Portrait of Silvana Cardell

“Living in between cultures and places is an exciting place for me. It makes me appreciate people and their journeys in life. “

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Silvana Cardell is the choreographer of Supper, People on the Move.

I came to the USA twice as a student, first as undergraduate, later as a graduate student. During both stays I considered myself a visitor, not an immigrant. As a visitor I felt appreciated and welcomed. I did not know that my “visitation” would extend into becoming a permanent move. Ongoing decisions were almost made for me, engaging opportunities for my family motivated us to become part of the communities where we were visiting, the decision to stay was gradual.

A sense of adventure motivated me to leave my birth country, as well as thirst for knowledge. As a young dancer, I deeply admired American dance and art as well as the development of higher education. During my first stay in the USA (1986–90) my goal was to immerse myself in the creativity of this culture. I returned in 2002 bringing my family, my husband and my two children. This time I was interested in completing a master’s degree and to immerse my children ages six and nine in a new culture; my goal was too broaden their education and their life experience.

The day I left Buenos Aires, I remember the moment we left, we had two suitcases each, including the children; my mother, brother and father-in-law spread the suitcases in their cars and drove us to the airport. The very moment I left my house was rushed; it was impulsive—many people moving fast bringing suitcases to the cars, rather dark, around 7 pm on a winter day. I can see today that that day I was leaving behind loved ones and familiar places; I remember the sense of detachment as well as an inexplicable excitement.

We traveled by plane, a flight to New York and a rental van to get to New Jersey, to my friend Monica’s house, my old college roommate.

I remember we arrived on July 3. I clearly remember the dichotomy: suddenly I was in festive environment, people were getting ready for the 4th of July festivities. It was summer, leaving Buenos Aires in winter, and in the mist of a rather depressive financial crisis. I was trying to navigate the contrasting experiences.

Leaving Buenos Aires, we had a series of festive lunches and dinners with friends and family. I do not remember the food. I remember that the environment was loving, supportive, and I cried a lot thinking that I was going to be away for a while. I am very close to my family, the hardest thing I have ever done was to move away from my nephews, whom I love dearly.

I feel pulled between cultures, but I feel as if I do not have a choice, I cannot decide where I want to be. If I am in Argentina, I miss being here and vise versa. Living in between cultures and places is an exciting place for me. It makes me appreciate people and their journeys in life. Our moves, our journeys in life have been worth it in many ways, the immersion in another culture is a rich experience, everybody should try to become an immigrant, not only will it open your horizons, it will also open your eyes!

Spanish translation by Elizabeth Pascual/ Traducción al español por Elizabeth Pascual

Silvana Cardell, Coreógrafa, de Buenos Aires, Argentina

Vine a los Estados Unidos en dos ocasiones como estudiante, primero como estudiante universitaria, más tarde como estudiante de posgrado. Durante ambas estancias me consideraba unavisitante, no un inmigrante. Como visitante me sentí apreciada y acogida. Yo no sabía que mi “visitación” se extendería a convertirse en una mudanza permanente. Las decisiones en curso fueron casi hechas para mí, las oportunidades para mi familia nos motivó a formar parte de las comunidades donde estábamos visitando, la decisión de quedarse fue gradual.

Un sentido de aventura me motivó a abandonar mi país natal, así como la sed de conocimiento. Como joven bailarina, admiré profundamente la danza y el arte americano, así como el desarrollo de la educación superior. Durante mi primera estadía en los Estados Unidos (1986-90) mi objetivo era sumergirme en la creatividad de esta cultura. Volví en 2002 trayendo mi familia, mi marido y mis dos hijos. Esta vez me interesé en completar una maestría y en sumergir a mis niños de 6 y 9 años en una nueva cultura; mi objetivo era también ampliar su educación y su experiencia de vida.

El día que salí de Buenos Aires, recuerdo el momento en que nos fuimos, teníamos dos maletas cada uno, incluyendo a los niños; mi madre, mi hermano y mi suegro esparcieron las maletas en sus autos y nos llevaron al aeropuerto. El momento en que salí de mi casa fue apresurado; era impulsivo – muchas personas se movían rápidamente trayendo maletas a los coches, bastante oscuro, alrededor de las 7 PM en un día de invierno. Hoy puedo ver que ese día estaba dejando atrás a los seres queridos y a los lugares familiares; Recuerdo la sensación de desprendimiento así como una inexplicable emoción.

Viajamos en avión, un vuelo a Nueva York y una camioneta de alquiler para llegar a Nueva Jersey, a la casa de mi amiga Monica (compañera de cuarto en la Universidad de licenciatura).

Recuerdo que llegamos el 3 de julio. Recuerdo claramente la dicotomía – de repente estaba en un ambiente festivo, la gente se estaba preparando para las festividades del 4 de julio. Era verano, saliendo de Buenos Aires en invierno, y en la niebla de una crisis financiera bastante depresiva. Estaba tratando de navegar las experiencias contrastantes.

Saliendo de Buenos Aires, tuvimos una serie de comidas y cenas festivas con amigos y familiares. No recuerdo la comida. Recuerdo que el ambiente era amoroso, solidario y lloré mucho pensando que iba a estar ausente por un tiempo. Tengo una estrecha relación con mi familia, lo más difícil que he hecho fue alejarme de mis sobrinos, a quienes amo mucho.

Me siento atraída entre culturas, pero siento como si no tuviera otra opción, no puedo decidir dónde quiero estar. Si estoy en Argentina, extraño estar aquí y viceversa. Vivir entre culturas y lugares es un estado emocionante para mí. Me hace apreciar a la gente y sus viajes en la vida.¡Nuestros movimientos, nuestros viajes en la vida han valido la pena en muchos sentidos, la inmersión en otra cultura es una experiencia rica, todo el mundo debe tratar de convertirse en un inmigrante, no sólo abrirá sus horizontes, también abrirá sus ojos!

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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.

Portrait of Louis Lainé

“My friends and cousins and everybody were on the other side of the gate watching us through the fence. I remember looking up at my mom. She was holding my hand and wearing sunglasses, but I saw tears coming down.”

49. IMG_0521Photo by Jennifer Baker

Louis Lainé is a student at Swarthmore College.

My mom and I came here on Saturday, August 2nd 2003. My dad was already here, he came in 1997 to work, and my mom and I lived in Haiti my whole life. We came here for me to get a better education. The transition was hard. In Haiti I took English classes on Sundays, and I watched Cartoon Network, but had no formal English education. I spoke French and Creole. We speak French at home, except when my mom got mad then it was Creole, same with my dad. What catalyzed my English learning—I did not want to be behind. When you are a kid you don’t want to be an outsider. I listened to speeches by Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King, and I read Shakespeare history plays. I still know a bunch of the monologues. I came here in fourth grade.

We had a little apartment in Irvington, New Jersey. I didn’t make a lot of friends early on, but I was able to play basketball. Through sports I bonded with other kids. My dad worked at an ink factory and my mom worked two jobs as a nurse in two different nursing homes. My father became a citizen because of Ronald Reagan. I got my citizenship in 2011. My mom just got her passport two months ago.

The day I left home I woke up very early. I went outside. It was still dawn. I remember standing in a field and looking up at the trees and knowing I would never see that view again. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would because I didn’t really know what that meant, to not be where I had been my whole life. But I just I knew it would never be the same. As the hours went on the house became more and more bare. We sold some things, but most we just gave out to people in the village. I walked around holding my basketball, but no one wanted to play.

Around 2 o’clock, we got on a truck and went to the international airport. There was always a long line going in because everyone wants to leave. My friends and cousins and everybody were on the other side of the gate watching us through the fence. I remember looking up at my mom. She was holding my hand and wearing sunglasses, but I saw tears coming down. I started crying too. When I saw her crying I knew this was real. After we checked in and got on the plane, then I got really sick. I knew we wouldn’t be back.

