Social Isolation, Well Being, and Immigration
BY MICHELLE LEE
January 19, 2018
Public discourse on migration has dominated the front page of the news over the past several years: from undocumented immigration in the U.S. to the European migration crises and from President Trump’s February 2017 Executive Order restricting entry into the U.S. to the current Congressional battle over codifying President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Executive Order into law. Migrants have been portrayed as undesirable “others” who should be prevented from entering our countries.
I spent several months living in South Brazil with a host family, working in a public hospital in the favelas of Northeast Brazil, and volunteering in Sao Paulo during the summers after my sophomore and junior years of college. I realized that although each region had vastly different demographics and cultural influences, one aspect of life was especially salient throughout all regions—the importance of family. While a college student in Boston, I found that Boston is the number one destination for Brazilian immigrants coming to the U.S. Brazilians make up 4.8% of the state of Massachusetts’ total population. In Boston, there are over 4,000 Brazilians with a median age of 29 years old; 30% are naturalized US citizens. I became interested in how Brazilian immigrants constructed new concepts and structures of the family and the effect of immigration on their sense of identity and belonging; thus, I set out to perform interviews with members of the Brazilian community to better understand their experience.
I had met Ana* one July 2016 evening at her apartment in Dorchester. We had known each other for about two months, having worked together in a Brazilian community center in the greater Boston area. She is one of the hardest working people I know. She had wanted to show me her apartment, but was embarrassed about her living situation. It had been especially difficult to find a time to meet with her because she was currently unemployed and not receiving pay from her temporary jobs. She led me through a common room to her bedroom. The entire room was about half the size of my dorm room, except there was no room to walk. “This is all I have now,” she said. “This, and my son Renato.”*
There was nowhere to stand because every inch of floor and wall space was piled with boxes, files, furniture, and packaged foods. The only ground that was not covered by clutter was occupied by a queen-sized mattress on the floor, where she and her nine-year-old son Renato sleep. “Each night, I have him by my side, just me and him. Each night, I tell him, mommy loves you. I kiss him every single night.”
She told me she had just moved into this room about a week ago. She was kicked out of her previous house by Renato’s father, an Austrian immigrant who Ana met and fell in love with while he was visiting Brazil. He visited her three more times, then invited her to visit him in the US. So she left, never to return back to Brazil.
“I quit my job in Brazil and came to the US because I fell in love with the father of my son and I was pregnant with my child. It was the first time I fell in love. I was passionate for him, and I came with nothing. Would I stay alone in Brazil with my son? I had to think about my future, my family, to think about the big picture.”
Ana’s decision to immigrate was motivated by her passion for her lover and her idea of the future family that awaited her in the US—her baby and her baby’s father. She told me how hard it was for her to leave behind her aging mother, her family, and her comfortable life in Brazil. However, she had made the choice to construct a new family in the US, a choice she finalized when she decided to overstay her tourist visa, which had granted her a week’s stay in the US. All at once, she became a mother and undocumented immigrant, constrained by these two roles to remain in the United States.
What struck me about Ana was her utter loneliness and lack of social support. She did not belong to a church, and did not feel part of any social or community organization. Her choice and sacrifice to pursue love and raise her child in a united, nuclear family in the United States had actually resulted in separation and disunity, further exacerbated by her status as an undocumented immigrant who was unable to find work or navigate opportunities. It is interesting to note that she and her son’s father did not get married; they formed instead an informal union that she described as cohabitation and co-sleeping, without a formal ceremony. He did not want to get married because of a prior, negative experience with marriage, and Ana agreed. They lived together as a couple for seven years, until 2 years ago when they “separated,” which meant that she still lived in his house and cooked and cleaned for him, but she slept on the bottom bunk with her son. By that point, she was not formally tied or related to anyone in the US. She told me that she did not have any friends or anyone to talk to in the US.
I could feel this loneliness when she spoke to me, and I believe it affected the quality of our own relationship. She told me I was the first person she had told her story to, and that I was one of the only people she could confide in. From the time I entered her room, she closed the door and immediately started sharing her story, as if she had been waiting for years. What I anticipated to be an hour-long interview turned into six hours of heartfelt exchange, where I gained so much more insight into her life and shared my own. She treated me like a daughter, calling me “minha filha” (my daughter) and providing me with a constant supply of mango juice and pastries. While she seemed quiet and reserved at the community center, I now saw her as a doting mother. I felt like I experienced her motherhood and could imagine the love with which she raised her son.
Though she had not yet found an extended family in the U.S., Ana instead channeled all of her energy to ensuring the success of her son. She knows that the educational opportunities are greater for Renato here, and is using all of her money to send him to a new school with higher-level classes. Her pride for him shows through whenever he comes up in conversation. He got an award for being the most well-behaved student, and the best in math. It is clear her relationship with her son defines her identity and sense of meaning in life.
Ana experienced great social isolation as she abandoned her family to immigrate in hopes of reuniting with her lover and establishing a new family in the U.S. Her local moral world seems to have shrunk, as her social networks and ties reduced were from her extended family, friends, and coworkers in Brazil to her lover and son in the U.S., to now only her son. Her living situations have reflected this shift: while she lived with her parents and siblings in Brazil, she moved to a house in the U.S. with her husband and son, and now is in the single room. Similarly, her personal and professional aspirations have increasingly become smaller and smaller; while she told me that she was one of the first women in Brazil to receive a graduate business degree and was about to get a promotion at her job in Brazil, she gave up this success to pursue her relationship and become a mother. Now she rarely leaves her home and only communicates with her son and her cats. Her happiness and sense of well being is at stake, and her sole purpose for living has become her son. Through her intense social isolation, her values became almost entirely shaped around her success as a mother.
Still, her son has become way of feeling a sense of purpose, hope, and a connection with a larger community. Her aspirations and imagined future for her son as a successful student in the U.S. help her feel a sense of belonging. Her son’s success brings her pride, and gives her reason for staying alive. A sense of belonging can indeed be formed through association with kinship ties and imagined futures.
Reflecting on my fieldwork, I have come to realize how mobility is integral to human existence, suggesting that “Moveo ergo sum” (I move therefore I am). As the anthropologist Michael Jackson writes, “Along with all living things, we move through life. We were all once migrants. Rather than treat the migrant as a singular figure—an interloper, anomaly, or alien in our midst—I view the migrant as exemplifying a universal aspect of human existence. Either we are moving or the world is moving—about, under, or above us. No condition is permanent.” (Jackson 2013). Thus, an understanding of migrant experiences can provide insight on how we as humans adapt to the ever-changing conditions and environments and progress through different phases of life.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
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