The Immigrant’s Odyssey

Trauma, Loss, and the Promise of Healing

Magazine Issue
May/June 2008
The Immigrant’s Odyssey

It was toward the end of 1988—summer in Argentina—when a friend suggested over supper that my husband and I take our preschool children and emigrate to the United States. The economic situation in our country seemed truly hopeless: radically unstable currency and terrible inflation, disappearing consumer goods, and increasing poverty. Our friend, a medical doctor in Argentina, had recently married a U.S.-born woman and immigrated to New York. In the U.S., he couldn’t work as a physician. But within a few months, he was employed making deliveries for a catering service, and—in spite of the presumed drop in status—had discovered the benefits of getting paid on time in a stable currency that allowed him to afford his rent every month without sacrificing on other essentials, like food, clothes, and transportation.

My husband was in law school, and I was approaching graduation in a university psychology program, but we had few prospects in Argentina. Higher education was and is free there, so anyone without a job or much income can pursue professional studies. This produces a surfeit of professionals in a sinking economy. In Cordoba, for example, where we attended the university, there was a lawyer for every 5 people, a medical doctor for every 10. The middle class in Argentina was disappearing. Simply getting shoes for our children, books for our graduate studies, and rent money every month had turned into a nightmare that didn’t seem likely to end anytime soon.

That same night, we made the decision. There was no time to evaluate pros and cons, no time for contemplation of family ties, and no fears or doubts. Here was our opportunity, and we had to seize it. We did not think much about the risks—nothing in a remote country, we thought, could possibly be worse than the reality in our own. A couple of months later, my husband arrived in New York, and 11 months after, my children and I followed.

As children of first- and second-generation immigrants ourselves, growing up in a country where most of the population has at least one Italian, Spanish, German, Turkish, or Japanese grandparent, we did not find it difficult to think of migration as a means of improving our lives. Once in the United States, my husband worked a series of jobs—dishwasher, delivery person, cook, driver—seven days a week, sometimes for 14 to 16 hours a day for the minimum wage. Seven years after coming here, he was driving a limousine for an affluent businessman. But even before this stroke of luck, what might sound like meager employment represented a significant financial improvement for us. Even with a budget that allowed for no luxuries, we could pay our rent and other bills, buy food and clothing, and still send money to our relatives back home.

Yet there were immediate problems. I spoke little English, and my immigration status was uncertain—we had only temporary visas, and the possibility of obtaining permanent residence status was remote. This meant that I could not continue my education. We were raising our children without the support of the extended network of family, friends, and neighbors that is the norm in Latin American countries, while navigating a new culture with multiple new systems—education, housing, employment, community, shopping, transportation—all the while trying to “fit in” and not make waves. During those early years, I stayed home and took care of my children because we didn’t know anybody we could trust to take care of them. Besides, we thought that being in a foreign country among unfamiliar people speaking an unknown language was hard enough for them without putting them in the care of strangers.

Looking back, I think I was lonely. I did have one friend, who had come with us from Argentina, but she was busy most of the time, so I saw little of her and spent a lot of time by myself while my children were in school. I even stopped smoking cigarettes, which I had always associated with social life in Argentina. During that time, I did so much walking! I never took a dictionary with me when I ventured out, so I would memorize words I read on street signs and stores and then look them up at home. I visited local libraries and analyzed everything I saw, trying to understand the culture I was embedding myself in. I watched three TV news channels every night, finally understanding something of what I was hearing by the time I got to the third. My brain was like a sponge—I tried to learn everything that crossed my path. I do not think I will ever again have that kind of energy and voracious curiosity. The worst part was being an adult (I was 26 when we came) and feeling so infantilized when I lacked the words to express myself.

The Sacrifices of Immigration

Immigrants come with a store of knowledge, experiences, and family history that have both delineated their position in the home society and given them their sense of personal identity. Often much of this familiar identity is lost in the new country, particularly when they must sacrifice their old social and professional status to survive. For example, one lawyer I know from Colombia works as a teacher’s aid in a New York suburban high school. Clients who are professional engineers in South America work as construction laborers here. A psychology student in her native Bolivia is cleaning houses in New York City.

