How I Found My Voice as an Immigrant in Philadelphia
I am from Brazil and my country has a lot of diversity—from beaches to mountains, to the different ways of speaking Portuguese with accent, some special words that define our culture.
I never had an American Dream, or the dream of living in another country, or having the experience of living in another culture. Many of my friends had this dream and many of them are here in the United States and in several other countries in the world and I admire them for making the hard decision to leave behind their family and their culture.
Luciana speaks at the Welcoming Center student graduation ceremony
“I came to the U.S. without English, without the skills to live in an American society, and the possibility that I was leaving behind a great possibility of having a professionally brilliant future in my country.”
My dream has always been to know what my country had to offer me. I grew up knowing that I could make positive changes for those around me and that’s why I became a social worker. I have over 14 years of social work experience, out of which I spent four years working directly with vulnerable populations. And it is this experience of working directly with people that is close to my heart.
Around 10 years ago I met Leo, my husband, who is originally from Brazil. When I met him, he lived here in the U.S., but not only did he live here, he had all the American characteristics rooted in him. And I fell in love.
Between holidays, trips to Brazil, and coming to the U.S., we decided that we would build our life in Brazil. We tried, and how we tried, but ties with the U.S. brought Leo back. And I came along with his luggage.
I came to the U.S. without English, without the skills to live in an American society, and the possibility that I was leaving behind a great possibility of having a professionally brilliant future in my country.
“It was fall … it was winter … it was cold and sometimes desperate. Trust me when I say that you would feel like crying every day for at least the first 3 months after you start English Classes. I felt that.”
But I reminded myself, I had to get out of my comfort zone (if you’re a bullfighter or understand signs, you’ll be able to imagine how that was for me).
Then I got to the United States. It was not easy to administer a new married life, the distance, the new culture, and especially the new language.
I experienced moments where I thought I wouldn’t be able to have a life in the U.S. The barriers I faced was the lack of a social network, the fact that I didn’t speak English, and that I didn’t have a job. But without overcoming my language barrier, I couldn’t make new friends or find a new job.
Leo and I decided that I would dedicate myself to English in the first few months here so that I could be able to communicate the basics with people as soon as possible.
I took classes in the morning, afternoon, and evening from Monday to Thursday.
It was fall… it was winter… it was cold and sometimes desperate. Trust me when I say that you would feel like crying every day for at least the first three months after you start English Classes. I felt that.
“Organizing my team’s action project was my biggest challenge. But it was also my greatest achievement as an immigrant that I was now building my American Dream.”
In one of my schools, Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, when I arrived at the intermediate level of English, I learned about the Immigrant Leadership Institute, a program that aims to empower immigrants to be leaders in their community. The main task after five months of training, thinking, and organizing is to hold a public event, known as action project, to present a barrier immigrants face and to work with the community to create ways to minimize or eliminate these barriers when possible.
Organizing my team’s action project was my biggest challenge. But it was also my greatest achievement as an immigrant that I was now building my American Dream.
I had the opportunity to build new relationships of friendship, to meet different people. Not only different physically, but different in culture, and in affection. And that was when I understood that Brazil is an island where we don’t get to experience diversity in the way we get to here in the U.S.
“Today, I have a collection of friends from around the world. And I’m proud of that.”
I had the opportunity to improve my English (that was my initial goal) as well as my beliefs.
I had the opportunity to be who I am, to show what I know. I spent many years in my country studying. Some people say that as an immigrant to the U.S., your years of studies is worth nothing. That is a lie. Yes, it’s worth something! And I’m glad I did not believe it. Because I have been able to professionally rebuild myself in the U.S. from my years of studying in Brazil. Every night I stayed up studying without sleeping is still valuable.
In my cohort of the Immigrant Leadership Institute, there were 20 people from 18 different countries. There were 5 big events and we chose to address the barriers of “social capital”, “social isolation”, and “English language as a barrier. It was a very intense 5 months, but very happy, and very true. Today, I have a collection of friends from around the world. And I’m proud of that.
Through the program, I was able to better understand the workings of American society, values, deconstructed concepts and elaborate better ones. Believe me, it changed my mind, my concepts, and my life (here is a theme for another blog post).
“So have the courage to move, regardless of where you are. But do not forget who you are, what you went through to get here and believe: all knowledge is worth it. Do not be afraid to want the best.”
So have the courage to move, regardless of where you are. But do not forget who you are, what you went through to get here and believe: all knowledge is worth it. Do not be afraid to want the best.
A true leader is leader, regardless of their country of origin. And the first thing he will do when he arrives in a new country is qualify himself, inform himself, so that he can make his coexistence better in the community, creating ways to help his peers, not forgetting the newcomers that are around him.
Thank you to my friends at the Welcoming Center for providing this return to my values and for making me discover new ones.