We got to Newark airport and waited for dad to come pick us up. It was really cold. He took us home and we went to sleep. I woke up and it was my new life. It was just weird. I was used to leaving and knowing I would be back home, but this time the going back part wasn’t part of the story. We got here August 2nd and I started school September 8th. I spoke almost no English. I was the new guy. I felt disconnected.

My first impressions coming here: I thought food was free, and light switches work, that was surprising. Food was available, always a surplus. At home food had to be prepared. Getting it and preparing it was a communal effort. As a kid I spent a lot of time cutting up vegetables and even laundry we would do together.

My parents cook traditional Haitian food. Rice and beans with different sauces. But what I really like is Haitian street food—fried dough-y things with meat inside, all different spices. At home, you went to the market—it was a whole day. There were live turkeys, beets, carrots, melons, tomatoes. Nothing ever went to waste.

I grew up in a very interesting family. My grandmother was the mayor of our town so everyone knew who we were. We felt a real connection to where we were from. I grew up in the capital, Port Au Prince, because my mom worked in public health, but we spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She was blind but she always knew when I was there. I wondered how she could not see and be able to do all these things.

My mom didn’t want me to be born here (in the US). She wanted me to have the experience of Haitian culture, it meant a lot to her. It was a good decision, I have my own story, and I am definitely not American even though I have a passport. My mom and I say that this is not home. We keep our connection to Haiti, and I go every other year to visit.

One time I went back to visit, my friends asked me to describe snow and they couldn’t fathom what it was like, so I felt like an outsider. The last time I went was April 1st 2012. I had to give a eulogy for my grandmother’s funeral. Seven priests came, and the whole town. I had to write a formal speech in French. Another student in Haiti helped me to write it. It made me realize how privileged I am to be here, with the resources that that student could have benefitted from. I think about that every day, how lucky I am to be here at Swarthmore College.

I feel like I am performing an American identity. I have knowledge of life in the US but it is a conscious effort. My Haitian heritage is more of a base for me. When I came here to college I was expected to assume an African American identity. I didn’t refute that but it wasn’t who I was. It made me see that I needed to hold on more actively to my Haitian identity. I made friends in the international community more than with the African American students. I get along with the African students. Our parents speak with similar tones even though we are a continent away. I felt a little lost at first because I didn’t know where I fit in.

I went to all boys schools most of my life. In Haiti the best schools were single-sex Catholic schools. For high school I want to Saint Benedict’s Prep, run by a Benedictine monastery. It was very progressive: professing faith through actions and spirituality rather than dogmatic belief. The headmaster was the father figure to so many of us and taught me how to live and how to be a man.

Swarthmore is a free place, sometimes too free—structure is not a bad thing. There’s a lot of room for creativity, but I need a goal, to aspire to something. I received a Truman scholarship—one student, who wishes to dedicate themselves to public service, is selected from each state. I want to work in the Department of Justice. I hope to be attorney general of New Jersey some day.

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 in June 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.

Portrait of Adrian Plascencia

“To them we were a part of the large set of dozens of cousins and nephews that made up this family but to us they were strangers.”9. IMG_1044               Photo by Jennifer Baker

Adrian Plascencia is a dancer in Supper, People on the Move.

In preparation for this interview, I called my mom who is now living in California. The phone conversation lasted much longer than our average conversations of five minutes, which usually include mundane updates about weather and work. We rarely speak of our personal lives so my interest in the details of her story into this country was jarring for her to recount at first, but slowly she began to soften and I could hear her voice warm and she recounted the memories of her youthful journey to this new country.

Our being in the United States is more my dad’s effort than anyone else’s. He had always thought of coming to the U.S. as a young man, so when a group of his friends were ready to make the dangerous trip to the border my dad was ready to join them. He was nervous to tell his family that he would be leaving but after an explosive argument with his oldest brother his decision was clear and he was on his way to the border the next day. He was seventeen.

Once in the U.S. he got a job working at a tortilla factory and there he stayed for six years. One day, the factory was raided by immigration officials and my dad was deported back across the boards to Tijuana. He immediately returned to the U.S. A week later the officials came back and deported him again. (I should say, that the details of my dad’s crossing into the country are unclear since he was very private about them and never revealed these stories to either my mom or us children before his death late last year.) Upon my dad’s second deportation in a week he decided to go back to his hometown of Léon Guanajuato and it was during his time back there that he met my mother. They got married and quickly had two children, my older brother and me. My dad had still wanted to have a life in the United States and dreamed of going back while my they were still dating but my mom was not into the idea of living in the U.S.

Now married, my father insisted on going back to help support his family and my mom let him go on the condition that it would only be for a year and then he would return. My dad left in January of 1988, just one month after I was born. He and my mom would call each other every week on Sunday evenings to stay connected during this long time apart. After a year, my mom had had enough of the distance and declared that either he return to Mexico or she would go to the U.S. Not wanting to give up what he had spent so much time building up, my dad got off the phone and immediately began making arrangements for his family to come and meet him on the American side of the border. By the next day it was all arranged; my mom would take a bus to the airport and fly from Aguascalientes to Tijuana. Once in Tijuana she would meet with a man who would give her false credentials to pose as an American who was simply visiting Mexico and now returning to the U.S. My brother and I would then be passed on to different families and pose as children of these American parents returning to the country. We would all rendezvous at in San Diego with my dad and from there drive up to the San Francisco Bay Area where my dad had lived for the past year.

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My brother, who was three at the time, was coached to give a false name if he was asked by an immigration official. I was a little over a year old and was given allergy medication to sleep through the entire experience and not raise suspicion by crying in the arms of a woman that wasn’t my mother. We both crossed the border as planned as a part of separate families. My mom, however, got held up when they discovered that her credentials were false. She was rejected entry into the country and was asked to turn around and go back to Mexico. They now had to decide on a different and possible more dangerous method of crossing her over.

That night she was packed tightly into a small car with four other women who had found themselves in the same situation of not being about to cross the border on their first attempts. The car drove through a less patrolled area of the border and they were dropped off on a dark beach and told to walk to a 7-eleven four hours away. This long, late night trek was challenging for my mom. She had had asthma since she was very young and this made it hard to breathe in the cold night air. Dry coughs exploded out of her and she tried to muffle them with the thin sweater she was wearing but the other women with her urged her to remain silent on the quiet beach.

There was no way for them to communicate to anyone that they had arrived at their 7-eleven rendezvous point; they were just left to wait. The wait for my mom wasn’t long, as she recalls, and was picked up and driven to where my dad, brother, and myself had arrived the day before. When my mother got to us she says that my brother would not respond to his own name for a week and would instead “correct” people by telling them that his name was the one he was coached to say. For me, the effects of the allergy pill worked well and I didn’t not wake up for more than 24 hours. From our meeting place in San Diego we drove up to San Mateo in Northern California where we were welcomed into my father’s one bedroom, fully finished apartment.

My mother remembers these first few days in the United States as very odd. She had been in a relationship with my dad for some time by this point but they had been separated for a year. Not only by distance but by culture and experience. In that year my mom had to raise a newborn while having a toddler that was not yet two and was surrounded by family for support. The environment, landscape, people, language, were all different now and the only link to this world was a man that had only been a voice over the phone for the last year. My dad had always been more independent and had grown accustomed to the way things worked here. He was enjoying his life and the new adventures that this country offered him.

My dad was granted amnesty in 1989, which meant he received a Permanent Resident Visa or green card. He then took advantage of the Family Reunification laws at the time to grant my mom and both me and my brother permanent resident statuses as well. By 1994 we were all legal residents.

