Portrait of David U’Prichard

“At New Year 1972 … we’re driving through the night in this big, old car and listening to AM radio. I still remember the station call letters, WLW Cincinnati, WLS Chicago. That you could go for hundreds of miles traveling long, long straight roads, Interstate 70. I’d never seen a road that goes on for a thousand miles. And I’m thinking, “Oh boy, this is America” and it was all the little kid’s fantasies of the space and the distance.”

David in Turkey 2006.jpgPhoto by Lisa U’Prichard

My father’s father emigrated from Northern Ireland to Glasgow in Scotland where I was born and spent the first 20 years of my life. My mother was German and she and my dad met in 1945 when she was 19. It was the end of the war – my father was a captain in the British Army during the occupation – and he had to find an English-speaking secretary. So he interviewed a whole variety of young girls and he liked my mother. Well obviously, he liked my mother’s looks, but also she was really, really smart and she spoke decent English. My dad brought her to Scotland a year later. Eventually she ended up going back to college and teaching.

So there was immigration on both sides, which gave me a feeling of “well, I’m not exactly rooted here.” There’s more to that. I had to defend my mother’s honor as a kid in Scotland after the War when feelings still ran high, and kind of got beaten up quite a few times. When I was 22, I immigrated to London like all little Scottish boys with any sense — because the opportunity there is so much greater. I was going to grad school at University College London, and I met this American girl, Eleuthera (Terri), who ended up being my first wife. Terri’s father was an American spy, and her mother a young French resistance fighter, then living in Istanbul. We fell in love, and I got a bee in my bonnet about going to America.

How do I describe my immigration? Well, I was not a refugee. It wasn’t even for economic reasons at all. I was a hippie. I didn’t care where I landed in America. I thought, “Okay, I just want to go there and experience it”. I expected to finish my PhD degree in a couple of years and then we’d go back to Britain. Well, that didn’t happen.

I said to Terri, “Where should we go?” She said, “Why not Kansas?” She grew up as a little girl in Florida, but she somehow wended her way — she was a hippie too — to Kansas and she worked in the KU Pharmacy School in Lawrence. I said, “Why not?” Terri and I meanwhile got married in the summer of 1971 in Scotland and all of her tribe came from America and Istanbul. The mother, the mother’s young fourth husband the artist, Terri’s sister and younger brother, and their spouses. They all looked really, really strange in the Scottish setting. My mother and father were startled, but game.

So I told my dad in the fall of 1971, “Well, I’m actually not very happy down in London, I want to go to the States.” I told him that I was going to go to Kansas and his response was, “Well, watch out for the Indians.” And he was a serious, well-educated man, and that was not a joke. Foreign perceptions of America can be really strange at times.

I was a student. Terri wasn’t earning a lot of money. We kind of tilted that university stuff off so that we could work part-time in a bar in London to save up a few hundred pounds to get on a ship because we couldn’t afford airfares or anything like that.

We did work in a strange little bar for six months. It was a bar for Australians in London, just around the corner from the Australian Embassy. In Australia, they had just changed their liquor laws. It used to be — the bars were only open for one hour, five until six. And so, young Aussie boys and girls would go to the bar at five o’clock and they would drink like a fish for one hour, and get totally smashed. The bar was run by a flamboyant, gay manager and it was raucous every night. And in the middle of the flower fights and tossing cans of Aussie lager, a kind of point of stillness was a little old, English lady who came in every night and sat nursing a small glass of sherry for five hours.

We saved up some money and got a passage on a very famous old ship called the Stefan Batory, a Polish ship named after the Prince of Transylvania. It had seen service as a troup ship in World War II. The ship left Gdańsk in Poland with 700 Poles heading to relatives in Toronto and Chicago, and stopped in Southampton to pick up a few British people.

My father drove Terri and me from Glasgow, Scotland down to Southampton in the south of England. That was then a long 10-hour drive and we superficially chatted but there was a great weight in the air – not great sadness, that would be too strong – but a weight in the air that something was irrevocably changing.

