Only now that I enter my fourth year as an expat mom, I have started really wondering about what it might have been like for my mom as an immigrant in the United States 29 years ago.
The only way to really know what someone has gone through is to actually go through it yourself! You know, the “someone else´s shoes analogy”.
Mothers always say to their kids:
“You will know what I mean when you have your own kids and have to make adult decisions.”
I know my mom said it, and like any tween and teenager, I would just shrugged it off and stormed off to my usually very messy room.
I lived in the US between the ages of 9 and 17; I was too busy trying to figure myself out to really know what it would be like to be an immigrant mom in a foreign country. I could tell it was tough for her, but as you know, being a teenager is also pretty rough.
My most vivid memories of her struggle is an image I have of my mom in a very hot studio with no AC, wearing only a sleeveless top, dripping sweat and working on big canvases just with pencil and the few oil paints she could afford. White oil paints gained an aura of magic powers and were always second on her list after food.
I also remember asking her is she was a virgin. jajaja, well that’s embarrassing!
And her face when she picked me up from a friend’s house and I had shaved the back of my hair.
There are lots of memories and through the years we have noticed that we remember things differently.
One of the greatest things that make me wonder about being an expat mom is how it is the same AND different from being an immigrant mom. I have never been an immigrant mom, but my mom was.
To finally understand it, I interviewed my mom Maroe about her time in the US and her return to Peru after 29 years.
Reading her answers has made me feel differently about our years together in the US. As a tween and teenager you just take things for granted.
After doing this interview with her I just want to say;
Even if I may not agree with all the choices you made about your immigrant life (I always complained that you should have gone to New York instead of Miami, remember?), and other stuff like sending me back at 17; I am sorry I was such a pain for a while and that I didn’t go along with the plans you had for me.
We both learned a lot didn’t we?
An immigrant mom repatriated and Life’s Circumstances
An Interview with Maroe; Artist and ex Immigrant (now repatriated) Mom.
Maroe is a fine artist, and also a graphic designer. She mostly makes a living as a graphic designer while finding time to paint in her home studio.
1. Why did you leave Peru to live in the US and how did you do it?
I grew up in Lima, Peru during the military junta of Velasco Alvarado and lived with social unrest until the 80’s when the country was beginning to settle into a democratic system. The transition from the junta to the people’s civil government was promising when I returned from completing my 2 year long studies in Italy, and the economy was beginning to flourish to a degree. As a graphic designer I had a freelance job, and as a fine artist I was having steady solo and group shows every year. I was 28, and that was when I had my only daughter, Orana.
After the first democratic president term was over, the next elected president in 1983 put the country in peril again. It was a jump back into the already familiar chaos I had learned to hate. Worse still I got divorced. Although I did have a full time job at that time, my situation was unsettled. I realized that the successful design studio I had been managing for four years had turned into a government office, filled with the Apra, the new party people who were seat warmers and oblivious to the work we did.
As a painter and full time employee I was able to handle the work and still every eighteen months but with a lot of stress. I was 35 and remarried when I had the opportunity to leave Lima. With money saved from the previous years, my husband and I traveled to Europe to visit family. Returning from France via Miami we visited a friend, who had a design studio for tourism and travel, and for which I had worked for previously in Lima.
An opportunity appeared when she asked if we could stay and help in her design department. My husband stayed (a designer also) and I returned to Lima to resign from my job and organize my affairs for traveling lo Miami the next year. The plan was to travel alone leaving my daughter with her dad for five to six months to give me time to settle in and have everything organized for her arrival.
2. What were the first stages like of being an immigrant?
So far everything was working on schedule. We both had a job, we were moving to a small house and my daughter was coming in a couple of months.
But everything went sour when the agency that hired us and sponsored my husband for immigration papers lost some clients. He worked in the agency for 4 more months but I lost my job without any warning. The agency kept
their promises of sponsorship so we were legal to stay in US, but illegal to work in any other place other that our sponsor. We got legal papers 3 years later.
Life was NOT easy.
