Writing the American Immigrant Experience – Achy Obejas

In her story, “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?” Achy Obejas presents a character much like herself relating events familiar to many people who emigrated to America under very difficult circumstances.  The year is 1963 and the narrator, whose story is rooted in the author’s own, has arrived with her family on American shores after being rescued at sea by a ship that came to their aid when the boat carrying them from Cuba is destroyed.   But when the narrator looks back on her passage as an adult, it is not the peril she remembers.  Instead, she remembers the sweater she wore and the immigration officer who interviewed her parents.  And, most importantly, she remembers how she found her own identity in America and how that identity formed an ever-widening gap between her and her parents.   In that sense, her story is a very common one.  There is always a generational gap between parents and children.  But that gap becomes a canyon when the parents have their roots in another culture.

But while this gap is at the center of this story, it is not at the center of Ms. Obejas’ larger body of work.  The characters in her stories are diverse and represent all of the various ways in which individuals can identify themselves.  They include gay and straight people, men and women, immigrants, children of immigrants, troubled souls and troubled soulmates.  All are observers of and participants in the drama unfolding around them.  Many of Ms. Obejas’ characters, wherever they may have been born, are who they are because they live in America.

The question of identity is at the heart of the American immigrant experience.  Those who came to America from another land and culture struggle with the idea of being an American and often find it difficult to give up the ways that sustained them in their previous lives.  Indeed, the father of the narrator in the aforementioned story still considers himself Cuban and, unlike many immigrants, even holds out hope of returning to his native land one day.  The children of immigrants often grow up wanting to let go of their old ways completely and show little or no interest in the cultures of their parents.  All children want to fit in.  To the child of an immigrant, that often means identifying himself or herself as an American.

And it is the question of identity that, in many ways, defines America as a nation.  Many of the characters in Ms. Obejas’s stories come from countries where their personal choices were constrained and their identities were defined by forces outside of themselves.   The freedom to discover one’s own identity is perhaps America’s chief claim to greatness.  In our time, when Americans are wrestling with issues of immigration and of what makes America great, perhaps we can find some answers in the stories of the people who chose America for their own.

-Paul Holler

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