My twelve-year-old son recently came back from visiting extended family in the US for a couple of months while on his summer break from school here in Argentina. He returned a little too Trumped-up for my liking, talking about the wall, how we need more national security, how “we can’t just let those immigrants in”.
I had to stop the conversation to blow his mind with a fact I thought was pretty obvious: He too, was an immigrant.
After talking to him for a bit, I got the feeling that he assumed immigrants were all brown-skinned in some way, sneaking into a different country out of desperation and who would actively steal the jobs of the locals. That they would somehow degrade the culture while basically all being potential terrorists.
Ah, child raising in the era of Trump.
I moved my kids to Patagonia when they were 4, 6, and 8. I guess when you are white and privileged you get to call it “becoming an expat”.
But in what way were we not immigrants? I came here seeking a better life for myself and my kids. I thought that I had better opportunities here. I did want to take advantage of the free health care, the free university education, and the cost of living that made it possible for me to make ends meet as a single mom. Nine years later we still don’t have official residency, so we make visa runs doing border crossings, sometimes by car, sometimes by bus, sometimes by foot through the Andes. We freak out when I sometimes forget the date and our visas expire and we’re technically illegal in the country for a bit until I get it fixed.
Here are some perspectives that helped my son rethink his prejudices about immigrants:
We’re not all of a certain color or nationality.
So much of the focus in the US is on Mexican immigrants. But here in Patagonia my son personally knows people who came to live here from not only the US, but Uzbekistan, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, China, Japan, and Turkey. They are all setting up shop here permanently. Before, I think he just thought of them as simply cool and friendly foreigners, not immigrants.
Immigrants can offer their skills to a country.
And it doesn’t always have to be limited to apple picking or housecleaning like he sadly had stuck in his head. An easy example to give him was me. I work as a travel writer and have worked with the Argentine government to promote the country in English to North America. I’ve offered my language skills, my international contacts, and my firsthand experience in Argentina to be able to reach a wider audience than many other travel writers here can. I’ve helped out at travel fairs, at gastronomic festivals, and I’ve worked as a consultant to many hotels and agencies here to give them a better understanding of the North American market.
I’m not stealing an Argentine’s job. They have skills that I don’t. And I have skills that they don’t. And we can totally work together to collaborate and complement each other.
Being an immigrant is tough.
I explained that while he was only four when we arrived here, and oblivious to much other than the fact that our new home country of Argentina was known for its yummy gelato, I didn’t have an easy time getting settled. I didn’t speak the language and even going to the grocery store was incredibly stressful. Any time my phone rang it gave me full-on anxiety because I didn’t know how to hold down a conversation after the initial “hola”. Renting a house seemed like an impossible feat to try to maneuver. I was going through one of the most difficult times of my life with no sense of community, as I hadn’t made any friends in the country yet.
I got by thanks to the generosity and graciousness of the Argentines who stepped up in countless ways to make our transition easier. There was my first landlord who comically got me through my lease by drawing pictures of the parts I couldn’t understand. My female neighbors who brought me blackberry jam and fresh eggs and made it clear that I had support nearby. My badass Mapuche neighbors who didn’t understand much of the tradition but who still handed out homemade goodies to my kids on their first Halloween spent in Argentina, knowing they were sad about missing the festivities back in the US. Other neighbors who hired me to teach English to their kids and who gave me access to a little bit of cash when I desperately needed it.
There’s easy ways to help immigrants.
I want my son to see immigrants as fellow humans looking to create a better life experience for themselves and their family, as opposed to generalizing them as a terrorist leech to society. To see them as someone possibly going through a rough and stressful time. It can be as simple as him offering a smile or stepping in and helping with a translation when he can. It can be as straightforward as asking what would help them the most — do they need help finding work? Do they need help figuring out how to enroll their kids in school? Do they need help figuring out how to pay their electric bill?
I want my son to see the privilege that we’ve been afforded and to not deny others those same privileges. I’ve tried to instill in my son a strong sense of karma, and hopefully by giving him a more clear, full understanding of our own immigrant experience, he will choose to give back for all that has been given to us these last nine years in Argentina.