In 2001 my mother applied for American Citizenship and after passing her exam was granted citizenship as well as citizenship for me and my older brother. My younger brother was born in the U.S. in 1995 and is the only one in our family who is a naturalized citizen. As for my father, he chose never to become an American Citizen. He maintained a head strong loyalty to his Mexican Nationality and would not let himself assimilate too much into American culture. My dad never fully grasped the language and would get upset when my brothers and I would speak English around him. He encouraged us to maintain a close link to our Mexican heritage. We attended Spanish church services so all I know about the Catholic church that I was raised in is in Spanish. All prayers and rituals I only know through a Hispanic filter.

After working in a tortilla factory for so many years, my father decided to start his own business. It is a successful small business in San Mateo, California, that my older brother now runs after my dad’s passing in 2014. He had always wanted to return to Mexico, so when he died he was cremated and his remains were flown back to his home town and set in the same church where he was baptized, confirmed, and married.

When I asked my mom if this was all worth it she despondently said, “. . . I don’t know.”

For my parents, their families were always a major part of their lives but for my brothers and myself we never really connected with our larger extended family. My mom is one of fifteen and my dad one of eight so there was a lot of family that we kids never really got to know given that we lived so far away and only visited once every couple of years. We grew up in a completely different world and were privileged with many different opportunities and could not in our naive young heads think of why everyone didn’t just move to the U.S. because things are clearly so much better here. To them we were a part of the large set of dozens of cousins and nephews that made up this family but to us they were strangers. Family we never saw and were pushed into hugging and kissing after quickly connecting the dots from mom or dad to generic relative. They all knew their roles well in the larger family dynamic but I felt out of place with my only real connections being between my brothers. There was no reference point to this world that they lived in or any link to their familiar characters. Our Spanish, though fluent, was not good enough to catch references to popular culture or trends in slang. We got lost when it came to jokes and grammatical word play. Though I was born in Mexico, it was not my home. The Mexico of my parents was not my Mexico.

I am beyond grateful for the journey and struggles that my parents went through to get into this country and to create a life for our family here. This project has opened my eyes to the true peril that came in the decision to cross the border and I am honored to be a part of it.

Adrian Plascencia

Bailarín, de México

Que estemos en los Estados Unidos se debe más al esfuerzo de mi padre que al de cualquier otra persona. De joven siempre había pensado en venir a los Estados Unidos, así que cuando un grupo de sus amigos estuvo listo para hacer el peligroso viaje a la frontera, mi padre estaba preparado para unirse a ellos. Tenía 17 años.

Ya en los Estados Unidos, consiguió empleo en una fábrica de tortillas, y trabajó allí durante 6 años. Un día, los funcionarios de inmigración allanaron la fábrica y mi padre fue deportado a Tijuana, cruzando la frontera. Volvió de inmediato.  Una semana después, los oficiales regresaron y lo deportaron nuevamente. Luego de la segunda deportación, mi padre decidió regresar a su ciudad natal, León Guanajuato, y fue allí donde conoció a mi madre. Se casaron y al poco tiempo tuvieron dos hijos, mi hermano mayor y yo. Mientras estaban saliendo, mi papá todavía quería hacer su vida en los Estados Unidos y soñaba con regresar, pero a mi madre no le gustaba la idea de vivir allí.

Ahora estaban casados y mi padre insistía en volver para ayudar a mantener a su familia; mi madre se lo permitió con la condición de que solo fuera por un año. Mi papá se fue en enero de 1988, apenas un mes después de que yo naciera. Él y mi mamá se llamaban todos los domingos por la tarde para seguir en contacto. Después de un año, mi mamá se cansó de la distancia y le dijo que él volviera a México o ella iría a los EE. UU.  Como no quería renunciar a todo aquello que le había llevado tanto tiempo construir, mi padre colgó el teléfono e inmediatamente comenzó a hacer arreglos para que su familia fuera a encontrarse con él del lado estadounidense de la frontera. Al día siguiente, todo estaba arreglado: mi madre tomaría un autobús al aeropuerto y volaría de Aguascalientes a Tijuana. Una vez llegada a Tijuana, se encontraría con un hombre que le daría credenciales falsas para hacerse pasar por estadounidense. Luego, pondrían a mi hermano y a mí con diferentes familias y nos harían pasar por hijos de estos padres estadounidenses que regresan a su país. Nos reuniríamos todos en San Diego con mi padre y desde allí conduciríamos hasta el área de la Bahía de San Francisco, donde mi papá había vivido.

En ese momento, mi hermano tenía tres años y lo entrenaron para dar un nombre falso en caso de que un funcionario de migraciones le preguntara. Yo tenía poco más de un año y me dieron medicamentos para la alergia para que durmiera durante toda la experiencia y no levantara sospechas al llorar en brazos de una mujer que no era mi madre. Ambos cruzamos la frontera tal como estaba planeado, como parte de familias separadas. Mi mamá, sin embargo, fue detenida cuando descubrieron que sus credenciales eran falsas. Le denegaron la entrada al país y le dijeron que tenía que regresar a México. Ahora tenían escoger un método diferente y, posiblemente más peligroso, para cruzarla.

Esa noche viajó apretada en un automóvil pequeño con otras cuatro mujeres que tampoco habían podido cruzar la frontera en sus primeros intentos. El automóvil pasó por una zona menos patrullada de la frontera; las dejaron en una playa oscura y les dijeron que caminen hasta un supermercado que quedaba a cuatro horas. Cuando mi madre llegó, dice que mi hermano no respondió a su propio nombre durante una semana y que, en cambio, “corregía” a las personas aclarándoles que su nombre era el que le habían entrenado para decir. En mi caso, los efectos de la píldora para la alergia funcionaron bien y no me desperté durante más de 24 horas.

Mi madre recuerda que aquellos primeros días en los Estados Unidos le parecieron muy extraños. Para aquel entonces, ella había estado en una relación con mi padre durante un tiempo pero llevaban un año separados. No solo entre ellos, sino también de su familia, que era su apoyo. Ahora el entorno, el paisaje, las personas, el idioma, todo era diferente y el único vínculo con este mundo era un hombre que solo había sido una voz en el teléfono durante el último año. Mi padre siempre había sido más independiente y disfrutaba de su vida y de las nuevas aventuras que el país tenía para ofrecerle.

A mi padre se le concedió la amnistía en 1989, lo que significaba recibir una visa de Residencia Permanente o una tarjeta verde. Más tarde, aprovechó las leyes de Reunificación Familiar de ese momento para otorgarnos también a mi madre, a mi hermano y a mí el estatus de residentes permanentes. En 1994, ya todos éramos residentes legales.

En 2001, mi madre solicitó la ciudadanía estadounidense y, después de aprobar su examen, le concedieron la ciudadanía tanto a ella como a mí y a mi hermano mayor. Mi hermano menor nació en los EE. UU. en 1995, y es el único en nuestra familia que es ciudadano de nacimiento. En cuanto a mi padre, él decidió nunca convertirse en ciudadano estadounidense. Mantuvo una firme lealtad a su nacionalidad mexicana y no se permitió adaptarse demasiado a la cultura estadounidense. Después de trabajar en una fábrica de tortillas, decidió comenzar su propio negocio. Es una pequeña empresa exitosa en San Mateo, California, que mi hermano mayor lleva adelante desde la muerte de mi papá, en 2014. Él siempre había querido regresar a México, por eso, cuando murió, fue cremado y sus cenizas llevadas a su ciudad natal, a la misma iglesia donde se bautizó, se confirmó y se casó.

Cuando le pregunté a mi madre si todo esto había valido la pena, me contestó desanimada que aún no lo sabía.

Para mis padres, sus familias siempre fueron una parte importante de sus vidas, pero mis hermanos y yo nunca nos relacionamos de verdad con nuestra gran familia extendida. Aunque nací en México, no fue mi hogar. El México de mis padres no era mi México.

Estoy más que agradecido por el viaje y las dificultades que pasaron mis padres para llegar a este país y crear aquí una vida para nuestra familia.

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 in 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.

