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

Nina McConigley

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We moved to Wyoming in the late 70’s, when the oil business was booming, and no one could imagine the bust that would come in less than a decade. My father is a petroleum geologist, and we were transferred from Singapore, where I was born. Both my parents had not grown up in the United States. My mother was born and raised in India; my father grew up in Ireland and Australia.

We actually were being sent to Norway, and the company routed us through Houston so my dad could have some training. While in Texas, Norway fell through, and the oil company gave my father three choices: we could move to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Bakersfield, California, or Casper, Wyoming. My father asked my mother where she wanted to go, and she promptly went to the Rice University Library and looked up all three places in the encyclopedia. When she looked up Wyoming, she saw pictures of the Tetons, of Yellowstone, and of Devil’s Tower. She thought we were moving to the Alps.

Instead, we arrived in October when the wind was blowing to an oil and gas town with a small squat mountain. Because there was a boom on, we couldn’t find a house. We lived in a hotel for weeks. I took my first steps on American soil, in a Ramada Inn.

We found a house soon after, and that first year, my mother didn’t unpack. She asked my dad to put in for another transfer. My dad was in the field a lot that first year, and my mother would play with us, and over the course of the year, slowly start to make a home. She bought us snowsuits and boots; she bought herself a warm hat and coat. She joined the church and took us every Sunday. We spent afternoons at the library and at Sears and Penny’s. At night, she would sing us lullabies in Tamil.

We would drive to Denver, Colorado, which was 280 miles away, to buy Indian groceries. There were only two Indian stores then, and on the drive home a big sack of basmati rice would be wedged between my sister and me. Our feet rested on bags of spices and jars of pickle.

For me, I have always known Wyoming. Casper is a trails town. The Oregon Trail, California Trail, Mormon Trail, and Pony Express all go through the town. It seems fitting then that our family journey took us there. But unlike the pioneers who traveled on – further West, we stayed in Wyoming. It’s been more than 35 years, and I cannot imagine a different route. I cannot see a different trail. 

— Nina McConigley

After art school in Sweden at 16, I still did not have a clear idea of “what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” But I was interested in seeing more of the world. I lived in the capital of Sweden, Stockholm, which held roughly 1 million of Sweden’s (at the time) 8 million, mostly Caucasian, people.

There were 4 different exchange student companies, and I think I applied to all of them for a one year exchange trip. When they asked where I wanted to go, I said ” somewhere warm”, (Sweden is very cold and dark 9 months out of the year), they sent me to Texas. If you have ever visited or lived in Texas during their 100+ degree summer, that last line probably made you laugh, careful what you wish for I say now.

I kissed my family good bye, put on a light Swedish summer jacket and got on the plane. As I stepped out of the plane in Houston, and got hit with a wall of wet/hot air, I almost lost my breath, and thought, I’m not going to make it for a year!

But I was fascinated by the people, so much more diversity in terms of races and cultures mixed in the same neighborhoods. 

Not only did I finish that first year, I decided to come back and continue my education thanks to my grand parents sponsorship.

It seems like it was a long time ago, perhaps because it was, I graduated in 1990, and started working as a graphic designer, first in print, then the web, and now I also write and illustrate printed and kindle books.

I do miss my family and Sweden, I try to go over there every year or two, but with kids it does become a challenge. Even teaching the kids a language different from what they speak in school every day can be difficult. Luckily in Dallas we have a branch of the organization SWEA (Swedish Women’s Educational Association) that makes it possible to speak my first language on a regular basis and interact with other Swedish women who are sharing in the international experience. SWEA hosts traditional Swedish events like Lucia (Swedish Christmas), Valborg (spring celebration), and midsummer. I belong to the SWEA choir that usually performs at these events.

— Anette Henningson

“Bilingual Dreamer” by Esmeralda Santiago

When I first came to the United States and was struggling to learn English, people often asked me, “What language do you think in?” The question always surprised me because I wasn’t aware of language as much as the need to express myself. I usually replied, “I think in the language I’m speaking.” But I was confused afterward, wondering if that was true. It didn’t seem so, because many times I ran out of English words into silence, trying vainly to translate a word or phrase from Spanish, the only language I spoke until I was a teenager.