Finding work was not easy for me. At first, I taught Spanish language and Latin American culture on Saturdays in the independent school my children attended so they would stay connected with our cultural roots. Then on January 26, 1996, everything changed. In an effort to get my family’s legal status resolved, I visited a nonprofit immigrant agency led by Don Gomez, a prominent community organizer from Colombia, to get information, and I left with a job as an immigration consultant in his agency.

At this agency, I began working closely with people like me, who faced legal problems related to unresolved immigration status, as well as the pain of family separation, financial vicissitudes, the challenges of adjusting to their new environment, and the emotional upheavals resulting from all these difficulties. Most of these clients had arrived here in the late ’80s and early ’90s undocumented, but had found a way to legalize their status, either by marriage, long-standing work-related visas, or relative’s petitions.

Many of the people talking to me were sharing their immigration experiences with another person for the first time since their arrival, and their revelations—often revealed with grief and tears—clearly brought them great relief. Some of their stories were deeply traumatic and have stayed with me.

Magdalena, for example, was 14 years old when she left her native Venezuela with her aunt. From Mexico, she continued alone on the journey to the U.S. to reunite with her mother, whom she had never met. On her way here, walking across the desert—probably with smugglers—she was raped twice and escaped a third attempt by running away and jumping over a cliff. She told me that she had decided she would rather die in her leap than face another attack. Instead, she stood up and continued walking until she finally made it to her mother’s home. But the emotional cost was terrible. “I wish I could look back and be able to erase parts of my life,” she told me. “I found my mother, but lost my childhood. I feel I lost myself in the voyage.”

Jorgito, a 6-year-old boy from Honduras, came to the U.S. to meet his parents, who had left him under the care of his grandparents as a 3-month-old baby and were now financially able to reunite the family. Somehow, on his way to the States, he was lost, nobody knew where or how. After a month, his parents in New York City traced him: he had been found at Chicago International Airport and placed in a foster home by social services. Even though he finally made it home to his parents, the terror and loneliness of the episode left him speechless. Three years later, he still could not talk.

Pedro, a middle-aged father of six, traveled from Ecuador to the United States, partly in a small boat with nearly 30 other people, but no food, water, or toilet, before making the rest of the journey by foot. He was picked up and sent back by the border patrol several times, but always managed to return. Now, many years later, he’s an engineer in this country, who has managed to send enough money home to put several of his children through school and college.

Listening to these clients and hearing their appreciation for whatever help I could give them convinced me that if I completed my education and became a psychotherapist, I could help them even more, while contributing something to the country that had embraced me. It also became clearer that we immigrants need help in creating a space within ourselves for incorporating the transforming experiences we undergo, for understanding and accepting our losses, and for acknowledging our achievements. It can be very hard to find a balance between acknowledging and accepting the very real losses (immigrants often work at not thinking about what they have lost) and embracing our accomplishments and victories. Pauline Boss’s concept of “ambiguous loss” fits the immigrant’s situation well. You know that you are no longer who you were or who you wanted to be, but somebody else. This “somebody else” may be better than the person you would have become had you not immigrated to a new country, but there is still a bittersweet sense of loss.

As a therapist today, I can see the beginning of my journey reflected in the narratives of the immigrants I see in my practice. With empty hands, but full of energy and plenty of dreams, many of us arrive to the United States hoping for better times, but the journey does not stop upon arrival: it continues throughout our stay.

Immigrant families I work with tend not to explore many of the possibilities offered by their new country—in education, economic and financial opportunities, labor rights, social life, and recreation—partly because they are dealing with basic survival. They seem to have the sense that everything is temporary. They often feel that they can never get ahead enough to settle down, become truly at home, and begin seeking some personal fulfillment.