Portrait of maria urrutia

“Once we landed everyone was given flip flops because when our first boat sank we lost everything, and so no one had shoes.”

20. IMG_9869Photo by Jennifer Baker

maria urrutia is a dance artist and educator. She performs in Supper, People on the Move.

My family left Cuba during two different migration periods, my aunts in the 60s when The Peter Pan Flights took children from Cuba to the United States and my grandparents, father, mother, aunt, and I during The Mariel Boat lift that took place between April and October in the year 1980.

These choices of migration were made for political reasons.

Our migration story took place in June of 1980. In order to leave the country, family from the U.S.A had to travel by boat to “claim” their relatives from the beach area in Cuba known as Mariel. In our family my uncles took on this dangerous task. They and a friend, who also had family he wanted to claim, borrowed a boat and undertook the journey of 90 miles—a stretch that my uncles had not traveled since leaving the island a decade before.

There were over 124,776 people that migrated during that time, and not all were people who had family that claimed them. In order to empty his jails, and the island, of any individual opposing his rule or causing trouble, Castro used this exodus to his advantage. For every one person that was picked up, two political prisoners were also added to the boats cargo. This additional and unexpected cargo was the cause of not only our boat to sink, but many other families to experience death in the deep blue waters that sit between freedom and restraint.

Our migration left behind my mother’s family, which was a choice they made. This choice was always difficult for my mother to fully accept. She was only twenty years old when we left Cuba with my father’s family. The night the government officials came to escort us to El Mariel my father had to beg to bring my mother’s parents from a few houses away so that they could say their farewells—no one knew if they would ever see each other again. My mother’s farewell was quick and full of sorrow. She chose to leave in order to give me opportunities in life, and I could not be more humbled by this tremendous sacrifice.

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maria with her grandmother.

As it turns out the government did not take you to El Mariel first. They actually had a waiting area known as El Mosquito (the mosquito) where we were held for several days. In this location no food was available unless you had money to purchase it and luckily my grandfather had the foresight to bring money. After several days we were taken to El Mariel for our departure. My grandmother vividly remembers that in order to relieve herself the government set out planks on the water that you had to walk onto; this was to experience humiliation.

After a few days in El Mariel we all boarded the boat, in the middle of the night, I was two years old. My father sent my mother, grandmother, aunt, and I into the belly of the boat. Yet shortly after departing El Mariel my father suddenly came down and handed my mother, grandmother, and aunt life vests. He realized that the boat was taking in water and would begin its decent into the depths of the ocean soon, and because there were not enough life vests for everyone he wanted to insure they had them. My grandmother was in her sixties and did not know how to swim.

I am told that in order to relive the pressure my father punched out the glass. He escorted all us all to the top of the boat and even had to push my grandmother off the boat because she did not want to jump. The boat was sinking fast. He still to this day talks about how shocking it was to see such a vessel go down so quickly.

My mother handed me to my father and jumped, which left him with me, a bloody hand, and no life vest. Once my father was in the water my mother was able to beg from a political prisoner that was on our boat to give my Father the floating piece of wood so that I could be placed upon it. We sat in the ocean with screams for Ausilio (help) for what probably felt like eternity, but in reality was only 30 minutes.

My father says that the pacifier in my mouth saved me when we jumped into the ocean. I think it was his drive, skill, and determination that did.

We had not made it into American waters, but both the Cuban and USA Coast Guards came to our rescue. However, since we were still in Cuban waters we were forced to board the Cuban vessel and return to the island. In the chaos I ended up in the American boat, the rest of my family in the Cuban boat. The American Coast Guard said to my father you’ll find her in the U.S., which was not acceptable, and he forced the boats to come together so that I remained with my family returning to Cuba.

This experience terrified my mother and she said she would not be boarding another boat and that she wanted to remain in Cuba. My father’s response was “You can’t go back, we have nothing left.”

Coincidentally the night our boat sank, another boat with the same name also sank, and everyone from that boat died. Our family in the U.S. didn’t know if we were the ones that lived or died. This made it difficult for my aunt, who had not seen her family in over fifteen years. As they lived out of a van for days in Key West awaiting news we went back to Cuba to begin again.

In Cuba we waited to see if another opportunity would arise to board another boat. And after three days it did with the captain of a boat from California whose family they would not release to him; the name of the boat was Second Chance.

Again we boarded a boat in the middle of the night. This boat was also filled over capacity and began to have troubles, but we were luckily in U.S.A waters. The captain of the boat called the U.S. Coast guard stating our troubles. We were airlifted into a helicopter, and then transported onto a U.S. Coast Guard battleship. Once we landed everyone was given flip flops because when our first boat sank we lost everything, and so no one had shoes. I only had a cloth diaper, which had been on my body for over three days.

The other items handed to my family were a bite to eat—a can of Coca Cola and an apple. My mother speaks of this as her first taste of freedom.

Once we were placed on U.S.A soil our family had to spend several days in make shift housing in order to be cleared as legal to enter the country. A thourgh investigation had to be completed in order to clear my father because all men under the Castro regime had to serve in the military. As the historical timeframe lays out, my father was in the military during the Bay of Pigs. When he was cleared after a few days we were all united with my aunt and uncles. And since that moment I have worked to take advantage of every opportunity this country has presented me with.

As for my identity, I feel rooted in Cuban culture and experiences, but after so many years find myself looking at the world through an American lens.

Maria Urrutia, Artista de baile y educadora de Cuba

Epígrafe: María con su abuela en Cuba en 1979

Mi familia partió de Cuba en dos tandas migratorias diferentes: mis tías, en los años 60, cuando los vuelos Peter Pan llevaron niños de Cuba a los Estados Unidos, y mis abuelos, padre, madre, tía y yo durante el Éxodo de El Mariel, entre abril y octubre de 1980. Migramos de esa manera por razones políticas.

Nuestra historia migratoria comienza en junio de 1980. Para poder salir del país, familiares de los EE. UU. tuvieron que viajar en bote para “reclamar” a sus parientes en el área costera de Cuba conocida como El Mariel. En nuestra familia, mis tíos asumieron esta peligrosa tarea. Ellos y un amigo, quien también tenía familia que quería reclamar, pidieron prestado un barco y emprendieron un viaje de 145 kilómetros, una distancia que mis tíos no habían vuelto a recorrer desde que abandonaron la isla, hacía una década.

Durante ese tiempo migraron 124.776 personas, y no todos, tenían familias que los reclamaran. Con el objetivo de vaciar sus cárceles, y la isla, de cualquiera que se opusiera a su gobierno o causara problemas, Castro aprovechó este éxodo para su propio beneficio. Por cada persona recogida, se agregaban dos presos políticos a la carga de los barcos. Esta carga adicional e inesperada fue la causa no solo de que nuestro barco se hundiera, sino de que muchas otras familias experimentaran la muerte en las aguas profundas que se encuentran entre la libertad y la reclusión.

Al migrar, dejamos atrás a la familia de mi madre, una decisión que ellos tomaron. Para mi madre siempre fue difícil aceptar completamente esa decisión. Ella solo tenía veinte años cuando abandonó Cuba con la familia de mi padre. La noche en que los funcionarios del gobierno vinieron a acompañarnos a El Mariel, mi padre tuvo que suplicarles que trajeran a los padres de mi madre, que estaban a unas pocas casas de distancia, para que pudieran despedirse: nadie sabía si volverían a verse. La despedida de mi madre fue rápida y llena de tristeza. Ella decidió irse para darme oportunidades en la vida, y yo no podría sentirme más conmovida por semejante sacrificio.

Resultó que el gobierno no nos llevó directamente a El Mariel. Tenían una zona de espera conocida como El Mosquito donde nos retuvieron durante varios días. En este lugar no había comida disponible a menos que tuvieras dinero para comprarla, pero por suerte mi abuelo fue previsor y llevó dinero. Mi abuela recuerda claramente que, para ir al baño, tenía que caminar sobre tablones que el gobierno había colocado sobre el agua: una práctica que hacían solo para humillarlos.

