Abuela is a book for children. It was written in 1991, by American author Arthur Dorros. The story is about a little girl named Rosalba and it describes the special day she spends with her beloved grandmother. One day while out on their usual walk through New York City they unexpectedly begin an extraordinary flying adventure. The illustrator takes us beautifully over pictures of the city and its famous sights: the Avenues, parks, trains, the Statue of Liberty, the docks and airport. The journey is filled with enthusiasm and excitement. Along with all the beauty of the city, the story reveals something far more valuable: the closeness of our heroines.
(illustration: Elisa Kleven)
For those of you who don’t know, Abuela means grandmother in Spanish. This bright and lively old woman is, however, different than most other grandmothers. Many years ago she came from overseas. Although she is now a part of the new world, she only speaks her first language and with lots of love talks about her country of origin in Latin America.
While I was reading this story for the first time I had a sense that there is another one, beneath the surface. The author pointed that out in the title but also he left the space for each reader to add its content. In my wish, the Abuela immediately became the synonym for an Immigrant woman. Since I left my country, I have been listening to interesting and inspirational stories about them.
For those women who came during the first half of the 20th century, I heard mostly from their descendants. As a young tourist 15 years ago I met one woman who came after World War II, but I missed this unique opportunity to ask her everything that interests me today.
Usually, people repeat the same information, the ones you can find in newspaper articles, TV shows, and movies. Women didn’t go alone in emigration, mostly in groups with members of their family and other countrymen. In the new country, they continued to live relying on people of their origin, culture, and language. They were totally or partially separated from the world in which they came, but also from other immigrant groups. According to the social rules of that time, they would communicate only with relatives and friends. Their lives were in the hands of men: fathers, brothers or husbands, and their role was to take care of households, to raise kids, teach them the language, pass on the customs of their culture.
In these typical portraits, I almost never found their personal experiences. You could tell that they went through this unique immigration process, like the grandmother in this story but I wanted to know the answers to so many questions: Did they really want to leave the country? How did they cope with nostalgia? What were their thoughts about their native country, especially if they had the chance to see it again? Did they accept new communities? In which way were the new circumstances better than the ones they left behind? Did they change their lifestyle and how? How has it affected the way they were raising their children…. etc.
In the decades that followed more and more Abuelas were stepping out from their home communities. Whether they came by choice or life circumstances, they began engaging in an unfamiliar environment. After meeting some of these women in passing I knew how their experiences were different from the ones I already mentioned.
They came with a one-way ticket in hand, from a world in which they didn’t see a future. They knew so little about the new world, mostly from notes of relatives or family friends. These Abuelas had decent formal education and courage to tackle a number of challenges like learning a new language, facing difficulties of unemployment, working for minimum wage, living without the ability to obtain credit, building new social relations. The New World wasn’t only new but also closed off from other cultures and influences. These women were forced to adapt, they changed their first and last names, repressed their language, adopted new habits and celebrated new holidays. They did everything for one aim: to be accepted together with their offspring.
Sometimes, when I listen to these stories, I can envision them standing in a tunnel, between two worlds. The one they are leaving behind, which they feel as their own and the one in front of them, which isn’t always ready to include them. With the distance from both, they didn’t have a place anywhere.
What they couldn’t know was that their experiences would influence people they were surrounded by.
“I want to tell you why I am doing this job,“ said the woman on the stage. In the next minute, she was talking about women who inspire her, not only to choose her profession but, what is more relevant, teach her how to do it. She spoke about her mother.
She came to Canada as an immigrant from Great Britain. Her life was supposed to be easier than for many other women as her soon to be husband’s family had moved abroad a few decades before. They both came from the same society, culture, and language, so she believed her transition wouldn’t be too hard.
Years passed before she would be able to understand her new culture and accept it. During that period she felt lonely, misunderstood and restless. All the words and emotions she kept for herself she was free to share with her youngest child.
And that daughter grew up and chose to work in a new profession. Today, she is helping new immigrants in a way she thinks is the right one. Her message to them is very personal: “Don’t think you are alone. There are hundreds like you around and you can connect and share your journey with them. If you need help, there are centres and people you can rely on. Reach out. “
As we know society is constantly changing. I believe the biggest impact in our societies was done by many Abuelas. New generations became more open to talk about their roots and different heritage, more sensitive and willing to assist. Immigrants could rely on institutions, native societies or friends. Without fear of rejection, they felt included and encouraged both to adopt new culture as to keep their own.
The last decades of the 20th century brought Abuelas with lighter luggage. They were not running from bad living conditions and hopelessness, as their desire was to explore the planet or follow the path of love. Thanks to the media, education and mass travel experiences they had the general idea about the world they entered. Independent, confident and with the languages skills, they found new challenges in their own expectations, most notably in the professional sphere. Many Abuelas had to struggle for their career despite their knowledge and previous work experience. They were forced to step back, get new diplomas, learn new skills, fight for business opportunities and prove themselves again.
In the meantime, the world became more connected. The Internet provides useful information, people’s personal experiences and advice.
On the other hand, after a few months on new soil Abuela realizes that she has entered into a society that is in a process of reshaping. The modern era shook the foundations of all continents and cultures. People are looking for new coordinates in every corner of the world. What brings them together nowadays is the universal lifestyle, which has become like a world’s language. Although from the distant parts of the planet people can quickly recognize each other as if they were relatives.
Every new generation longs for exploring new spaces. New Abuelas are the same. For many of them, immigration is more the new way of thinking than the definitive life decision. They love to browse around and try new things, sometimes even without the need to reach the goal.
I know some who already lived the dreams of their mothers when they decided to turn in another direction.
“I had a good paying job in a profession in which I attained higher education. I decided, however, to resign and go overseas. I wanted to experience something different. Would I be able to do it? How could I know?!? I’m not complaining about the change. Professional achievements mean less to me now than all the things I learned in the past two years. I had become more conscious, more mature.“
There are many women whose expectations are not fulfilled, but they don’t perceive it as a loss.
“I was ready for a setback, but to be honest, I hoped the situations would turn into my advantage. That’s not what happened, but I do not have any regrets. Those who don’t even try something different, still plague the same problems. They are spinning in a circle of the same needs and demands, both dissatisfied with what they have and what they don’t have. Instead of the favorable outcome, I found balance within.“
It may sound paradoxical, but many Abuelas discover more freedom in other cultures than their own. I often hear a woman say:
“My new, different society liberated me from all the frames. No one accessing my private life, no one telling me what I should do and how. I am in charge to make my own decisions. That is so powerful.“
Stories about women immigrants are all unique. They are shaped with a number of details: reasons they left the homeland, reputation of their country, the similarity between old and new culture, whether they came alone or with their families, money they had to support themselves, the goals they set, the opportunities given, people they met…. etc.
However, each story, past or present, is in a way one and the same. The new and different world will take them out of the box and expose to the unknown. That situation makes many women disorientated, while others find a clear direction. They are all drawn into the process of evaluation, where they are constantly comparing themselves and others, past and present, this here and that there. Most Abuelas admit they felt confused and overwhelmed with experiences of resistance and openness, uncertainty and determination, emptiness and fulfillment. But, no matter how hard the process was, it is the thing that made them keep going forward and starting a new life.
There is one more characteristic common for all Abuelas and Arthur Dorros knowingly used it to finish his story. After Rosalba and her grandmother landed from the sky to the point they started their journey, “they were not left alone.” The Author showed them the lake where people are riding in small boats. The grandmother smiled and, as if like nothing had happened and their previous adventure did not even exist, she turned in that new direction.
“Vamos!“ she says and that is what you will hear from all true Abuelas.