We Are More Than Numbers

Quetzal Maucci

2012 - Ongoing

United States; United Kingdom

There are around 20 million adult, American-born children of immigrants living in the United States. I am one of them. I am the daughter of two immigrant mothers from Peru and Argentina. My roots are not directly below me, beneath this ground that I stand on, but instead reach to many parts of the world. I grew up in San Francisco, moving constantly from house to house, sometimes in homes filled with other families. I quickly learned to adapt. I became a traveler, just as my mothers are, and just as many immigrants are travelers whose wandering feet and thoughts are never still.

Technically, I am an American, but that label doesn’t quite seem to fit. For much of my childhood I felt tension between the culture I was immersed in at school and the culture that my mothers kept alive within our home, the one I returned to each night. I ate milanesas and lomo saltado, while my friends at school had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and spoke about their excitement for a holiday I never celebrated, Thanksgiving. I spoke Spanish until I felt too different from others. When I began primarily speaking English, people were shocked whenever they heard a pale girl say, “yo soy latina.” That’s when I started to feel neither South American nor North American. I was stuck in an uncomfortable in-between, a place from which I am still trying to free myself.

In discussions about children of immigrants, scholars often deal with statistics, but rarely with the actual individuals who have their own voices and ideas of identification. We are more than numbers, more than the reports that analyze our educational attainment and economic standing.

This continuing portrait series is inspired by conversations I’ve had with children of immigrants since 2012 between the United States and United Kingdom. The people I met talked about their childhoods and how they defined American and British culture. They reflected on self-identification and the imbalance of cultural identity. And they looked at how the label "children of immigrants" affects the members of that community.

“A lot of the time, being a child of immigrants means constantly having to defend your place as an ‘American,’” said Alex Santana, a Spanish- and Dominican-American. By deconstructing our cultural identities, our childhoods, and the ways in which some people misrepresent us, we are reclaiming our individuality.

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  • “My mom always reminded to be grateful for what I have. I grew up with ‘When I was your age…’ stories describing how my parents had to stand in line for two hours just to receive a loaf of bread during Communist times. Their difficult experiences directly shaped their lives and indirectly shaped my life, because I continue to think about how fortunate I am to live a more comfortable life. Growing up, my mother would encourage us to try new foods from different countries and inspired us to branch outside our culture. However, she also taught us to remember our family background. She would always tell us to ‘live beautifully.’ To her, living beautifully meant receiving a good education, being open to new experiences, and treating everyone with love and dignity. I don’t think I will ever lose my Polish roots, no matter how far away from home I move.”-Anna Sowa, photographed when she was 22 years old. Her parents migrated to the United States from Poland.

  • "I'm proud that my roots are Central American and that the culture has influenced my life, but I feel like a fraud when I call myself Nicaragüense or Salvadoriaña. I remember in middle school there were Latino kids that understood their culture more than I did. And since I didn't speak Spanish they didn't really accept me completely, so my nickname was 'white girl'. The countries and cultures that my parents came from will always be part of me forever. I feel like I’m a part of something else and that there is still more that I need to learn, and everyday I strive to understand myself a little more. I want to stay connected to my roots, but I feel most comfortable calling myself a San Franciscan Latina."-Mandy Linares in her room with her cat. She was 22 years old when this photograph was taken. Mandy is the daughter of Nicaraguan and Salvadoran immigrant parents who moved to the states when they were teenagers.

  • “I am the daughter of a conservative catholic, Asian family. I always tell my parents how I would have loved to speak their native tongue. Their response was that they always wanted me to be American and to speak English. To them, that was an upper hand that most immigrants would want to have. I grew up eating a lot of typical Filipino dishes with Chinese influences. My grandpa would always go down to the farmer’s market to buy a chicken and kill it with his bare hands, so we could have fried chicken or adidas (chicken feet) for dinner. My parents were very strict with family time and my roles within the household. I learned how to do laundry and clean the house by the age of 7. I always tell my mother how much I wish I grew up in the Philippines, and how I wanted to speak their language and cook their food. I fear by the time I have my own family I won’t have any stories to tell my children like- ‘back in my day, I walked 7 miles to get to school in flip flops.’ When I think of my parents, I feel like I have something very special that my children won’t have the knowledge to understand or grasp. I fear that my children won’t have that culture to feel rooted in.”-Dorothy Ann Cayabyab Loyola, photographed when she was 23 years old. Her parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines.

