Care and Feeding

I’m a First-Generation Immigrant. I’m Scared About Raising My Son in This Country.

How can I protect him from realizing we are treated as second-class citizens here?

A Latina woman holding her young son over her shoulder.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by M.G. Family Photography/Moment via Getty Images Plus.

Slate Plus members get more Care and Feeding from Jamilah Lemieux every week.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a first-generation immigrant living in a very Republican area. I’m also a naturalized American citizen; my husband is still in our home country, awaiting his turn to legally join me (it’ll take several years, since the new administration slowed down all immigrant visa processing). We have a 2-year-old son who was born in the U.S. and lives with me. I’m visibly Latina and have a heavy Spanish accent. In recent years, the anti-immigrant sentiment in our area has grown so much that it is impacting every aspect of life.

My once close American friends are now merely acquaintances. At work, l get passed over for promotions in favor of less qualified white candidates and continually talked down by almost everyone, from the (white) management to the (white) trainees. Highly offensive jokes, sometimes delivered in President Donald Trump’s voice, have become commonplace. At public places and local businesses, random white people are rude for no reason, even in front of my small child. People seem to assume I’m an illegal immigrant who doesn’t own a credit card or a driver’s license. If l use a credit card, l invariably get asked for my ID, while no other customer is asked. I still tip well and treat service people with over-the-top kindness, especially if my toddler is looking.

Perhaps the worst experience thus far was having to move on from my son’s pediatrician because she continually dismissed my concerns (while giving excellent care to a few white families we know). This was the person I had trusted with my child’s health, and she wouldn’t even let me finish a sentence during visits without declaring that he was OK and rushing us out of the office. The first time this happened, we ended up in the emergency room with salmonella; the second time we finally switched to a Hispanic doctor, who referred us to an allergist who ran tests on my son and prescribed an EpiPen.

How do l protect my child, who will be growing up in this environment, from realizing we are treated as second-class citizens here? Moving is not an option right now. I’m considering sending him to a day care annexed to a synagogue. We aren’t Jewish, but they welcomed him warmly, and it feels safer than other centers l toured in the area. I want him to make friends and play with children his age and hope he will be less exposed to xenophobia if he goes there. My Catholic upbringing and cultural pride aren’t even a factor at this point; I’m in survival mode and very scared. I will really appreciate your honest opinion and advice.

—A Fellow American

Dear AFA,

All in all, we must empower our children with the truth about the world around them so that they can acquire the tools they need to survive and thrive. You have a few years before you need to become painfully precise when it comes to how you describe that world—and its relationship to people who represent what the “American dream” purports to be without being extended the privileges and rights that should come with it—but in the meantime, you can focus on instilling a deep sense of pride in who he is and whom/where he comes from.

Celebrate the heritage that very well won’t be adequately observed or taught in most of the schools he’ll attend in your current community, one that may indeed be challenged or demeaned by so-called friends or even adults much sooner than you’d have anticipated. Ensure that he (and you) are so deeply rooted in loving and appreciating your culture, your history, and your unique identities that when those potential blows to his self-image begin, he can rightly identify who is deficient (the bigots, the ignorant ones, the ones who don’t love who he is) and who is sufficient (himself, his people, other marginalized folks, and those who recognize the shared humanity that crosses the lines that often divide us).

Always, always remember who the villains are here. Remember that while it isn’t your job to constantly perform “good” citizenship or humanity in order to prove to some racists that you, too, are an American, the need of people of color to sometimes prioritize survival over dignity is not a referendum on where we belong in society, but merely an act of self-preservation. Remember that minority does not mean inferiority—just merely outnumbered—and that those who’d reduce you to the former are outnumbered globally (and, technically, as well) and have established a system to do so because of their own inadequacies.

Do not feel that you should forgive those who don’t recognize or affirm your belonging in this raggedy-ass country. Do not feel that you have to be the sort of first- and second-generation Americans who must prove the “worth” of immigrants; your ancestors have paid any debts you may “owe” for being here long, long ago, and their blood, sweat, and contributions to what is good about this complicated experiment of a nation make her your birthright. And pass that on.

Challenge doctors, teachers, and other figures who fall short of delivering the sort of care, service, and protection your family deserves, and teach your child to do the same. Seek out resources to connect with folks who are dedicated to serving immigrants and other so-called minority populations effectively. Be intentional about creating community with people who share your background. Be intentional about creating community with those who do not but who have similar struggles, and with those who have truly learned what it means to be an ally to us all. Caution him not to fall into the trap of believing awful notions about other marginalized people in order to feel better about his own place in the proverbial pecking order.

Raise your son to love those who love him, respect those who respect him, and move around those who do not with a sense of regard for himself and his background. Train him to be savvy and aware, not paranoid and cynical. He’ll see the worst of this place often because America often shows her worst side, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to see. Let him know it’s OK to feel deeply complicated about his country and that he doesn’t have to have some sort of unwavering love and loyalty to a nation that only extends as much to the smallest minority of its inhabitants. Help him to see both the threats he’s up against and the beauty that surrounds him. Be honest about who he is—and what this country is—and create the happiest life you can for him within these circumstances.

You and your family deserve to be here and to enjoy a good life here, and while it is unfairly difficult to achieve that for those of us who are not white, cisgender, heterosexual, male, “able-bodied,” and class-mobile, our challenges do not represent all that the world has to offer us. Give your son the truth and he’ll be best prepared to truly understand that. Solidarity and strength to you, lady.

—Jamilah