One of my hopes for The Book of Unknown Americans was that it might tell stories people don't usually hear. And now, another hope: that we will all tell our #UnknownAmerican stories. Where did you or your family come from? What is your life like now? We'll create a chorus and make our voices known.

—Cristina Henriquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans, a novel

My family and I came over from Laos, September of 1979 on a boat, ended up in California then Binghamton, New York.  My father has 9 brothers and sisters, they all migrated to Binghmaton, all except one brother.  As of today, i am 39 years of age.  I have two brothers, im the middle child, the only girl.  All I have are stories family members have told about our journey to America and how difficult it was to escape without being caught.  I could only imagine how difficult and challenging it was for my parents during that time, transporting 3 young children under the age of 4, a brother who would not stop crying the whole time. 

We were fortunate enough to meet such a wonderful, caring and generous family through the American Civic who volunteered to sponsor our family, Helen and Carl Pechmann.  The Pechmann’s had 5 kids of their own. Helen was a nurse, sung in a church choir and Carl was a salesman.  The Pechmann’s help us get settled in with an apartment, clothing, furniture and jobs for my parents.   

Growing up in America was nothing out of the norm for me as an immigrant, nothing to compare to since i was so young at the time.  The one thing that did not change was the traditional values that my parents held onto. The values and expectations between men and women were different.  Women were expected to cook and clean, men were providers.  Up to about my high school years, i wasn’t allowed to go out past dark, couldn’t attend school dances or sleepovers.  My brothers had no limitations.

As a child, you don’t realize the struggles, the sacrifices, the determination and the strength that your parents possessed to get us to where we are today. From a child’s point of view, everything seemed so simple.  We are all doing well.  My father is 65 years old, recently retired from the company he started with back in 1979.   My mother is still working, don’t know if that woman will ever retire! She can’t sit still.  My two brothers still reside in Binghamton, New York and I migrated to Houston, Texas two years ago.  Helen and Carl are both deceased.  I still maintain contact with her children.  My brothers both have kids, which none of them speak our native language but understands most of it.  I don’t have any children, if that day comes, i hope to be as strong as my parents.

— Phonemaly Phetphongsy

My parents, younger brother, and I left Cuba in November of 1997. I was fourteen. My mother had won the visa lottery—an arrangement between Cuba’s and the United States’ governments to give Cubans 20,000 annual visas so they can permanently move north. My father had attempted to leave on a boat, but that plan failed. My mother refused to put my brother and me on a raft, because as she put it, “I won’t risk arriving in Florida without one of you two.”

Thanks to the lottery process and some family assistance, we settled in West Palm Beach, where I attended high school and began to learn the language. I surrounded myself with friends from different backgrounds: Cubans, Chileans, Uruguayans, Argentinians, Mexicans, Americans (aren’t the rest Americans too, I ask?). Because I had long hair at the time, people used to ask me if I was Argentinian or American, until they heard my accent.

Despite having a scholarship, I dropped out of college, unsure of what I wanted to do. I went on to hold jobs at a supermarket, junkyard, warehouse, music store, and the customer service department of a watch company. After taking an American Literature night class and reading some Borges and Dostoevsky on my own, I decided I wanted to become a writer. I returned to college, this time in Miami, where my family had moved, attending classes while I worked full time. Years later I graduated from Florida International University and got married to a wonderful Cuban woman. I pursued an MFA at Boston University and chose to remain in this city, with plans to build a career.

Recently, I finished a story collection set in Cuba, began publishing in well-known journals, and I’m now completing a novel. My books serve as a way to explore my past, the country where I grew up and its people, a place to which I most likely won’t return to live due to its economic and political situation. But after nearly seventeen years in the U.S., I also feel as American as the next person. This is my new home. The fact that I wasn’t born here simply means I perhaps have something new to add to this ever-changing melting pot.

— Dariel Suarez

I am originally from Bulgaria. I came to the States when I was 18 to go to a small liberal arts college in Tennessee called Sewanee: The University of the South.