  • "Something that I haven't been able to call my own lately is my last name, just because I feel like I haven't earned it. I feel like religion was lost on me because I ate meat and could never speak my parents' native language, and that was always hard growing up with. I was kind of the black sheep of the family."-Akshai Ajit, 21, the son of Indian parents who migrated to Queens, New York in 1985 and 1988. 

  • “I am exceptionally proud to be the child of immigrants and I feel that we are all children of immigrants in some way. It saddens me that this term would ever carry negative connotations and I have been fortunate enough to never truly experience that form of hatred. I think it's difficult being a child of immigrants and staying connected to your roots- but this is exacerbated when you're from war-torn countries, like myself. Having a multi-national heritage and growing up somewhere different from where either of my parents are from has left me with an unwillingness to fully accept one cultural identity. My identity is that I don’t really have one. I have no real sense of nationalism, as I see the world as one, and I consider myself a part of one world and one human race. I think people my age tend to have identity crises and feel lost. Be what you feel, accept what you are and realise that the choice is yours. I think the world would be a far better place if everyone spent more time understanding that we are all members of one human race sharing one planet. Not only am I a child of immigrants, but a family of immigrants, emigrants and expats.”-Soraya Ali, photographed when she was 23 years old. Her mother was born in Somalia and raised in Italy and her father grew up in Egypt. She grew up in London, United Kingdom.

  • “When others ask, ‘Where are you from?’ I tend to respond with ‘New Jersey.’ Usually, they are never satisfied with that answer because for them, it does not explain why I have the last name I have, why my hair is so conspicuously curly, why my skin is brown, and why I am able to speak Spanish. A lot of the time, being a child of immigrants means constantly having to defend your place as an ‘American.’ It is impossible to not acknowledge that our society is deeply rooted and informed by the experiences of immigrants. The narrative of immigration is such a crucial part of the U.S. national imagination. It took me a long time to truly feel comfortable in my own skin. A lot of the time, it is an alienating and exhausting existence to live between cultures, and the only way to kind of make sense of all that is to try and hold on to what feels right. As long as I always know who I am, then I am satisfied. I hope to never lose that comfort.” -Alex Santana, 21, the daughter of Spanish and Dominican parents who immigrated to the United States.

  • "I grew up with my parents only speaking to me in Italian and would not let my siblings and I speak English at home so that we would maintain our Italian as we started surrounding ourselves more and more with classmates as we grew older. In terms of my identity, I do sometimes think how different my life would have been had I grown up in Italy. I feel sure that my personality would have been shaped very differently if I had been raised there, just as I am sure that it would have been different if my parents were not immigrants. I don’t always think of myself as Italian or American or Italian-American. Oddly enough, when I’m here in the states, I think of myself as a little more Italian, but when I’m in Italy I think of myself as slightly more American. For me, being American has to do with a certain way of life. The New York lifestyle is much more frenetic than the laid-back Italian lifestyle." -Giorgio Ravalli, 22, sitting in one of his favorite bakeries that he would frequent growing up in New York. His family migrated from Italy to the United States.

  • “I place a large emphasis on cultural identity in my life. I feel very comfortable and am proud to call myself Indian, but I think it is very easy to lose touch with your roots when you don't have a community. I have personally experienced that, being a queer, masculine-presenting South Indian person. The number of friendships I have personally cut off due to a fear of rejection, the number of family members I have kept in the dark about my identity, the tension I feel when I step into the Hindu Temple in Flushing, Queens only to have every pair of eyes following my every movement, bewildered by the shaved sides of my head and the patterned button-down I am sporting. I have been able to salvage a connection to my culture by enjoying its food, speaking its language, and playing its music. But as someone who craves human connection, it is difficult to stomach my inability to find accepting community.”-Sruti Swaminathan, photographed when she was 22 years old. She grew up with South Indian parents who migrated to the United States from Madras, India in 1985.