Después de unos días en El Mariel, todos nos subimos al barco en la mitad de la noche; yo tenía dos años de edad. Mi padre nos envió a mi madre, a mi abuela, a mi tía y a mí a la bodega del barco. Sin embargo, poco después de partir de El Mariel, mi padre bajó de repente y le entregó chalecos salvavidas a mi madre, a mi abuela y a mi tía. Se dio cuenta de que estaba entrando agua en el barco. Mi abuela tenía sesenta y algo y no sabía nadar. Me contaron que, para descargarse, mi padre le pegó a un vidrio. Nos acompañó a todas hasta la parte superior e incluso tuvo que empujar a mi abuela del barco porque no quería saltar. El barco se hundía rápido. Hasta el día de hoy, ella habla de lo impactante que fue ver que tamaña nave se hundiera tan rápidamente. Mi madre me pasó a los brazos de mi padre y saltó, dejándolo solo conmigo, una mano ensangrentada y sin chaleco salvavidas. Cuando mi padre estuvo en el agua, mi madre pudo suplicarle a un prisionero político que estaba en nuestro barco que le diera a mi padre un pedazo de madera flotante para que pudieran ponerme sobre ella. Estuvimos en el océano pidiendo auxilio a los gritos durante lo que probablemente pareció una eternidad, pero en realidad fueron solo 30 minutos. Mi padre dice que el chupete que tenía en la boca me salvó cuando saltamos al mar. Yo creo que nos salvó su impulso, habilidad y determinación.

No habíamos llegado a aguas estadounidenses, pero tanto la guardia costera cubana como la estadounidense vinieron a nuestro rescate. Sin embargo, como todavía estábamos en aguas cubanas nos obligaron a abordar un barco cubano y regresar a la isla. En medio del caos, yo terminé en el barco estadounidense y el resto de mi familia, en el cubano. La Guardia Costera estadounidense le dijo a mi padre que me encontraría en los Estados Unidos, pero no lo aceptó y obligó a los barcos a juntarse para que yo permaneciera con mi familia en el regreso a Cuba. Esta experiencia aterrorizó a mi madre, quien dijo que no abordaría otro barco y que quería quedarse en Cuba. La respuesta de mi padre fue: “No puedes volver, no nos queda nada”.

Casualmente, la noche en que nuestro barco se hundió, otro bote con el mismo nombre también se hundió, y todos en aquel bote murieron. Nuestra familia, en los EE. UU. no sabía si nosotros estábamos entre los vivos o entre los muertos. Esta situación fue difícil para mi tía, que no veía a su familia hacía más de 15 años. Mientras ellos vivían durante días en una camioneta en Key West esperando noticias, nosotros volvíamos a Cuba a empezar de nuevo.

En Cuba esperamos una nueva oportunidad de subir a otro barco. Después de tres días, la oportunidad llegó con el capitán de un barco de California que tenía recluida a su familia. El nombre del barco era Second Chance (“Segunda Oportunidad”). Una vez más, nos subíamos a un barco en mitad de la noche. Este barco también estaba sobrecargado y comenzó a tener problemas, pero ya estábamos en aguas estadounidenses. El capitán del barco llamó a la Guardia Costera. Fuimos trasladados en helicóptero a un buque de guerra de la  Guardia Costera de los EE. UU. Cuando aterrizamos nos dieron chanclas a todos porque al hundirse el primer barco habíamos perdido todo, y nadie tenía zapatos. Yo solo tenía un pañal de tela, que llevaba puesto desde hacía más de tres días.

Además, mi familia recibió algo de comer: una lata de Coca Cola y una manzana. Mi madre habla de aquella situación como la primera vez que sintió lo que era la libertad. Una vez que tocamos tierra estadounidense, nuestra familia tuvo que pasar varios días en una vivienda improvisada hasta recibir autorización para ingresar al país. Después de pocos días, nos reunimos todos con mi tía y mis tíos. Desde entonces, he trabajado para aprovechar todas las oportunidades que este país me ha brindado.

En cuanto a mi identidad, me siento enraizada en la cultura y las experiencias cubanas pero, después de tantos años, sé que miro el mundo a través de una lente estadounidense.

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 in June 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.

Portrait of Lao-Sa

“We didn’t know what to expect when we came here, but we knew we wouldn’t go back.”

Lao-Sa worked for City of Philadelphia Human Relations Commission and is now retired. Lao-Sa means “old snake” in the Hakka language.

44. IMG_0462cPhoto by Jennifer Baker

One of my sisters, I have three sisters, came to the US and became a citizen, then my next sister also become a citizen. The first one came back to Malaysia for a visit in 1979 and brought up the subject. “I am a citizen now, do you know you can try to come to America?” It was easier to come to America then. It took three months to get the visa and go through the immigration process. Now it can take years.

It was sudden thing, we didn’t think of it before. The idea seemed distant and so improbable. We first talked about it as a family and then each person did his or her own thinking about it. There were six siblings, and the decision was made right there. The idea started to cook and there was a consensus of let’s do it. But each person had his or her own imagination about what it meant to go to America.

We were Chinese Malaysian and opportunities were limited for us. The Malays were the original people like the Native Americans in America. The ethnic Malay were always on the alert about not letting the ethnic Chinese becoming a significant political threat. When the British gave up Malaya in 1957 they negotiated with the ethnic Malays to take power. The Malay government didn’t take long to set up regulations for national groups. Malays were to be considered the children of the land and as such entitled to special privileges—preferences for college, for business, etc. These were arbitrary and high-handed laws. As a result non-Malay ethnic groups were struggling with their opportunities taken away. When there were elections, the party with most Malays always won. One time a party with many Chinese won and there was a celebration on the street, and next thing you know there was a riot leading to deaths.

I was in my late twenties when I came. My father couldn’t make up his mind to come, and then he passed away before we left, but my mom came with us. We emptied out our savings from our jobs, the “public cumulative funds.” I had less than 2000 Malaysian dollars, which were three times less than US dollars. Nobody had much money. I was working as a middle school teacher in Sabah, Malaysia.

The decision to come was mostly economic and for opportunity. All we knew of America was from the few TV programs that were exported to that part of the world. We saw The Saint, which actually was a British show, and The Munsters, and a few movies with white folks by the pond sipping champagne with nice clothes and talking stylishly.

When I was a child we went through a period of extreme poverty. My father was a Chinese doctor, an herbal doctor. He had a good number of patients but he didn’t know how to manage his business. He was terrible when it came to providing for us. My mother had to be very creative to feed six children. You could make a meal by making small cakes out of starch for five or ten cents. She would also get little dried fish from the market for very cheap, for 10 or 20 cents, but it was not easy to make 10 cents back then. My mom was illiterate but very intelligent and creative with how to survive. The economy was not rosy worldwide but it was much worse in Malaysia. There were originally ten children but some died earlier from different causes. We didn’t talk about it—too busy surviving. After we came here we talked and reflected on things we never did at home.

Malaysian and English were the common languages but everyone spoke different languages at home. I spoke English but not as fluently before I came here. I spoke three Chinese dialects, Malay, and English, but not any Indian languages. If I wanted to play with other children I had to learn their dialects. I speak Cantonese, Fujianese, and Mandarin was spoken at my school. My own dialect is Hakka that we spoke at home. Malaysian English expressions and inflection are totally different. It was like United Nations in my family—we mix Hakka and English and we all know different Chinese dialects. The girls went to English speaking schools. My oldest brother went to a Methodist boy’s school. My younger brother and I went to Chinese medium school. We didn’t go to the free Malaysian school. My mother somehow managed to pay for our schools and books, I don’t really know how. My mother learned English in her 60s and she spoke three different Chinese dialects but she was illiterate.