When I arrived at the Atlanta airport, I was greeted by two Sewanee kids, who very thoughtfully helped me with my bags and asked if I was hungry. Of course, I was… so they took me to the Waffle House. And there I was, 18 year old, NEVER left Bulgaria before. Literally, fresh off the plane, in AMERICA! Ready to begin building my American Dream! And before I can figure out what’s going on, I am sitting in a Waffle House, somewhere in the middle of Georgia and a 60 year old waitress with hair up-to-here is taking my order. I know she must be speaking English but her Southern accent is so strong that I really have no clue what she is saying. And just asI am finally starting to relax because I have managed to order my tater tots, I notice the lyrics of the song that’s playing on the radio:

She thinks my tractor’s sexy

It really turns her on

She’s always starin’ at me

While I’m chuggin’ along…

Do you know the song? It’s by Kenny Chesney. And, I swear to god, I felt my spirit lift up above me, looked at me from behind my shoulder and asked: Girl, what did you get yourself into?!

— Petya Kirilova-Grady // read the rest of the piece here

My father Pedro [that’s how he wanted to be called in the US] emigrated during the war to Argentina from Austria; he had a doctor in medicine degree, but could not use it since Argentinian law required five years of college. He needed to eat, so he carried cement bags on his back [eating sausages and milk] as they were constructing Ave. General Paz. He later worked his way to be part owner of a company. My mother Mary, was born in Chile with an English father and a Chilean mother and came to Argentina, when her father passed away, at an early age with her mother and two aunts. My parents met in a tennis court. They got married and had me after five years. In 1951, we lived in a little house on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Ciudad Jardin Lomas del Palomar [yes, I am a porteno, the worst type of Argentinians].

At 12 we moved to the city and by that time life was much better. We were middle class, belonged to a tennis club, went on vacations for three months to the sea side [Mar del Plata]. 

Governments were elected, and did not last, all South American countries had the armed forces taking over governments, some had elections, some stayed for too long, and Argentina was no exception. Domingo Peron was deposed in 1955 and then after many governments, Peronism was allowed to present a party in or about 1971. My parents were, by then, members of a tennis club and a Bridge/Chess club, had many, many friends and a wonderful society to live in, a very nice life. I of course without knowing it, enjoyed a great life, too.

Then, when it was evident Peronism was coming back, with my father admiring the US as he had for so many years, he obtained an offer from Celanese Plastics to come and live in the US as an agents manager for Latin America. He convinced my mother and off they went to the States not knowing a person at 60 years old. Oh, how my mother suffered, not knowing anybody, and so many new and different habits, all with a life made and in no need of new friends, different values. But through Bridge clubs and tennis constructed, they once again an atmosphere they could live in. They left me behind in Argentina in my own apartment, with my car and barely 22 years old…oh what a life! After four years at University, I came to live here at my parent’s apartment making my mother start to understand life here with my enthusiasm. I was accepted at Stevens Institute of Technology where I earned my Masters in Polymer Chemistry. I worked hard to make American friends, learned about football, baseball. 

Well, I got married to my college sweetheart, had a baby girl Michelle, but… my ex hated the USA, left me and went back with her parents to Buenos Aires. I sold the house in Connecticut, resigned my job and went back but, she did not love me anymore. After four years I came back to the US to live again with my parents. I met my wife for life, Deb, 32 years ago on a blind date, an American, and together we adopted two Colombian children.

Today our friends are American. I have just one Latino friend. My son Peter speaks but does not practice Spanish; I enjoy very much my work, since it allows me to travel to South America. I enjoy speaking while there, our habits, food and music. But when in the States, I do not miss my Latin background, but rather enjoy the American way, “see you later,” “have a nice day!”

— Roberto Gollmann

[The following is excerpted from Newsweek with permission of the author]

I came to Los Angeles with a suitcase full of books and shoulder pads stuffed with cash. It was 1992, just a few months after the infamous riots, and I was about to start graduate school at the University of Southern California, near the epicenter of the unrest. One of my professors advised me against coming here—I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the substance of his message could be summarized in three words: Drugs! Guns! Violence! I had been warned so often about muggings that I decided to sew some bills inside the shoulder pads of my jacket. I didn’t know a single soul here.