For some, their perpetually “temporary” state here means that they never can abandon the dream of returning home one day and getting old in their native lands, even though there is no realistic possibility that they will ever do so. Other immigrants do not dream about going home as much as have nightmares of being forced out of this country. Some face impending deportation procedures and live not knowing where they might wake up the next day—at home, in custody, or even back in their home country. I can vividly remember the bad dreams I used to have in which I was being forced to return to my country and arrived back there without work, without status, without a future. In the therapy room, my clients recall those nightmares, too.

For people who are afraid of what the future holds, living purely in the present moment keeps them from falling apart. Detaching themselves from their emotions and not thinking too much about what they have been through or what they have left behind allows them to get through each day. What keeps them going is the thought that they are helping their distant families now and that someday there will be enough money to bring them here. They also dream that one day a general amnesty will allow them to stay here legally, to get some recognition and entitlements, and to be appreciated and respected for the hard work they perform.

Dealing with Feelings of Loss

In my experience, we immigrants suffer four basic losses: a loss of mastery over surroundings, a concrete loss of family networks, a critical loss of language, and an erosive loss of the everyday life. These losses give our existence a chronic sense of never quite belonging anywhere.

Take loss of mastery. Mercedes, a Salvadorian single mother of four, attended a parent­–teacher conference requested by her daughter’s high school teacher because the girl was not doing well in school. I interpreted the meeting for Mercedes, who speaks little English. During the course of the meeting, she pleaded with her daughter to apply herself and improve her performance. “My child,” she said, “you know English and can defend yourself. You can express your feelings and thoughts. Look at me: it has been my experience that most of the time, I cannot say what I feel, and it stays within me. I feel it stays inside me forever! It is very painful, it happens to me all the time, even today.” Mercedes’ words convey a sense of intangible loss. Unlike tangible losses—social class, family, income—loss of mastery causes a silent, persistent grief in a society that consistently devalues those who are different or do not measure up to mainstream standards of language or cultural proficiency. Loss of mastery creates an internal shame, which often silences the real self and renders the person essentially powerless and voiceless.

Loss of family networks, the second major loss, can have profound and unexpected consequences, even when immigrants struggle to maintain old ties. Emilia and Estela are sisters, 19 and 18 years old, who came here three years ago from Central America. After their mother had left for this country, 16 years ago, they were raised by their grandparents. While in the U.S., their mother got married and had two other children, now 14 and 7. Like many immigrants, she lived a life oriented toward bare survival, focusing almost entirely on work while minimizing and suppressing her own pain and suffering. Even though she visited Emilia and Estela a few times, their relationship was held together by phone conversations, monetary support, and the dream that they would be reunited.

Emilia and Estela are now in high school here, struggling with the language and cultural differences that at times make them regret having come at all. Emilia spoke about their painful realization that time and distance have distorted their mother–daughter relationship: “The woman we knew in Nicaragua was a different one,” she explained. “She visited us from the U.S. two or three times, and we saw her happy and loving. The woman we encountered here is another one—we don’t know her. She treats us with no love, she blames us for her problems, and she regrets having brought us here and wants us to pay for that. She makes a big difference between us and her other children who were born here. Now, we think she did not see us growing up and that is why she does not feel for us what she feels for the other two she raised.” As is the case with many other immigrants, Emilia and Estela’s experience has been deeply affected by the time and space fragmenting their family and interrupting its normal life cycle.

A third major loss—loss of language—promotes a sense of insecurity, inadequacy, and low self-esteem, and can have far-reaching negative psychological effects. During a school counseling session, Carla, an 18-year-old Guatemalan girl, was asked about her experience so far in a U.S. high school. She became suddenly emotional and disclosed how painful every day of her life had become since she entered the school after her arrival here. “First of all, one is being looked at as garbage! That is how I feel sometimes,” she said. “It is hard, very hard. I try my best to understand, and I surprise myself how much I try, but it is never enough. I feel my classmates look at me badly. It is like they are saying ‘What is wrong with her?’ I feel they get frustrated with me because I do not speak well, like I do not know what I am talking about.”

