the integration processes. Particularly, she knows first-hand that the most significant differences between Mexican and American cultures have to do with family and community. Family and community are central to Mexican life, where people rely on them for almost any kind of support: economic, emotional, social, etc., In the U.S. such reliance can signal weakness.
Says Verónica: “I was the first in my family to get a college diploma and a Ph.D. degree. Having arrived in the U.S. at the age of eighteen, without knowing a single word of English and without proper documents to legally reside in the U.S., I believe that I sow the seeds of pursuing the higher education.” Yes, her road to integration was hard, but now, some twenty-five years later, Verónica finally feels at home in the United States. Notably, she didn’t “find” but created herself.
Life in the USA is not too inviting for the women of foreign descent, forcing them to triple their efforts and recreate their ever-evolving multicultural identity in five key domains—without losing core identity. America needs talented immigrants. Let’s support them whenever we can!