At once the city felt familiar to me. After all, it had already beamed its likeness to my television screen and to the movie theaters of my hometown 6,000 miles away in Morocco. Look, here was the Hollywood sign, white against the green of the Santa Monica Mountains. Here were the skyscrapers downtown, glowing pink and orange under the rays of the setting sun. Here were the blue skies, the palm trees, the freeways, and the vanity license plates.

— Laila Lalami // Read the rest here

My Mother, my hero

Amanda Camino Aleksey

It was the Christmas of 1988 when my father left Ecuador for the States, but it was the year that followed that changed the lives of my mother, my sister, and I. My sister, the youngest, seemed to take my father’s abandonment the hardest. Her behavior transformed completely from active, happy, and curious to sad and absent. I would try to engage her in play, but it was like talking to a wall. Mom would call out to her, but my sister would act as though she’d forgotten her name, or as though she’d lost all hearing. That was most of 1989 and by the end of that year mom no longer thought that my sister was simply sad or in shock of my father’s departure.

In the years that followed we saw all type of doctors: neurologists, pathologists, otolaryngologists (mom believed my sister might be deaf), and child psychologists. No one could figure out what was wrong. Since no one could find a physical or neurological diagnosis for my sister, mom was told the explanation had to be some type of mental disability.  This was not an explanation my mother took lightly. It took several more months to get an answer, but in 1991 my sister was diagnosed with autism. The child psychologist who recognized all the warning signs recommended that we travel to the United States for further evaluations and therapy. There was hope!

Getting a visa to America was not easy. Family and friends said there would be absolutely no way that my mother would get a visa, especially because she was requesting to travel with two children.  A year passed by, but in July of 1992 the three of us boarded on a plane to New York City! We were not ready for the reality of my sister’s condition, though. Mom had hoped that my sister would undergo therapy, perhaps for a year or two, and she would be cured; we would all return to Ecuador after that. This was not the case, of course. I can’t imagine what this must have been like for my mother, accepting this new reality for her children and for herself.

 Mom was a Finance Director in Ecuador; she’s worked in factories, as a cleaning lady, nanny, and a nurse assistant here in America, and it’s all been in pursuit of her children’s well-being.

—Amanda Camino Aleksey

In my country going to college in the US was always seen as an unattainable goal.  Only the very rich could afford it, while the rest had to pray for such an opportunity.  So when a student counselor visited our classroom in senior year and left some pamphlets about a scholarship for the United States Merchant Marine Academy, I knew my opportunity was finally here!  I attended an all-girl catholic high school in Panama on a scholarship, and I was the only one interested enough to take the pamphlet.  It appeared that not many girls were going to fight me for an opportunity to study at an American military Academy.

And so my journey began; I won the scholarship and made my way to the US via a student visa in the summer of 1993.  I must confess that my English classes had not adequately prepared me for sentences such as “about face”, “drop and give me 10”, “squaring corners” so I was pretty lost those first few weeks hmm Ok, months!

I still recall how during our two week boot camp so many of the American students dropped out, because they just didn’t want to deal with a drill instructor yelling at them, or wearing uniforms, shining shoes, or keeping their room in white-glove inspection condition, and I just thought, “wow, what a wonderful country this must be where you can just walk away from such an rare opportunity yet still be comfortable knowing that you’ll be okay and there are other opportunities right behind it.”  

My intention was always to go back home and work at the Panama Canal, but while studying at the Academy I met Neal, my husband, and that was that.  We visit as much as we can and all important events in our life have taken place in Panama, our wedding, our kid’s baptisms, and we even talk about retiring there one day. 

It’s hard to believe twenty one years have passed.  We are now proud to live in the nation’s capital, while both working with the federal government. Our kids will be fortunate to have opportunities, that in Panama, most could only dream of.  Admittedly, I miss my family very much, I miss the weather (only in the winter, HA!), I miss the beaches and the rain forest, I miss the food, as well as my friends - that will never change.  My heart and spirit will always be one from Panama, but I’ll always be happy and proud to call the US my home.

