SF Counseling Center

Mi Abuelita, the Canaries of Telegraph Hill and Immigration

On this twentieth anniversary of her passing, this reflection on immigration is dedicated to my grandmother.

Mi Abuelita and Immigration

My grandmother migrated from Central America in her twenties. Coming from privilege, she was unprepared for the hostility to non-native English speakers she encountered.  Circumstances were such that she stayed, got married and had a child.  However, her longing for her native land, her “home” was never fully resolved.

Growing up, and being partially raised by my grandparents, I heard many stories of events, family and even everyday life in Central America.  I got to feel connected, but I was also struggling against an as-of-yet unnamable simultaneous sense of disconnectedness. I enjoyed hearing about the beautiful birds – parakeets with bright plumage, quetzals with long tails and other exotic birds (here, we had only seagulls, pigeons, robins and the occasional hummingbird).  I tried to imagine the delicious exotic fruits she described, banana trees with leaves so large you could use one as an umbrella, and volcanoes in the landscape.  I had no idea how even the ground we stood upon and the air we breathed could be so different, but this was explained by my grandmother as she described how the air felt different, heavier and thicker (more humid).  She talked about privilege, racism, classism, the process of immigration and the structure of Central American society.  She talked about how formal her parents were and how much she loved the nanny who raised her.  I think it was difficult for her to talk much about how she felt different.


Some of the details of her story were, of course, unique to my grandmother.  Nonetheless, some things are more universal.  One common experience is the ongoing sense of loss.  No matter how well you adjust, you always have an accent. You may not look like the majority population.  The sky is different, the air is different, and the people look different. Another common experience, if one has an accent, people (often) assume you are stupid (rather than understanding how much more is entailed in operating in two or more languages). Certainly, there are repeated and numerous examples of overt aggression, xenophobia, racism and other forms of prejudice.  There are also, repeatedly, more subtle forms of aggression known as microaggressions, microinsults, and microinvalidations.  As Derald Wing Sue explains, they are “unknown to the perpetrator; hidden insulting message to the recipient of color” (or any other person who is disadvantaged).  This latter group, think they are friendly, supportive or at least benign but their microaggressions betray their prejudice (akin to how a passive-aggressive person’s aggression slips out unconsciously and is unknown to them). Sometimes even a well-intentioned person inadvertently reminds the immigrant ‘they do not belong’ – “Oh, you have an accent!  Where are you from?” (can also be read as “You are not one of us”).
Another common experience for immigrants is downward mobility.  This might seem like a strange statement in the tech capital of the world.  However, many of the people around us, who seem invisible – retail clerks, people working at a gas station or perhaps waiting tables – often were quite accomplished in their home countries.  There are many, many stories, for example, of physicians or engineers whose degree from another country (even graduate degrees), are not accepted.  Another common story is that the technical language of the licensing exam (difficult for native speakers) is prohibitively hard for a person who needs to gain employment soon to support themselves and perhaps a family.  Whereas we think of America as the land of opportunity (and undoubtedly it is), this is not the same for every person.  The downward mobility is not unique to America, this appears to be common amongst cultures, but those of us who were born here, tend not to realize this phenomenon.
The immigrant often becomes a person in between two cultures.  If they stay long enough in the new culture, they do not participate in the daily happenings ‘at home.’  Relationships/marriages are formed or dissolved; children are born and grow up, people die, childhood places change, and even the language (often the slang first) changes. You are still family, but eventually, you or perhaps your children are seen as ‘American’ vs. ‘(whatever is one’s country of origin).’ At the same time, certainly, the immigrant is aware of not fully feeling at home in the new country (and often to some degree this is true of their children and sometimes grandchildren). At some point, both places are ‘kind of’ home, and neither is fully home.  Some of this is certainly improved with the advent of things like Skype and social media.  While it was worse when one came to this country with a steamer trunk (a wooden cube) filled with their life’s possessions, and there was only mail or expensive international phone calling, there are still losses even in relationships maintained with current technology.

Parakeets of Telegraph Hill

Sometime about 20 years ago, someone (in San Francisco) either released a couple of parakeets or they escaped.  They have subsequently adapted and proliferated. While the cool dryness of San Francisco is not much like the warm, humid areas from which they came and there are very few tropical fruits growing in San Francisco, some how they have adapted. They don’t look anything like the other birds. They don’t sound anything like the other birds.  However, they have adapted and made our City a bit more colorful and more cheerful.
For the past few years, the Parakeets of Telegraph Hill, have taken up residence in the six eucalyptus trees just outside my office. Sometimes they are very active, and you can hear them squawking to each other in what seems to be a very compelling and social manner.  They are rarely visible in the trees, but once in a while a flock – seemingly nearly 100 parakeets – fly around, look for food and disappear back into the eucalyptus trees. Despite being bright green, with red faces, they blend in perfectly with the silvery green foliage of the trees. Parenthetically, the trees are from Australia, and the woman who planted them was a descendant of people who were forcibly taken from Africa.  She ran a hub of the underground railroad on the same location as our offices.
Our culture is largely made up of immigrants.  Somehow we adapt, there are losses, and there are gains.  Our culture adapts, and we adapt – although both do not happen simultaneously. Therein lies the rub, there is often a tension between these two.  Sometimes, in between clients, I listen to the parakeets, and I think about the stories my grandmother told me. I think about the complexity of her relationship with living here and the ways in which she did and did not adapt (my grandmother used Spanglish and seemingly mangled some English words to better fit her sensibility and perhaps to have something on her terms).  I imagine the parakeets with their unique squawk, their adaptation to a cooler climate and non-native diet and how they may have adapted/not adapted.  For me, there is a bitter-sweet memory of someone to whom I felt very close but also was aware of a gap due to our lack of shared experiences.
‘dios abuelita, chiquitita, que linda, que linda!