We made our way to the docks in Southampton. I still remember my father standing very straight at the end of the pier — he had good posture from his army days — stoically waving to us as the boat left. I was excited about this whole adventure about coming to America. And my father was happy for me, but also sad because he knew he was losing me. My mother had a far more balanced view of things because she had done this, separated herself from her country and her family and now she was seeing me do the same. It weighed less heavily with her. I’m not saying she took it lightly but unlike my dad, who I could tell was infused with feelings of loss. She was more hardheaded about it, saying, “Okay, he’s taken off on his adventure.” My dad died in the mid ‘90s at the age of 86. He was a strong father and I left him when I was 20. We never were tremendously close after that. I was always closer to my mother, but 3,000 miles distance over decades loosens ties.

This was December 1971. The ship was going to Montreal so we sailed across the North Atlantic and then down the Saint Lawrence River. December, you start to get icebergs, so we’re kind of all a little nervous about the icebergs. That was a very riotous week of sailing. All the Poles drank a lot of vodka, danced a lot of polkas, and threw up over the side of the boat a lot between drinking bouts. I learned to play bingo in Polish but I could never win because I couldn’t remember the numbers in Polish fast enough.

So, halfway across the Atlantic, I was a smoker in those days, I’m up on the deck and I’m sharing a cigarette with the only American on the boat, a nice fellow. I’m telling him my life story and about heading to Kansas and he says, “Well, I guess your first stop is going to be with your local draft board.” And I said, “Do what?”

I had gotten a green card already in London. It was a whole lot easier in those days if you were married to an American, but it wasn’t plain sailing, I had to go to the U.S. Embassy in London maybe half a dozen times, getting seriously interviewed. And I remember one time, some embassy attaché or whatever — with a three-ringed binder and he flips it open and he looks me in the eye and he says, “Look at these pages. Are you or have you ever been a member of any of these organizations?” I came from a left-wing family and had seen the McCarthy hearings in TV when I was little. I’m thinking, “Holy moly!”

What I had no sense then was that green card holders were eligible for the draft. So I said to myself — I said if I get a number lower than 200, I’m out of here. Well. I got a 280.

Coming over, I had $200 in my pocket from working at the bar. We had one steamer trunk that was full of kitchen utensils, pots and pans and some clothes. That was all we had. I was going to Kansas on the vague prospect that I might get a teaching assistant job. Nothing was guaranteed at all but I didn’t care.

The boat made it to Quebec City, and we got on the Greyhound Bus to Columbus, Ohio to stay with Terri’s sister, a grad student there. Our US port of entry was Detroit. So, we get to the bus station in downtown Detroit at about one o’clock in the morning and we have a three-hour layover before the next bus to get to Columbus. That was the only point where I said, “I might turn around” because the Detroit bus station in 1971 in the middle of the night was a not very nice place to be at all.

In Columbus, I spent 125 bucks out of that 200 getting a ‘62 Buick Electra station wagon. It was a wonderful old thing, only five cylinders worked. It was all black, about 23 feet long, with fins. Already it was almost 10 years old and not in good shape, but it was big, lots of chrome, red velour interior and power everything – windows, steering, brakes; you could just rotate the red steering wheel with one finger. I had never seen this before! And the reason that we got that big station wagon was basically to hold the steamer trunk. I sold it the following spring for $75.

We spent about a month in Columbus. To make some money, I tried telephone sales but my Scottish accent was too strong. I had no luck at all. As soon as they heard me, they said, “No, you’re not going to make it in sales.” For a few days, I did get up looking for manual labor at four o’clock in the morning and this was a really cold winter. I didn’t have a lot of luck with that either. In fact I had no luck. Terri was doing better because she got a job at the local Polish Men’s Club in Columbus, waiting tables. That Christmas we spent dancing polkas, and I will admit that in the backroom there, that’s where my daughter Zoë got conceived.