The Hakka culture and food—I am more drawn to that than Malaysian. My mother was a very good cook. People came to her with notebooks to get her recipes. She liked to cook pigs feet, stewed, sour with vinegar and ginger, dried oysters, soy sauce, onions, garlic. Her way of cooking pork chops and her fried pork was also very famous, marinated with special spices, hard to describe. Malaysian dishes are very spicy. Assam sweet and sour curry is another one. Later in life, everywhere my mother went she compared the price of food.

It was a 17-hour flight to the US. We didn’t know what to expect when we came here, but we knew we wouldn’t go back. We emptied out all our money and sold everything. I haven’t gone back although some of my siblings have. It was definitely worth it. It was totally unexpected. My first impression, I was very surprised—it didn’t match my idea of America. We saw snow for the first time and we didn’t see people sipping champagne.

We went directly to Tecumseh, Michigan, a farming town where my older sister owned greenhouses. A year later I came to Philadelphia where my sister had bought a house. I had many different jobs. I got a part time job at Drexel teaching Chinese, I did kitchen work, translation for Berlitz, and I was the councilor for a Chinese mutual assistance association. I was a court interpreter and translator for City Hall. It was kind of terrifying to have so much responsibility. They didn’t train you at all. It was supposed to be literal translation, but sometimes I had to stop and to ask questions because with two different cultures sometimes yes means no and no means yes. I was translating culture, not just language.

My last job was with the government, the City of Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, which I did for 24 years before I retired.

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 in June 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.

Portrait of Blanca

“From Ecuador to Guatemala we travelled in a boat. The ship got lost in the middle of the sea. For ten days you could only see water and sky.”

51. IMG_0662Photo by Jennifer Baker

I came here fourteen years ago from Cuenca, Ecuador. I was seventeen and had a child who was two years old. I didn’t really see me having a future there or being able to offer a future to my child. Many times I wasn’t able to buy clothing for him. I had no job, no profession. I was so young. The second thing, my parents were getting older and by the middle of the week my mother wouldn’t have groceries in her kitchen. I would visit her and she would want to offer me a plate of food and she didn’t have any. That was really heartbreaking for me—I wasn’t able to help them.

I had all these dreams and plans that I would make a lot of money. You have this idea that you will get to the US and you find money everywhere. People who are here send beautiful photos and nobody tells you the reality. I also wanted to escape. I felt somehow trapped in a little town where there was a lot of machismo and a lot of “women don’t do this and women don’t do that” and I didn’t like that.

My plan was to be here for three years. I was going to work, save, pay my debt, about $15,000, which I had to pay for people to bring me here. And then I had to pay 6% monthly interest so maybe I ended up paying over $20,000, money that I had borrowed from people in my town. In three years, I will make enough to go back. I was going to buy property in the city that I was going to rent to people and I was going to live happily ever after.

Instead what happened was this: my now ex-husband was here already. He came six months before, the same way I did, with the same amount of debt. He wanted me to wait, but I didn’t want to. He left me in his parents’ home. I wasn’t happy there at all. When I came (to the US) I had a second child. My older one stayed in Ecuador. He was two years old. I left him with his grandparents. I left him there and embarked on a trip.

It took three months to get here. From Ecuador to Guatemala we travelled in a boat. The ship got lost in the middle of the sea. For ten days you could only see water and sky and we were eating only once a day. There were 90 women and more than 200 men. In Guatemala they transport us in a tuk-tuk (pedi-cab) and the rest of the travelling was by lakes, car, and walking. One time there were a few horses and I was happy to ride because I grew up on a farm. There was a period when they abandoned us in the middle of the woods for ten days and we survived eating oranges until they found us again. In Guatemala I was on the phone with my husband and he got really mad. We didn’t realize people were listening and a voice came out of the phone. They said, “You will never see her again, we are going to kill her tomorrow.” The next day there was a really tall man with a gun and he came to me with threatening voice, “Just be thankful I am also from Ecuador another person wouldn’t care about shooting you.” It is like the mafia.

Our group was assaulted when we were about to cross the border. They had guns, they know where you hide your money. I think it is all arranged. Someone put a gun to my head. I think I was in shock. We walk across the river and we crawl for about six hours. They had watered the plants where we had to hide so we were full of mud and it was impossible to run. And then we needed to run and I couldn’t. They left me behind. I had no more energy and I was gong to pass out. I had no idea where I was. I just started walking slowly. I saw plants moving and they were waiting for me. We got to a house. They took a group in a car so I didn’t have to walk in the desert. I think I wouldn’t have survived. I was so skinny and so tired. They put people in a van and bring me to Philadelphia, where my husband had arranged for me to get dropped off. After two weeks I started working in a meat packing factory.

My husband had a serious problem with alcohol. I was pregnant and we had a car accident because he was drunk and I almost lost my baby. I was with him 5 years. I started working in another factory, a company that sewed bags and special covers for airplanes for the army. I was a machine operator. I worked there two years and a half. They asked me to be a supervisor. I was in that position for two months. There was a woman who was really racist and was treating me really badly. I didn’t speak English, and the people I was working with didn’t speak English or Spanish, they were mostly Cambodian and Vietnamese, so we just communicated by signs. After that job I started doing housecleaning. I really started to think I should learn new things, get my GED. Then the problems started at home. My husband was very controlling and he never supported me to learn English. Things started going down the drain, he started using drugs. I left him, I left the house, I left everything and took my child and started building my own life. I was very depressed because my older son wasn’t here. I always felt guilty.

He is here now, thank God. He came four-and-a-half years ago when he was 12. He did a similar trip that I did. He got here Thanksgiving day on my birthday. It changed everything. It erased whatever bad happened in the past. My younger one was born here so he could travel. Both of them are special in different ways. They are my world.

I never took English classes. I dedicated myself to learn. I went to the library and rented a bunch of kids’ cartoons. I would watch Barney and Sesame Street and Dragon Tales. I watched the Maury show. I put the subtitles on to learn. I read.

Looking for a GED class, I got to an organization that taught computer classes and English classes to immigrants. When I got there I had the feeling this is a place for me, I am going to work here. I had never turned on a computer. After I took that first class I was asked if I would be willing to teach a class. How am I going to teach something I don’t know myself? But I liked challenges, so the director trained me. I started teaching a power point class. I prepared my entire class. There were 15 students. I have never taught anything, never spoke in front of a group. When I started trying to teach, I forgot everything and just started crying in front of everyone. They applauded me and said don’t worry about it, we will learn together.

When I arrived, my first thought was to tell my mother I got here safe. For three months I wasn’t able to talk to her. But then I had this feeling, what have I just done? I got a feeling like if I run to the corner I can catch a bus to go back. I cannot go back. My mother didn’t want me to go, she was really mad at me, but she didn’t know it was for her too. I have helped her ever since.

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 in June 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.

Portrait of James Wah Kong Chan

“The night before I was to leave Hong Kong, I dreamed of being chased after by vampires in Chicago.”

 James Wah Kong Chan is an export marketing consultant.

52. James Chan High ResolutionI was an illegal immigrant for five years. From 1977 to 1982, the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service sent me to three deportation hearings. I hired three lawyers to defend me until one day I broke down and prayed to God for help.

I came to America as a shy, clueless foreign student with a B.A. degree from the University of Hong Kong. I was on a student visa to study geography at the University of Chicago, where I got my M.A. degree in 1973 and at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where I got my Ph.D. degree in 1977.

By then, I had grown fond of the American culture and way of life and I wanted to stay. Boston University offered me a one-year job as an assistant professor. I accepted the job but my student (F-1) visa was about to expire. When I stayed to continue to teach, I “over stayed” and became by law an illegal immigrant.

One day, near despair, I found myself wandering nervously next to the Basilica Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City. I saw the Cross and I realized that there was one last resort—to ask for divine intervention.

