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Immigration and Identity

By Atul Bhattarai

Immigrants of any kind often face a personal dilemma: Who are they in a new, foreign space? A group of four immigrant and foreign-born artists were confronted with that question in the course of volunteering with elderly immigrants—through “multilingual art-making projects, recreation activities, and conversations”—as part of an Engaging Artists residency at MoreArt, an organization that connects professional artists with communities. In a roundtable at the Queens Museum on Feb. 7, the artists spoke about how their identities, as immigrants and artists, were challenged by the experience.

The artists-in-residence, accompanied by two other panelists, ranged widely in nationality (as well as artistic discipline): Aurélien Grèzes, from France; Guido Garaycochea, from Peru; Hidemi Takagi, from Japan; Andrew Nemr, from Canada and Lebanon; Raúl Ayala, from Ecuador; and Silvia Ortiz, the panel’s moderator, from Colombia. Having entered the residency as artists, many were taken aback when they found the seniors they worked with resistant to being included in their art. Grèzes, a video artist, felt as if he had come to “face a wall.” Garaycochea, whose form extends across several media, said that he tried to acquaint the seniors with his work, to little avail: “They said, what do you want from us? Why are you just showing up and asking for material? They said ... [the art] would be for my convenience and not theirs.”

When the artists finally broke through to the seniors, it wasn't by clinging to a sense of purpose about their work but by suspending their agenda. Some chose to think of the residency as an exchange. (Nemr, who is a tap dancer, found the idea of a “transaction” between generations foreign. Tap dancing, he said, is a form with a strong oral tradition, “based on the older generation entrusting something to you: ‘This is for you, you decide who to give it to.’ And so there's a lot of paranoia if somebody strange comes into that context and says, I want what you have.”) But swallowing the idea of a residency-as-exchange required a review of priorities. “I didn’t think it was moral for me to go to a place and give with the intention of producing a piece of art. That was a rule for me,” Garaycochea said of his past volunteer work. “During this residency, I questioned that rule.”

Ortiz reframed the issue: “As volunteers you are not freely giving. There are other kinds of exchanges that are happening. You're getting something emotional, or you're getting knowledge.” For their part, the artists offered empathy and a willingness to listen; engaging the seniors meant drawing trust and finding common ground. “They need to know you are not just taking advantage of them,” Garaycochea said. 

For Garaycochea, the seniors’ suspicions reflected the isolating reality of the immigrant experience—the relative, if implicit, constraints on community in a place like New York. In Latin America, he said, cities are planned around plazas, which encourage strangers to talk and interact without an agenda, allowing a sense of community to flourish. When he asked Americans where they met new people, the answer they gave, he said, was “the mall.”

And the isolation felt by these immigrants is exacerbated by prejudice, Garaycochea said: “In America, if you have an accent, you need to prove that you can think, that you are capable … that you are human.”

But at the same time, immigrants form strong bonds with each other. Many cluster and cohabit in foreign places, and all share what Garaycochea calls the “trauma of displacement.” An immigrant’s identity, hemmed in on some fronts, is enriched and expanded on others. For example, Ortiz, who was born in Colombia, grew up in Queens, and traveled little in her formative years, has a “deep love” for Dominican Spanish. And when she recently visited Ecuador, she found herself strongly attached to the country and its people. “When I was in Colombia I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Colombian,” she said. “We think about South America as one, but for most of the people there are few times when we connect with each other.” Living in Queens, with its richly diverse population—nearly half foreign-born—extended her solidarity to a wider swath of the Latin American community. “It’s about the relationships I built when I was here," she said.  

For most immigrants, the panelists found, retaining identity is a worthy challenge. And stories and personal wisdom form a core part of that identity. Ortiz reasoned that the seniors’ resistance to the artists might have come from a desire to assert agency and independence—to be able to choose whether and with whom to impart their experience and stories in a country where immigrants tend to assimilate and identities quickly blur and converge.

But assimilation is never complete, and immigrants harbor a “dissonance between their identity and the mainstream identity,” Nemr said. In trying to reconcile and find balance between the two, one’s identity asserts itself, especially if it is cast into the margins. “My partner’s grandmother emigrated from Germany right before the Second World War,” Ortiz told the artists. “At the time, there was so much shame and stigma around being German. Nobody spoke German. But he distinctly remembers that when nobody else was in the room, when he was on her lap, she would sing German songs to him. The minute somebody entered the room, the singing would stop.”

A second generation Colombian in the audience said she was brought up not to think about her heritage. “We're not taught here as kids to worry about the world. We're taught that New York is the world, and we are the capital,” she said. The process of reconciling her identities began only when she was sent to Colombia for the first time as a teenager; and it was prefaced by a discovery of what it meant to be Colombian in the first place. Encountering a new identity was traumatic: “I questioned my values, I thought everything I learned growing up here just meant nothing,” she told the artists. “It's been a challenge trying to find that balance between being American and being Colombian as well. I'm always trying to connect with my roots.”

*****

*****

Atul Bhattarai is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

Nicole Bennett provided the video for the reporting of this article.

[Photo courtesy of MoreArt]

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