At New Year 1972, we got in the car heading off from Columbus to Lawrence, Kansas. That is still a magical moment – we’re driving through the night in this big, old car and listening to AM radio. And I still remember the station call letters, WLW Cincinnati, WLS Chicago. That you could go for hundreds of miles traveling long, long straight roads, Interstate 70. I’d never seen a road that goes on for a thousand miles. And I’m thinking, “Oh boy, this is America” and it was all the little kid’s fantasies of the space and the distance. So we get to Lawrence, Kansas, very charming collage town, a bit of a hippie hotbed at that time.

I was able to resume my studies. We couldn’t afford normal housing so we lived in a 60 by 12 foot trailer on the bad side of town. The previous owner of the trailer had thrown an ax at his wife right in the trailer. We couldn’t afford to fix the hole from the ax, so we just hung a picture over it. It did let in a lot of wind. And then a year later, we graduated to a 14 by 70 trailer and finally to an apartment before we left Lawrence.

So in Kansas, I like to tell people I learned to sail. How do you learn to sail in Kansas? Well, back in the Roosevelt era, the Army Corps of Engineers, as part of the WPA project, damned all of these rivers, and it created large lakes. You needed to watch out for the tornadoes and stuff, but you can sail. I’d never done that before. I learned to ride horseback, and I’d never done that before either. I would do those three years in Kansas all over again. It was like parachuting into the most American America that you could imagine. Kansans are absolutely wonderful people. They were really, really curious about me. They didn’t see a lot of foreigners back then.

I learned that I had to consciously modify my English. They’d say, so polite, “Excuse me, sir. Could you repeat that? Can you say that again?” They wanted me to take the TOEFL test, the Test of English as a Foreign Language. That insulted me. I considered myself very well read. My father especially spoke English beautifully. He knew all the big words, knew how to use them. So, TOEFL, you got to be kidding me.

The intention had been to be there for two or three years, wrap up the degree and go back. But life happened and my daughter came along very soon in Lawrence. Little by little, we stayed. I finished my PhD in pharmacology. I wanted to do a post-doc and — it was a real shot in the dark, but I applied to some very famous laboratories in area of neuroscience and a famous neuroscientist named Sol Snyder at the Johns Hopkins Medical School out of the blue said, “Yeah, okay. Why don’t you come?”

We lived in Baltimore for three years. In 1978, I got an academic faculty job at Northwestern University in Chicago, and my son Gavain was born. During the 70s, we were able to save money to go back to Europe in the summers, two or three times, to see our folks in Scotland and Greece.

Five years in Chicago as a tenured associate professor, I was doing fine. I had students and visiting scientists in the lab and grants from the NIH. But, I wasn’t satisfied. Actually I liked the teaching and research and I loved Chicago. I got into the Chicago Blues. I could even tolerate the weather and we saw some heavy duty winters about then. It was the narrowness of the academic career. I kind of had a crisis and said to myself, “I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I don’t like what I’m doing now.”

So I went in to my department chairman, a famous scientist, old-school Japanese, Toshio Narahashi. I said to Toshio, “I am resigning my faculty position.” He said, “Where you going?” I said, “I don’t know.” And I’ll never forget what he said. He said, “David, you are a samurai” and I didn’t quite know what he meant then, but now I fully understand what it meant. And I think now that was a perfect response.

My old mentor Sol Snyder called me up and said, “I’m starting a company. I have money to start a biotech company.” This was the beginning of biotechnology. “Do you want to come back to Baltimore to help?” Sadly, Terri and I, with the strains and stresses of married life, not much money, were separating. And I said to Sol, “Yeah, I can come back.”