I walked into the Cathedral and prayed to Saint John Neumann for guidance. After that, I went down on my knees and prayed to God. In silence, I made a vow to God: “If you could help me get a green card, I would promise to pull China and America closer.” I created a story of which I could be the hero. I forged my own myth. I left the church and typed 500 more job search letters.

A few months later, a Fortune 500 company hired me and proved that I could do a job that no American citizen could qualify to do. The company wanted my help to export scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly books and journals to China and other Asian markets. On my birthday in August 1982, the U.S. Consular Office in Hong Kong gave me my permanent residency card and said to me: “James, Happy Birthday!”

From being a shy, clueless foreign student from Hong Kong, I’ve transformed myself into a management consultant advising Fortune 500 companies on how to sell their products in China. My five-year herculean task taught me a lot about how to succeed in America and how to be an assertive public speaker and independent export marketing consultant. I set up my own consultancy in 1983 and I’ve advised more than 100 U.S. firms on how to promote and export their products and services to Asia.

I left Hong Kong in 1971 because I wanted to get a doctoral degree and see the world. I remember the night before I was to leave Hong Kong, I dreamed of being chased after by vampires in Chicago. I cried quietly on my first plane ride from Hong Kong to Chicago. I was afraid of failure but secretly I was excited. A friend from Hong Kong at Chicago let me sleep in his bed because he had noticed that I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. He slept in his own sofa instead.

My mother saw me off at the Hong Kong Airport in 1971. A few months later, she borrowed money from a loan shark to help me pay for Chicago graduate school tuition. I cried uncontrollably in the basement of The Joseph Regenstein Library that evening when I read the Western Union cable about the money. Luckily, from that year on, I was either on scholarship or teaching assistantships throughout my entire graduate school years. I sent money home to my mother every month until she told me to stop decades later.

All of my degrees are in regional and cultural geography. I was fascinated by how countries behave like individuals with their respective unique, quirky personalities and psyche. I love to study them and predict their conduct. It is no coincidence that my clients value my expertise in helping them to read the character of people in China and decode their feelings and motivation.

Even before I forged my own myth at the Cathedral Basilica, I had felt strongly that China and America have very different personalities and value systems. They would need cultural go-betweens like me.

My personal myth and my role as a mediator in business between China and America are documented in my book, Spare Room Tycoon, Succeeding Independently, The 70 Lessons of Sane Self-Employment.

Portrait of James Wah Kong Chan 陈华江移民美国的故事

Translated by Wendy Song,Tianjin, CHINA 天津市宋宏翻译


陈华江博士(James Chan)是美国费城出口市场营销顾问





我走进教堂,向圣徒John Neumann祈祷以寻求指引。之后,我跪下来向上帝祈祷。在沉默中,我向上帝许下誓言:“如果你能帮我拿到绿卡,我会承诺把中国和美国的关系拉得更近。”我在心里写了一个故事,在这个故事里,我可以成为英雄。我锻造了自己的神话。离开教堂的那一刻,我的心感到异常的平静。回家后,我继续手打了500份求职信,向愿意聘用我的美国企业求职。




1971年,母亲在香港赤喇角机场给我送行。几个月后,为了帮助我支付芝加哥研究生院的学费,她从一个高利贷者那里借钱。当我收到关于这笔钱的电报的那天晚上,我在芝加哥大学的Joseph Regenstein图书馆的地下室里不由自主地哭了。幸运的是,从那一年起,在读书生涯中,我就一直能拿到奖学金或助教工作。此后,我每个月都把钱寄给母亲,直到几十年后她告诉不用再给她寄钱为止。



我的个人神话故事以及我在中国和美国之间的商业中介角色都记录在我的书中,这本书就是《创业大亨》Spare Room Tycoon。这本书包含了我如何自己做老板的70堂课。

2015年6月25-28日,费城的Crane Arts展览馆举办了一个名为“迁徙的人们的肖像”展。这个展览通过用自己的话讲述了《费城移民》的故事。

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.

Portrait of Luis Castro

“I couldn’t transfer my architecture degree to the US, so I worked as a delivery driver for a fish company.”

34. IMG_0423Photo by Jennifer Baker

I came here in 2007 from Huancayo, Peru.

I got a degree in architecture in 2002, and worked for several years in my hometown. I met my wife there; she went to Peru for vacations, and to learn Spanish before going to medical school in Boston. After dating her for couple of months, we got married. She is from Ithaca, New York, so when we got married, her mother and two of her best friends came to Peru for the wedding and then she returned to start school. I came six months later in December after finalizing all the legal paperwork to obtain the American visa and the green card. After spending three years in the United States, I became an American citizen.

When I arrived in the US, I didn’t speak any English. I learned most of my English from talking to my wife and friends, and asking questions of them; also, I went to the Boston Public Library for English classes and conversation group meetings. When I was confident enough, I went to the University of Massachusetts to take ESL classes for six months. I couldn’t transfer my architecture degree to the US, so I worked as a delivery driver for a fish company, delivering to restaurants for almost two years.

In 2010 we moved to the Philadelphia area because my wife got a residency at Christiana Hospital in Delaware. I enrolled at Delaware Country Community College for two years to study engineering while also working at Genuardis as a delivery driver. Then I transferred to Drexel University to continue my work, and ultimately become a mechanical engineer. Once I’m done with school at Drexel, I will move to Boulder, Colorado—I’m interested in the aerospace and energy engineering.

If I was here with my family I may have more of my own culture. But since I married an American girl I got used to American culture. I’m Catholic because my parents were but it’s not a big part of my life. I lived in Huancayo—a big city in the mountains. When I was leaving we had a big dinner with my family. My mom cooked several special meals. For lunch she made ceviche, for dinner, roasted cuy (guinea pig) with spices, yellow rice and potatoes. I drank beer with my father, brother, and friends before I had to go to Lima’s airport. I drove for five hours with my parents to the airport where we hug, kiss, and say goodbye before my departure.

In architecture school, I studied American cities so when I arrived here it wasn’t very different. Even though I lived in a high altitude place in Peru, I had never seen snow falling down, so when I was in Boston, it was very exciting for me to see snow. The food here was very different. I’m not a good fan of fast food, instead I cook myself Peruvian food: meat, potatoes and different spices. My mother taught me how to cook when I was a child. My mother went to Argentina for two years when I was young so she taught me to cook for my brother while she was away and my dad was working.

I’m used to the American culture, and have several friends here, so I would rather be here now. However, during my first half year here, I wanted to go back because I missed my family and my culture. I worked for four years in Peru as an architect and here I couldn’t get a job. It was pretty frustrating. Looking back I had to put in a huge effort to fit in here, with lots of support from my wife, my family, and her family. I have accomplished many of the goals that I had when I arrived here.

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 in June 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.

Portrait of S.N. Nyeck

“I never idealized the United States and I never idealized my own country. My sense of place and belonging remain with me.”43. Nyeck-9797

S.N. Nyeck, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at Clarkson University.

I was not planning to leave Cameroon. I had never really envisioned myself living in the U.S.; it was an accident in a way. I was a student of law, but I had to leave my legal studies at the age of twenty-three because I became involved in a legal case as the plaintiff. A family member of mine was a victim of rape when she was ten years old, although she had a mental age of about two as a result of Down Syndrome. I brought the issue to the attention of the court because I suspected the perpetrator was a family member. I won the case, only for it to be appealed soon after on the grounds that as a lesbian I hated all men and so had reason to bring this case to light. Under Cameroon law, the minimum for rape sentence if found guilty is fifteen years but with the aggravating circumstance of incest he should have gotten life in prison. This maximum sentence was not necessarily what I wanted but it was the law. During the first round, he was sentenced to twenty years. With the appeal he was again found guilty of all charges, but given five years. This was a violation of the penal code, but it made political sense. With the president’s annual address, he would grant amnesty to prisoners with sentences of five years or less. My life was threatened by the perpetrator, which led me to seek asylum in the U.S.