— Wendy Benoit

librolove:

My family came from Nicaragua in 1983. The way I understand, everything was falling apart: the families, the country, the world. And so, hoping to live a life where at least something stayed together, my mom and her family flew to Miami. My dad arrived in the same year, although he did not fly. He rode on buses and walked into a world he could have never imagined. Once he was in Texas, he flew to Miami. I feel very disrespectful saying they worked hard because hard work is an understatement for the kind of life they built in those days. Luckily, though, they always found work because they were in Miami, a Spanish-speaking haven for Latin American immigrants. It’s not perfect, but even today everyone can get a café con leche con tostada y croquetas in the morning before work- whether you work in an office or in the construction of office buildings. And everyone still says “Muy buenos días” when they greet you every morning.

Growing up, almost nobody knew who Nicaragüenses were, except for the other Nicaragüenses. However, it was Miami, and in my schools and neighborhoods we all came from somewhere in Latin America. When I went to college 1500 miles away in the forests of New Hampshire, being Nicaraguan often meant becoming invisible. It was always ironic that in specifying where my family came from, I actually erased any context most of my classmates may have had for this chubby, Asian-looking Latino from Miami. Since I don’t look the way many people imagine Latinos to look, I often have to do quite a bit of explaining about who I am, where I’ve come from and where my family has come from. This constant explaining and thinking about being Nicaraguan in the US had led me to realize that being Nicaraguan is central to how I make sense of the world around me and that it is a part of my life and family. For that reason, I always point it out, even if it takes a lot of patient explaining and multiple guesses on where on a map this land might be. I think part of why I do that is the pride I take in knowing my parents’ and grandparents’ struggle, and being able to show them off, to make sure that it never gets forgotten or erased, to remind people that we are not invisible. We are right here.

- Francisco Herrera

Thank you for sharing your story, Francisco. A wonderful contribution to this project.

Share your story! Blog and tag it #UnknownAmericans or email your story to unknownamericans@cristinahenriquez.com.

Photo: Joel Salcido

I left Mexico, the country where I was born and raised, in 2001, at the age of twenty-eight. The first three years of my immigrant life I lived in Spain. That’s where my accent began to get weird.

My wife and I had a tiny folk art store in Madrid. We sold artsy Mexican handcrafts, messenger bags made of oilcloth, things like that. One day, as I was gift-wrapping her a handpainted picture frame, a customer in her fifties asked about my origin. “You don’t look Mexican,” she said, as if she had a degree in Identities. “What do I look?” I replied, all smiles. “Italian,” she said, studying my face, “or Colombian?”

A few months later, in February of 2004, we posted a “Liquidation Sale” sign on the door. Customers asked why we were closing. I said I’d landed a job in the US. “Agh, the empire!” they’d howl, aghast, throwing their hands in the air. We were in the middle of the Bush years, and they couldn’t understand why someone would willingly move to such awful place.

An old friend from college and his boss were leaving the Wall Street Journal Americas to launch a chain of newspapers in Texas, and had offered me a position as managing editor. In Mexico, I’d started a career as a journalist that was going well, until I moved to Spain. The only job I’d gotten in Madrid, back when we arrived, ended after five months, and I hadn’t found another one since. For two years, the alerts I’d receive from the Spanish version of Monster.com highlighting jobs that matched my profile would only include positions as construction worker, call center operator, night guard. And as fun as it was to sell handcrafts from my home country to Madrileños who’d find them exotic and cute, the prospect of working at a newspaper again was way more exciting, even if that meant starting from scratch somewhere else.

Also, the store remained in the red. Very. Red.

Six months later, I landed in San Antonio. On my first day at the newsroom, I was introduced to the reporters, editors, photographers and designers with whom I’d work. Among them were Colombians, Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans, Spaniards, Peruvians, Uruguayans, a guy from Utah, even Mexicans. One of them, upon hearing my accent, asked where I was from. I said it, and she went, “Nah. Really?”

— Antonio Ruiz-Camacho