Terri and I were separating — I was going to Baltimore and she was staying in Chicago. I got this call from my laboratory and it’s a woman, Lisa Swerdloff, a freelance medical and science writer hired by the new company, who said she wants to interview me. She said, “Can I interview you over the phone?” And so, we conducted this interview and I got totally schizophrenic because a part me was very professional and was giving her the story and the other part of me was saying, “This is one sexy voice.” I am a romantic, and I imagine this young New York freelance reporter girl with a kind of smoky sexy Lauren Bacall voice. So I said, “This is not working. Get the first flight out of LaGuardia to O’Hare tomorrow morning so that we can finish it off in person,” and she did. We continued the interview and both of us realized we didn’t want this to stop. The rest is history. I brought her to Baltimore and here we are 34 years later, happily married.

Fast forwarding in my career, from 1983 to 1986 I helped set up Sol’s company. I then got attracted to one of the big pharmaceutical companies that was based in Wilmington, Delaware. We get in our car, Lisa and I, she is a Manhattan girl, and we’re driving up I-95 and the job is in Wilmington but we don’t stop, and we get to Philadelphia. We turned off in Society Hill and Lisa’s looking around here and she’s saying, “I like this,” and so we ended up here.

I had a career with two pharmaceutical companies. Starting at Wilmington, running the US R&D of a British company called ICI Pharmaceuticals, nowadays AstraZeneca. In 1990, my English boss told me that he wanted me to come to England, what they call a secondment, like a sabbatical – we want you over here.

It was supposed to be for two years. It ended up being four and a half years, didn’t make Lisa terribly happy but it was a good career step. We moved to England in 1991 and until then for 20 years I had said to myself that when I was old and grey, I would go back to Scotland. I felt sentimental about that. But actually moving back to Britain after having been away for 20 years, it had changed a lot and I didn’t empathize with it. It would be too strong to say, “I didn’t like it.” But a lot had happened in 20 years and it was quite a changed country. I had lived in America, where I could breathe deeply and the idea of going back late in life to “a tight little island” didn’t appeal.

I had a conscious thought. “No. I do not want to finish my life over there. I’ll stay here.” And that was when I applied for my citizenship. I had had the green card for 20 years, and I became a citizen in 1992. It was a very conscious decision at that time.

I moved in the late ‘90s to SmithKline Beecham, another Anglo-American company, now GSK. I have always been happiest having a foot on either side of the pond. It felt psychologically right.

Although I never wanted to go back to live, I actually kept my UK passport. In those days, the Americans were pretty strict. You were supposed to relinquish your old country passport but they didn’t look over your shoulder. The UK passport turned out handy because I could travel all over Europe and the airport lines are shorter! Now that all may change with Brexit. But perhaps Scotland will become independent and stay in Europe. I’m up for that.

Zoë and Gavain, my children, they of course see themselves as Americans, but they have a wider perspective on things. I don’t know if that will last through the next generation. I know second, third generation immigrants generally — people lose their ties to the old country.

When my mother in the fall of 2005 called me up to say she’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had six months to live, I dropped everything I was doing here to go back to her and I spent the last five months that she had with her. That was not only a deep immersion into our relationship, but a deep immersion back into Scotland, the Scotland of my youth, because I was dealing with things; I was not just passing through as a tourist or for a day or two. That was probably is the most intensely emotional period of my life. She died away from her original home and I had come from my new home back to her.

I’m very clear about where I want to be, which is right here. But I also feel myself quite European and on occasion, sentimentally pretty Scottish. I can also feel quite German as well and I’ve wrestled with that part of my heritage and having a Jewish wife.

When people think about immigrant stories, there’s a simple motto, “We came from the old country, country A and we move to America,” black and white. But because of my personal life and family, I’m very, very attuned to layers. So I’m Scottish, I’m British, I’m Irish, I’m German, I’m American, my wife is Russian and American. My ex-wife is French and American.

Nobody, at least nobody in the first generation, becomes 100% American. The melting pot is a myth.

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 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!

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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.”

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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 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.

Photo: Jennifer Baker

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

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.

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 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.”

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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.

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.

Photo: Jennifer Baker

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_0462cOne 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 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 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_0662I 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 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.