“I never fully integrated into American society, I feel like this is temporary, but I feel like that everywhere.”
Paula Meninato is an artist from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
My family left Argentina after the economy collapsed and my mom got a fellowship at Temple University. I was nine. I remember before it happened feeling kind of detached. I remember I didn’t want to take anything because the people I was leaving behind were more important. I gave all my Barbies to one friend. The only thing I wanted to take was some jewelry that had been my grandmother’s.
The only memory I have of that day was crying on the plane, leaving my family behind. I had one good friend, Fiona, but I was really close to my cousin Damian, and two more cousins I was close to as well, Pancho and Toia. I was really sad about leaving cousins, uncle, aunts, grandfather, sad about leaving family.
I remember arriving in Philadelphia—it was the middle of the summer and it was winter in Argentina. We had travelled a lot so I was used to that. We had travelled to Uruguay, to the US, and to other places. I realized in college what a privilege it is to be able to travel and to be able to go to Argentina every year. I have spent a lot of time in Argentina—my brother and I would miss school in order to stay longer with our family.
Our original plan was to stay for three years and then go back. But the economy in Argentina was terrible and my parents lost faith in our country and its legal system. During that three-year time my dad had a job as an architect and my mom had a teaching job. My brother and I had become accustomed to being here and we had a house and everything. I kind of wanted to leave but I felt like whatever problems I had would be the same there. I felt like I never really established myself here. I always think about the next place I am going to. I went to high school in Swarthmore and didn’t settle in there, and then I went to school in Mexico for a while and I never settled in there either. It is a very Catholic country and at that time I was questioning my sexuality and that was not really acceptable there.
In college I took a semester abroad, but the school was too American. My fellow students just wanted to drink. I felt like I adjusted to Rome more than here, I connected to Italian culture. People had wide cultural understanding that they don’t have here. I feel like the idea that we are what we accomplish is an American idea, rather than to enjoy our lives. I’ve had a lot of help and I want people to value me for who I am and not what I have accomplished.
If I went back to Argentina I wouldn’t have much opportunity. I always consider Argentina to be my country—but not to live there. I never fully integrated into American society, I feel like this is temporary, but I feel like that everywhere. I was uprooted and my roots never took. I remember a painting I saw somewhere with roots that never settle into anywhere.
I never had a stable group of friends until now, which is the only reason for me to stay in Philadelphia. I want to see more and explore and have different experiences. And I want to make art too.
Was it worth it? I think moving here expanded my cultural understanding and I feel liberated that I don’t have to stay in one place. I can have unique experiences that a lot of people never have, but I can’t really stay in one place either.
The immigrant experience affects my artwork through my outlook. I don’t trust a single viewpoint. A lot of students accept everything they’re told, but I always want to prove them (my teachers) wrong. Being an immigrant affects the way I think, so at Tyler I did not try to make my work fit in. I learned a lot but I don’t need to change myself or my artwork to fit in, to be accepted.
I am making artwork about Argentina, for an exhibit at the Argentine Embassy in Washington, D.C., about the political disappearances in the 70s. I’ve been interviewing people who had relatives missing. What matters is that the disappeared person is a real person. I’ve been drawing portraits and I’m making them into glass. The finished work will be on the wall and each portrait will have the story attached to it and as visitors leave the exhibition they will be given a card with one person’s story on it. That one story will personalize the experience of all the disappeared. The military dictatorship that did this was supported by the US. Americans really need to take more responsibility for what their government is doing.
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.