  • "My parents and brother are not just immigrants, they're refugees. They fled from a crumbling empire to a country where they had nothing, carrying only 3 suitcases and a guitar. They never let me forget where I came from, yet they pushed me to plant my roots here. And I have worried about losing my roots. I would not be who I am without my heritage, and I want my children to know where they came from. I do everything to keep learning about my heritage, whether its through speaking Russian regularly, reading literature, or listening to family stories. Funny enough, most of the kids I grew up around were of Russian descent. And oddly enough, I felt a much bigger disconnect with them than I did with any of my American friends. I always felt like the Russian kids didn’t have as much respect for their heritage as I did. I found much more solace being the Russian one among my Puerto Rican, Italian, Polish, Ghanaian and American friends. The amalgamation of cultures and backgrounds made for such a richer experience.”- Sasha Kazachkova, 19, who is the daughter of Russian parents who migrated to the United States.

  • "It is very hard for me to describe myself- on one hand culturally I grew up as an Argentinian, only speaking Spanish at home, watching my soccer team play every week regardless of where I was… nothing makes me feel more at home than eating milanesas and empanadas. But at the same time out of my nearly 20 years being alive I have only lived in Argentina for 3 years. I have missed so many things and I have grown to adapt myself, although not fully- to American culture and customs. I would like to say I feel comfortable calling myself an Argentinian, but every year when I return there I am reminded that I have missed huge cultural changes since I was 9, and as perfect as my Spanish may be, there are always tiny indicators to them that I am not one of them." - Alex Fiszbein, who was 19 at the time this photograph was taken. His parents migrated from Argentina to the United States. He is seen here in his dorm room.

  • "When people meet me, they want to know what culture I come from or where my family is from. They want to put me in a box or assign me a label. So the question of ‘what are you’ has always made me feel defensive of who I am and how I am presented in the world."-Shirley Acuna. She is the daughter of Peruvian parents who migrated to California.

  • "I never thought of myself as a ‘child of immigrants’ per se, as I feel the term comes loaded with undertones of immigrant struggles — the old clichés of coming to a new country with nothing and struggling to assimilate. The truth of the matter is my father came to the United States comfortably with an M.D. from Italy, fluent in English since his youth, and I’m the fourth child to my parents, so by the time I was born they were very well established. The fact that my family has an uncommon culture is evident but I would never disavow my Syrian heritage. I am very proud to be Syrian and it has been very formative in my ideas about religion and political ideology."-Michael Shami, who was 21 at the time this photograph was taken. His parents migrated from Syria and Hungary to the United States. (Painting is by Guillermo Esparza)

  • “I was raised to be proud of my ethnicity, and I have been lucky enough to grow up in a place where I was not persecuted for my origins so I never had a reason to be ashamed. At home it was Iran and outside it was England. It wasn’t difficult to adjust as I stepped through the door. One friend’s house was India and the other’s was Sudan. I grew up in a melting pot of a society. For a year when I was about 16, I went to a school in a predominantly white area. I could feel the difference in culture and for the first time in my life I felt like a minority, but of course no one was mean to me because of my race but it felt different. My mother didn’t understand how anything worked here in England. The school system, the way children went to each other’s houses, the need for independence as we get older. But they are called your roots for a reason. They are the base of who you are, if you get rid of them then everything will come falling down. Being worried about losing your roots will make your culture all that you are, rather than making yourself your own iteration of your origins.”-Yasi Rezai, photographed when she was 20 years old in her childhood home in London, United Kingdom. Her mother immigrated from Iran to the United Kingdom during the late 1990s. The reflection is of a tree in their backyard that Yasi’s grandfather planted before he passed away.

  • “By virtue of being a child of immigrants and by virtue of being an immigrant myself at the young age of 6, I grew up trying to bridge gaps in culture and understanding. And there are quite a few of these gaps. Historically, the countries and cultures that I come from were actually at war with one another. And still, aspects of these different cultures and value systems, Indian, British, American, do clash and come into conflict with one another quite a bit. So, to build these bridges and reconcile these differences wasn’t necessarily always easy. It took time, and required me to ask questions and to really look for and try to see the beauty in the similarities and differences that exist between cultures, between people, between the kinds of lives that different people lead and the values they hold to be true. I think that where you are at the present is the most important, but at the same time it's essential to not let go of where you've been. You should not have to let go of your roots to be a part of American society."-Avnee, photographed when she was 22 years old in her bedroom in New York. Her great-grandparents and grandparents immigrated from India to Kenya. From Kenya, her grandparents and parents immigrated to England, and in 1998, her family immigrated from England to the United States.