We migrated to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1961. My siblings and I spoke no English. There were no bilingual education programs at the time, and we had to learn the language as best we could on our own. At home our relatives spoke Spanish, but as my siblings and I became comfortable with English, we spoke both languages, changing from one to the other easily. We’d start a sentence in Spanish and midway switch to English. Sometimes we used our bilingualism to confuse adults who couldn’t keep up with the swift changes from one language to the other.

When I visit Puerto Rico I’m disoriented for a day or two and must get used to the rhythms of the language all over again. Over the five decades since I arrived in the United States I’ve remained fluent in Spanish, so it annoys me when Puerto Ricans tell me my Spanish has an accent. Years of speaking English almost exclusively means my “r’s” don’t roll with the same precision.

Often when emotion rules I’m silenced by the inability to find the right English words. I usually end these internal struggles with a mental shrug and “as we say in Spanish,” prefacing the expression. The moment I’ve said it in Spanish a loose translation comes to mind and I wonder if I’d be more articulate if I only spoke one language.

Over the years, I’ve thought about these issues, especially when I tried to raise my children to be bilingual. I learned that given a choice, children will speak only one language; that of their peers. But I insisted that my children at least feel comfortable in Spanish. It made it possible for them to get to know their maternal grandparents, aunts, and uncles, cousins. It also gave them access to a bigger world. They know that there are cultures with traditions that may differ from what they’re used to in the United States.

It’s my guess that people who are monolingual by birth or choice don’t think about these things. They don’t stop in the middle of a sentence to search through a world of cultural and linguistic expressions that will voice their feelings. They don’t worry about what their families think of their children who can’t speak the mother tongue. They don’t lose sleep over whether they’re making a mistake by insisting that their children understand a language and culture they can visit, but never belong to. But I worry about it and try to seek answers in my own experience. By retaining my Spanish and ties to the Puerto Rican community, I’ve enriched my life and the lives of the people around me.

I’ve become a hybrid; a bilingual, bicultural person able to move from one culture to the other without too much shock. Now people rarely ask me what language I think in.

But there was that night years ago, when I was kissing my four-year old boy goodnight, and Lucas whispered in my ear, “Mama, what language do you dream in?”

 

“Bilingual Dreamer” by Esmeralda Santiago first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor (August 20th, 1987)

It was in America where I learned to be black. In the predominantly small white town we moved to in Upstate New York; in the nasty ways young kids behave to other young kids they perceive as different, dangerous. In the way my seventh grade teacher evaded my innocent question of what the word coon meant. It was during lunch, with the chaotic buzz of several dozen prepubescent children going on when I approached her and posed my question. Her large, brown eyes looked into mine for a fleeting moment, before looking away, scanning the room for an answer, a culprit, perhaps. She never did explain that word but I learned all I needed from her nonanswer. I learned to be black in the way, at the onset of high school, I was all of sudden referred to as, “What up, G?” by a girl in my neighborhood who had just filled herself up with a dose of mid-90s rap videos on MTV. When, after watching Poetic Justice, my sister and I came home, tossing the n word around casually, cracking our bubble gum all the while. That word left our vocabulary as quickly as it arrived. We never received a pass.

It was in America where I learned that I was not really black enough. In college when I was the producer on a radio show; the emcee a fiesty, gap-toothed, diminutive -sized girl from the West Indies. Upon hearing my British-inflected English, she spat out that I was a ”white girl!” On the eight hour bus ride from the North Country to New York City where I had some of my first encounters with black and Latino kids from the city. The Urban Youth. When I squarely asked one boy whether all Black people listen to hip-hop and wear their pants down low. He calmly replied, ”No,” and after beat, added, not without a sense of humor, “…but they should!”

It was in America where I learned I was more American than most Americans. When I had to study American History in order to pass the naturalization test and be granted citizenship. I got a nearly perfect score, answering nine out of ten questions correctly. I forgot who said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” (It was Patrick Henry). All the naturalborn Americans I spoke with where unanimous in their ignorance of the answer to that very same question.

It was in America where I learned I was not really American enough. In graduate school when applying for work overseas as an English language teacher, a visiting South Korean professor from the department discouraged me from applying to a certain university job vacancy since they were looking for native speakers of English. I had to dig into my family history for my response, letting her know that not only is my mother English (from England), but that I grew up speaking English and went to English-medium schools in Nairobi.

It was in this land, where wave upon wave of immigrant stories continue to unfold, where I learned I was black and not black enough and too white and not native enough. I remain waiting for the final and grand admission into what it means, truly, to be an American.

— Wambui Njuguna

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