Loss of the normal patterns of existence that comprise daily life in the old world, a fourth type of loss, can be a desolating reminder of all that is gone forever. Cristian and Evangelina are two middle-school students from a small town in Peru where wild flowers, warm-water rivers, and high mountains were their everyday landscape. During group sessions of the school counseling I do, they always drew colored pictures of those landscapes and talked about their life in their hometown. “Every day after school I rode my bicycle to the river and swam for hours before going home to my grandmother.” Cristian remembered. “Here, I take the bus home to no one because my mom works until late, eat something, do homework, and watch TV.” Evangelina recalled, “I used to spend a lot of time with my friends because we did a lot of walking to and from school every day. We would walk for an hour and play outside. It was a lot of fun. I don’t really have many friends here. Besides, we all live blocks away from each other and my parents say it is dangerous to play in the street.” Differences in lifestyles, foods, climate, after-school activities, geography, kinship­­–child care, social networks, and support are, indeed, the parts of the everyday life that provide us with a sense of belonging. Without them, we become foreigners in a foreign land.

A Nation of Immigrants at Odds with Itself

Because of my experiences growing up in a different world and taking the risk of following my dreams, I began to believe that what allowed me to persevere was not to allow myself to be slowed down or defeated by self-limiting attitudes arising from practical difficulties (language, work adjustments, immigration status). I refused to say, “I cannot,” or “This is impossible for me because I do not speak English,” or “I will not ever be able to pursue professional studies,” or allow myself to be intimidated: by other people, by the systems I had to deal with (Immigration Services, for example), by the thought of writing an academic paper in a foreign language or the prospect of treating English-speaking clients. In fact, I think the experiences of immigration have given me a sense of self-realization that I might not have acquired otherwise. Becoming familiar with a new culture and now knowing two worlds, learning a new language and becoming bilingual, finding mentors in the United States who have helped me—all this has allowed me to find pride and joy in my own transformation.

Yet at times I have experienced, as have so many of the immigrants and clients I know, particularly those whose immigration status is ambiguous or undocumented, a chronic state of hypervigilance, an alertness to danger and possible catastrophe that can be debilitating. My clients above all live in this chronically hypervigilant state, often due to the real fear that “la migra”—slang for immigration authorities—can alter their lives completely at a moment’s notice.

Even after several revisions, immigration laws continue to benefit just a few privileged people—based on their nationality, education, social class, and family migration status in the U.S. Every year, Immigration Services offers a “visa lottery,” which has educational and nationality limitations, and leaves out certain countries—including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, India—because the U.S. is considered already “overpopulated” by these nationalities. Immigrants from some countries, including India and the Philippines, wait longer for permanent residence papers (green cards) than immigrants from other countries. The covert, informal reality seems to be that “northern” or lighter-skinned people get preferred status.

For some, the immigration journey gradually brings about the realization that there is a vast disconnect between the fantasy of a better future and the reality of being an alien in an unwelcoming land. And yet immigrants stay in spite of their disappointments. Often, they have no choice. It may be too late to turn back—they have severed too many ties. Religious, political, and social persecution might also rule out the possibility of returning.

Sadly, in a society abounding with immigrants, there is a subtle (and at times obvious) sense that being foreign born, speaking a different language, and adhering to different cultural values are negative characteristics, which need to be altered or ignored, but rarely celebrated. Our way of speaking sounds unfamiliar and is often perceived as unattractive and flawed. The common expression, that we speak “broken English,” and classes offering “accent correction” can make us feel that we are somehow “broken” and need repair. Those of us who speak accented English are always being questioned about our origins, as if because of our accents we do not quite make sense as human beings. For the last 18 years, 365 days a year, I have found myself responding to the same question—”You have an accent. Where do you come from?”—making me feel that I must explain myself every time I meet someone.

