Upon the conclusion of Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month, associate attorney Elena Diaz reflects on her own immigrant story, and what her experience means to her now as a full-time attorney.
by associate attorney Elena Diaz
I came to the U.S. on my own on August 16, 1997, as an international student (with an F-1 visa) to study English (ESL). I was 22 years old and coming here was a lifelong dream. There are some immigrants that never thought of coming to the U.S. but find themselves here because of job opportunities. There are others who love their native countries but are forced to come here to provide for their families. Then, there are some who always dreamed of going to the U.S.
By the time I graduated high school, my country, Argentina, was going through a crisis. One of the major differences between the U.S. and Latin American countries is the opportunity for financial mobility. Back home, if you are not from a well-off family, and don’t have connections and money, you may have a very hard time even moving out of your parent’s house. Studying and going to school is very hard because finding steady employment can be difficult. For a working-class person, the chances of being able to move up socially and financially are almost none.
I always knew I wanted to travel and come to the United States. I told my mom I wanted to come study here, and to my surprise, she had been saving money her entire life so she had enough to pay for my college tuition at a community college. I was incredibly lucky that at that time, the peso and the dollar were equal, (1 to 1). Only two years later, this would have been impossible to do due to Argentina’s economic crisis.
An acquaintance of my mother who lived in the Bay Area went to visit colleges and advised us of the best one to study English. My mother’s friend visited host families to make sure I would be safe. When it was time, I came here with a visa, and my new host mother picked me up at the airport. I was blessed. I am grateful that my mother was able to give me the opportunity for a better life.
However, I soon found that living here on my own was hard. My host family did not speak Spanish. This was great to help me to adjust and learn English, but it was hard on me socially. One day I was back home, and the next day I was in Marin County, one hour away from San Francisco. I did not know anyone. I used to call my mother from a payphone and cry. The homesickness was intense. It was my biggest heartbreak. My mom and I use to write each other letters every day (no email back then!). I still have folders full of letters from her. Being here was exciting, San Francisco was beautiful. But I was alone and I missed my family and friends.
We never think about how much of who we are is based on our home, our culture, our language, and our nationality. We take it for granted. When you are an immigrant, you lose it all. You realize everything takes work. Even going to the supermarket is challenging. You are like a little child in the body of an adult. People look at you expecting you to speak the language perfectly and fit in, but you are still learning everything.
Even though my homesickness was emotionally shattering, meeting other immigrants that were undocumented and without English language skills made me realize that I was blessed. I had a perfect immigrant history. I came here with a visa, I had a host family waiting for me, and I was going to school. Even though I did not have extra money for shopping or activities, my needs were met. A couple of years later, at UC Davis, I became a research assistant for a few research projects that focused on the low-income Latino population. On campus, I met strawberry pickers–Latinos who felt isolated and did not have the English skills to access free county services. They clearly had a tough life.
When people look at us, Latinos, they put us in the same bag. In reality, we come from different countries, with different histories and cultures. Sometimes, the only thing we share is the language. As an Argentinian, for instance, I had never eaten Mexican food until I got to the U.S. I did not know the struggles of the Mexican community crossing the border or the differences between the Cuban or Dominican communities. I did not know much about the Latino/Hispanic community in the U.S. I was just focused on life back home, but here I suddenly was not seen as an Argentinian but as a Latina or Hispanic. That changed how I identified myself.
Being here in the U.S. opened my eyes to the struggles of other Latino immigrants. This was what inspired me to go to law school and focus on immigration law. I feel when we are privileged, we have a moral obligation to use it to help others, especially those who belong to our same social group but have more difficult lives. As an immigrant and Hispanic woman, who has been blessed with some advantages, it is my goal to use them to help others.
I have been here for 24 years. I went to college, law school, got married, got divorced, moved across the country a couple of times. I do not feel the homesickness I had in my first year being in the U.S., but I cannot say this is home either. I do not belong anywhere. I have an accent in English and in Spanish. Even when I go home, I am asked where I am from. Being an immigrant is the cornerstone of my identity. I learned to use my ability to overcome struggles as my own evidence against self-doubt. It is one of those life experiences that unless you have lived it, you cannot comprehend it at all.
Every immigrant has left their home behind to come to another country and start over. That takes courage and strength, and it deserves our respect and admiration. It makes me so proud to be an immigrant and an immigration lawyer not just during Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month but every month!