I can’t remember the exact moment I decided that the sacrifices my mother made when she left her native Peru for the U.S. meant that I had to work really hard. I grew up in a predominantly Latino neighborhood surrounded by second generation Hispanics who were all well aware of what our parents had overcome to give us a shot at a better life. Why did I do so well when so many of my classmates from the same background and schools did not?
With the immigration debate still raging, I wanted to know what makes children of immigrant parents succeed. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, children of immigrant parents are “substantially better off than immigrants themselves on key measures of socioeconomic attainment. They have higher incomes; more are college graduates and homeowners; and fewer live in poverty.”
But big wig billionaires are defaming the hard work and struggles immigrant families endure to give their children at crack at the American Dream, so I found two success stories to see what it took to achieve their goals and it turns out we had a lot in common.
Twenty-two year-old UCLA college graduate Eunice Gonzalez never felt pressured by her parents, but still felt obligated to succeed academically. “It was an unspoken thing for me. They never once said 'tienes que ir a la universidad,' I just kind of knew I had to," Gonzalez says. "In high school, I realized that I couldn't just go by doing minimal work, I had to challenge myself to take advanced classes and be super involved because if my parents could work super hard, then I could do it too.”
This past June Gonzalez was chosen to speak at the bilingual 42nd Annual Raza Graduation (a student-led event for Chicanas/os and Latinos/as graduates at UCLA) where she congratulated families for their success. Even though Gonzalez’s parents didn’t completely understand her academic involvement, she saw how hard her parents worked in the strawberry fields as farm workers and knew that couldn’t be in vain.
In her case, the pressure to succeed was self-imposed and with emotional support from her family she was able to reach her goals. She would never have to deal with headache her two sisters faced being undocumented, so she always felt that more was expected from her.
Psychoanalyst Jose Hevia says this kind of self-imposed motivation is the key in promoting success. While not everyone responds positively to pressure, if parents lead by example, it encourages growth and self-enhancing choices Hevia points out.
I related to Gonzalez’s story. I, too, was the only one in my family who was born in America and I heard time and time again how lucky I was to be a U.S. Citizen. Apparently, the world was my oyster. But it wasn’t until my first year at Rutgers University, when I found myself surrounded by middle-class white kids whose parents were doctors and teachers, that I realized that I not only grew up super poor, but how lucky I was to be there considering I was raised by a single immigrant mother.
I realized that all those hours spent in the back seat of my mother’s car reading or doing my homework while she delivered Domino’s Pizza as her night job couldn’t go in vain either. She never directly put pressure on me, but she always said she wanted us to do better than her so we wouldn’t have to live paycheck to paycheck like she did.
“If a parent is able to teach their child to self-regulate and self-manage their own aims towards constructive and successful choices without imposing on the child, the parent then promotes the child's autonomous functions and self-confidence to explore without fears and inhibitions,” says Hevia.
Actress Dania Ramirez left her native Dominican Republic at just nine years old and still remembers the exact moment where she promised herself she would strive for more out of life. “It was the night I landed in New York. I walked into the tiny apartment that we were sharing with another family and saw the living space not only my parents were living in but now the one all five of us would have to share.”
She described the realization as daunting especially considering everyone talked about New York City as the center of the universe, where work and money was abundant. It was a misconception quickly debunked after seeing the conditions her parents were living in to help send money back for her and her older sister.
“My parents saved their pennies to go back and take us on vacation in the Dominican Republic. But I had no idea how hard they were working in Washington Heights or how difficult their struggle was. It was then that I decided to shoot for the stars,” Ramirez added.
That she did — since graduating from Montclair State University, Ramirez has been in everything from X-Men to Entourage, leading to her current starring role on Lifetime’s Devious Maids now wrapping up its third season. Ramirez also recently co-directed a mini-doc titled, An American Alien, where she pays tribute to her immigrant past and family.
“I want to pass on that work ethic and appreciation for higher education that my father passed on to me to my children. At the end of the day, I want my parents to be proud of me,” she added.
Another important factor Hevia points out is important for a child of immigrants to succeed: their relationship with their parents. “If a child feels s/he is loved, safe, and accepted by the parent that particular child would most likely want to please the parent and do the right thing.”
While my mother still doesn’t completely understand what I do, she knows I work hard and has always been my number one cheerleader, boasting to friends and family in Peru how successful her daughter is. Even though my father didn’t live with me, he always stressed how vital higher education was because it was the one thing “nadie te puede quitar.” Each graduation ceremony and milestone in my education and success has been theirs as well. Their American Dream lives in me and knowing that always made me persevere.
A combination of factors contribute to a child of immigrants’ success, having parents who believe that you can achieve whatever you put your mind to and leading by example are two key factors. Pressure, self-imposed or not, can work in your favor as well. In other words, you can have all the tools in the world but if you don’t genuinely believe in yourself and have others believe in you, it’s hard to conquer the world.