The Healing Work: Self-Reconciliation

Today, therapists are much more likely than they were decades ago to take into consideration the ways that race, class, gender, and culture powerfully affect individual psychology and family relationships. However, we still tend to neglect exploring the various immigration experiences to discover how they have transformed the inner world of our immigrant clients. Only by understanding their aspirations and validating the difficulties of their journey can we help them find a healing place from which they can begin to look at what they have achieved. As much or more than any other client population, immigrants—living in this hostile social and legal climate—need a therapeutic breathing space for reconciling the different parts of themselves and healing.

Meeting with Emilia and Estela’s mother—who the two girls felt was rejecting them in the United States in favor of the two daughters she had born here—helped me understand how she could be so emotionally connected to her daughters when she visited them in Nicaragua and so apparently disconnected from them in this country. When she lost her family network, she not only lost her relationships directly, she lost the part of herself that was valued as a mother and as a member of her close-knit family and community. In her journey of transformation, she had felt compelled to suppress this pain to devote herself completely to working in the U.S. on behalf of the family she had left behind. In the process, she gained status and pride within herself by being a hard worker and provider, and for having succeeded in her epic effort to bring her Nicaraguan-born children here.

I gently invited her to access the place within herself where she still kept hidden the pain of separating from her firstborn children and, at the same time, acknowledge the joy of having been able to reunite with them. The therapeutic work involved helping her connect with these aspects of her journey—the loss and the gain, the trauma of the separation and the victory of the reunion: the power of her accomplishments.

For Mercedes (the mother who could not advocate for her child because of her inadequate English) and Cristian and Evangelina (who longed for their beautiful rural Peruvian landscape of flowers and warm rivers), it was necessary to work through their grief at having lost their sense of belonging to a community and a culture, as well as having lost the old sense of mastery over their surroundings. To ground themselves in their new unfamiliar terrain, they needed to develop a new kind of compass for measuring personal mastery and self-worth.

In my personal and professional experience as an immigrant, I know that in our new world, we need to create room to hold the two realities—what has been lost and what has been gained. It isn’t that the accomplishments replace the losses—they don’t—but the two go hand in hand and, considered together, help make the immigrant feel more whole.

As for me, looking back always brings mixed feelings. After I left Argentina, I never saw my mother again. I can’t spend a lot of quality time with family and friends whom I love who live in my home country: phone conversations don’t make up for physical absence. Yet I see myself writing this paper in my second language and feel accomplished. Recently, after visiting Argentina, my 25-year-old daughter said how much she now appreciates our decision to leave 20 years ago. She told me that the trip made her realize all the opportunities she had here compared with the emptiness she sensed in Argentina among young people her age. “Seeing how my life is now and knowing how it could have been if we’d stayed makes me appreciate how hard you struggled and how much I’ve taken for granted.” Her words were deeply satisfying to me.

I know that my journey does not end here. There will be more transitions and adjustments, more “immigrant” experiences I will have to absorb. My grandchildren, for instance, will not speak Spanish naturally as their mother tongue—we will have to take pains to instill it in them. This is no tragedy, but it brings me a little pang of sadness nonetheless. Meanwhile, they—with their native-born Argentine grandparents and parents—still continue the journey and live in two worlds, though the worlds are not as far apart as the two my husband and I had to bring into a single orbit.

The journey of the immigrant never ends. It begins with a dream—a dream of a better life for us, a better future for our children. Along with the way, there will be trauma and loss that transform our lives and reorganize our world, which will need to be explored and healed if we are to reconcile the divided parts of ourselves and thrive. Creating a space for stories of loss, suffering, and survival in the therapy room gives meaning to the journey. Embracing the story and exploring the dichotomy between the cultural self—who one is in one’s native land—and the everyday social self—who one is or becomes in the new land—are critical to helping immigrants bridge the great divide in their lives.


Priska Imberti

Priska Imberti, LCSW-R, BCC, is a bilingual and bicultural family therapist. She’s the founder and director of CRECER, Inc., a psychotherapy center that provides comprehensive psychotherapy and psychoeducational services to the community, focusing on immigrant issues.