I had travelled to the U.S once before, visiting for three months, but I had not imagined returning to live here. I learned about the U.S. through reading; I would go to the U.S. Embassy Cultural Center to check out books in English. French was my first language. Martin Luther King, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou—what I admired was that the U.S. was a place where one could voice an opinion and run the risk of being shot. I thought that was amazing. I felt that I was living in a society where the very imagination of any struggle was forbidden and thought was suppressed before it could be conceived. It is a bit paradoxical that I would say that, but to me the U.S. was never an idealistic or ideal place to live. It was a place where struggle could happen, albeit a risky one. That was my vision of the United States.

When I arrived here in 2003 I stayed with the family of the editor of a journal I had been writing for: A Globe of Witness. I wrote a column titled, Colors of Conscience. I was writing mostly online personal reflections, trying to organize some debate on queer issues in Africa without being harassed. The editor and his family lived in New York. As a result of this relationship I became connected to the President of LaGuardia Community College who awarded me a Presidential Scholarship to facilitate enrollment. They had a great program called Exploring Transfer which took Community College students taking honors courses to a four-year college, in my case Vassar, for immersion. Following this I applied to top schools and decided to go to Swarthmore College where I studied political science and comparative literature.

I was granted asylum in April 2004. When granted asylum, one cannot return to the country of origin. Once asylum is granted one technically becomes stateless, a person under protection of another state. When I left Cameroon, I left behind my family, key among whom was my maternal grandmother. She said, “I hope I will see you again.” I used to receive a portrait of her each year; that was something that kept me going. She really stood by me, we were very close. I vividly remember that day not knowing where I was going but believing that my family was going to be with me in spirit. During the years I couldn’t travel back, I lost my grandma and it was very difficult. I was not there to say goodbye to her. In 2011 I returned and visited her grave. Doing so gave me the closure I needed to fully settle into my new homeland.

If you ask me, I wouldn’t say I have experienced cultural shock as such, with the exception of seeing homelessness displayed so prominently. Coming from a place where, compared to the U.S., people are poor, and seeing someone my age not having a roof, it was just mind-boggling. Conversely, I was very lucky to be mentored by people in academia who were critical thinkers themselves. This nurtured a vision of the U.S. as a place of freedom of thought—one doesn’t have to be right but one is afforded the right of expression. Paradoxically, the more I live in this country, I come to the realization that most of the U.S. is actually anti-intellectual and not as open as one might assume. But in the classroom, people are allowed to grow and think in a totally different environment.

Aside from these differences, Cameroon is similar to the U.S. socio-cultural attitudes towards gender—sexuality and politics are controversial. Nevertheless in the typical daily life sexuality is constantly being negotiated. Unlike the U.S., however, legally, Cameroon still criminalizes same-sex relations. According to some human rights groups, Cameroon now has a higher detention rate of queer people, whereas in other places such as Uganda, much publicized cases do not necessarily lead to longer detention time.

Like most people I live in two different worlds, many different places, but I wouldn’t say it is a clash of cultures. I never idealized the United States and I never idealized my own country. My sense of place and belonging remain with me.

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.

Portrait of Sally Li Mai

“When I heard I passed the visa application I was so excited I was crying. I’d dreamed of coming to America since I was three years old.”

Sally Li Mai is a massage therapist and a tai chi master.

35. IMG_0425I was born in 1968 in Taishan, a small city in Guangdong province in southern China. My sister Na came here first in 1986. She became a citizen in 1991. My parents came in 1992, and they, too, became citizens. On April 3, 2003, I came here. I’d had to wait nine years longer for a visa. My other sister and two brothers came at the same time. It’s not easy to come to America, it’s really hard. My parents wanted us all to come, but it took a long time. My parents and sister now live two blocks away from each other in Northeast Philadelphia.

When I heard I passed the visa application I was so excited I was crying. I’d dreamed of coming to America since I was three years old. I missed my family who were here already. I didn’t want to stay in China. Two days after I got my visa, I left.

I landed in New York at Kennedy airport. My sister and friend came to pick me up. New York was so beautiful. Wow. I was so excited. I thought, “I am free!” I came to America. I felt like a bird in a cage set free.

In China, my then husband and I owned a successful company selling home improvement supplies, and I was a tai chi master. When I came here I worked in a factory and lived in my parents’ house, sharing a bedroom with my sister. Then I left the factory to work at Dunkin Donuts for four years. That’s where I started to learn English.

When I first got married in China, I was so unhappy. My first husband’s family was not nice to me. But I moved back to marry him, so my son could come here. I needed my husband to bring my son. I did not want to stay married but I sponsored them both to come here. My son was twelve when he came to America. He lives with his dad. Before we got married, we fell in love, but then he hit me. He kept secrets from me. I hated him and his family. I called my mom. She said bring him and come to America. I would do anything for my son. He was born in 1996.

After I came to America in 2003, every year I stayed one month in China to be with my son. My son and husband lived in his parent’s house. I didn’t want my son to forget about me. After they came to America, my husband and son lived with my parents for one year and then moved out. We got a divorce. He tells my son your mother is not good woman, not good mother. My son listened to him more than me. They were lucky that I brought them here.

I am so guilty I did not tell my son the whole story. They came in 2008. When we got divorced, we agreed to share custody. But then my husband hired a lawyer to go to family court. I worked at Dunkin Donuts and had little money. We shared custody but I had to pay child support to him.

When my parents first came here, my mom and dad were in their sixties, and worked sewing in a factory in Chinatown. My dad, in China, had a good business. He was the president of a chemical factory, in the city of Guangzhou. My mom thought they would work two years here and then retire.

Mom got me the factory job. I cried every day the first year I came here. I told my mom I wanted to go back, I didn’t want to stay here. It was such a hard life. I stood up working twelve hours a day, working Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I went to school to learn English Monday through Thursday. I got up at 4:30 to work from 6:30 AM to 7:30 PM for a year. After a year, I traded my factory job to go work at Dunkin Donuts. I worked at 15th and Chestnut for four years and met all kinds of people. I had never seen black people before. I quit Dunkin Donuts in 2008. I got a license as a massage therapist and started my own business. I had studied traditional Chinese medicine massage in China.

When I first came here, in Northeast Philadelphia, I did tai chi in my parents’ front yard. My sister and parents told me not to do this outside. They wanted to fit in and seem American. My neighbors liked tai chi and wanted me to teach them, but my sister was afraid and told me not to take any money.

In China, it is a very different culture. In America, I have freedom and I feel comfortable. In China I was scared. I gave up my Chinese citizenship. My tai chi master said, “You will find an American husband.” When I was a child, my mom took me to a fortuneteller. She said, “You will have two husbands.”

I do not see my son and that makes me very sad. I can see him only every two weeks. I hope when he goes to college and moves out of his father’s house, we will be closer. When my son was born, I was very weak and sick. When I took my son to kindergarten I went to the park to exercise because my doctor told me to. I met my tai chi master and learned tai chi and began to feel much better. Tai chi saved my life and keeps me in good health.

I met Steve when I worked at Dunkin Donuts. He was nice and very patient. He would spell words for me so I could look them up. In China, I had lots of friends and no one had the same birthday. But Steve and I had the same birthday. I fell in love with him. Steve invited me to his art show. I didn’t know what it was. I had to translate the invitation and then I knew he was an artist, a sculptor.

The first time they met Steve, my family said no because he is older than me. But now they know we are happy. Then on July 27 for my birthday my whole family went to dinner in Chinatown. I invited him to come to the party. Nobody spoke English but he came, and it was both of our birthdays. Then Steve invited me to the art museum. That’s my love story in America. In 2010 I became a citizen. I had to learn American history to take a test. I’m happy here in America.

Photo by Jennifer Baker

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 in June 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.