Chaos and uncertainty was a constant in our lives, we knew we had to wait for the papers if we wanted to stay in the States, but we also needed to find economic security. Returning to Lima where there were no jobs didn’t make any sense unless you were from the winning political fraction and we were not interested in politics. So we stayed …
3. What do you feel were the challenges of being an immigrant mom?
The big change for me was the culture. I grew up in an Italian clannish environment where rules and help were in place for everything. I remember trying to stay calm and live one day at a time in the midst of the recurrent uncertainty. I was scared and very anxious all the time and expecting the worse. At the same time I tried very hard not to show my anxiety.
My eight year old daughter had to change her own little life of friends, school and Dad for a completely different daily routine without any explanation and surrounded in the pragmatism of the situation we where facing. School was difficult for her at the beginning, she did not speak English and she was put in a lower level in a Anglican school that fortunately gave us a half scholarship.
During those three years we worked on underpaid jobs; like cleaning houses, doing art related work like hand painted tee shirts or hand made pop up cards. I later worked as an art gallery assistant and occasionally some proper design jobs. The worst part was to learn how to survive without a network of people explaining to you how things work including the trade jargon; I needed to be an active designer in a city that we didn’t know had very few design studios.
School and friends were a learning experience for my daughter as well. We where fortunate at the beginning to find some Latin neighbors where my daughter met her first new friend, an American-Chilean girl who kept her company very often. She liked her school and learned English quickly, I was glad that at least one part of her life at that time was working well. As a Spanglish speaking mom, I had to interact in real English with other parents, understand her homework and for years try to figure out her new way of thinking.
In time we met a Peruvian friend from Lima whose daughter was the same age as mine and we decided to live together for three very nice years. The girls were like sisters and we had a semi family again since I was divorced for the second time. When my friend and her daughter returned to Peru, I sent my daughter back too, with a plan for her to finish High School in Lima in an American School and return to US for college. In the meantime I would stay in US updating my design profession and looking for a well paid job that would let me afford her college studies.
The next years were of solitude and work for me, changing cities every three or four years and always looking for a better job and neighborhood with a better community college. As time passed, my dear daughter grew up and developed her own life. She visited a couple of times, but she never returned to live in US and neither did I to Lima until now that I retired, but by then she had already left Peru with her own family.
4. What was it like to come back and retire in Peru after 29 years?
I think everybody likes order in a normal day to day living where things get done easily in pursuing a simple task. Basically I feel that there’s a lack of trust. Peru is a country so battered down and for so many years, that is an illusion to try to find solidarity and respect in civil society.
Lines are always broken by a “smart” person, the traffic is chaotic like a herd of sheep trying not to fall into an abyss. The quality of services although is improving, is in its infancy compared with the US and most of all compared with Virginia where I lived for the last 14 years.
But on the other hand, the trade off is having friends, family and lots of outings during week and weekends. That in itself is a change compared with the routine of home, work, home I was used to. It gives an illusory sense of being “alive”, but at least the “work ’till you drop plan” is totally gone.
3. Back then did you know of the term “expat”? Did you ever feel like one?
Officially I am Peruvian and American. Coming to Peru after 29 years has turned me into an expat, I will never feel about Peru the same way as someone who never left.
I think as an immigrant you embrace and learn everything necessary to “be” a citizen of your new country in order to function seamlessly as a local. Being an expat in the other hand, is mainly about choosing a place to live without much pressure of making the new place “your” place.
See more of My mom’s art!
What really is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?
According to the Webster Dictionary;Expatriate is a verb or adjective which means somebody is “living in a foreign land”. Immigrant on the other hand is a noun that means “a person that comes to a country to take permanent residence” I think these are the greatest definitions for these terms because they make sense to me.
I was inspired to write this piece after my personal involvement with The Mom Movement, Mommitment. I repeatedly talk about Expat Mommitment and how it’s not just the moms at home that need support but all moms in all situations.
I have gained a new respect for my mom after having lived for three and a half years as an Expat. There are things I didn’t understand until now about our time in the US. Thank you Mommitment for opening my eyes to a new forgiveness.