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"I grew up with ‘When I was your age…’ stories describing how my parents had to stand in line for two hours just to receive a loaf of bread during Communist times. Their difficult experiences directly shaped their lives and indirectly shaped my life, because I continue to think about how fortunate I am to live a more comfortable life."
— Anna Sowa, 22, Polish-American ×
"I grew up with ‘When I was your age…’ stories describing how my parents had to stand in line for two hours just to receive a loaf of bread during Communist times. Their difficult experiences directly shaped their lives and indirectly shaped my life, because I continue to think about how fortunate I am to live a more comfortable life."
— Anna Sowa, 22, Polish-American ×

We Are More Than Numbers:

Portraits of Children of Immigrants  


2012-present


Originally published in the New York Times Sunday Review.
Check it out here!



There are around 20 million adult, American-born children of immigrants living in the United States. I am one of them. I am the daughter of two immigrant mothers from Peru and Argentina. My roots are not directly below me, beneath this ground that I stand on, but instead reach to many parts of the world. I grew up in San Francisco, moving constantly from house to house, sometimes in homes filled with other families. I quickly learned to adapt. I became a traveler, just as my mothers are, and just as many immigrants are travelers whose wandering feet and thoughts are never still.

Technically, I am an American, but that label doesn’t quite seem to fit. For much of my childhood I felt tension between the culture I was immersed in at school and the culture that my mothers kept alive within our home, the one I returned to each night. I ate milanesas and lomo saltado, while my friends at school had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and spoke about their excitement for a holiday I never celebrated, Thanksgiving. I spoke Spanish until I felt too different from others. When I began primarily speaking English, people were shocked whenever they heard a pale girl say, “yo soy latina.” That’s when I started to feel neither South American nor North American. I was stuck in an uncomfortable in-between, a place from which I am still trying to free myself.

In discussions about children of immigrants, scholars often deal with statistics, but rarely with the actual individuals who have their own voices and ideas of identification. We are more than numbers, more than the reports that analyze our educational attainment and economic standing.

This continuing portrait series is inspired by conversations I’ve had with children of immigrants over the past two years. The people I met talked about their childhoods and how they defined American culture. They reflected on self-identification and the imbalance of cultural identity. And they looked at how the label "children of immigrants" affects the members of that community.

“A lot of the time, being a child of immigrants means constantly having to defend your place as an ‘American,’” said Alex Santana, a Spanish- and Dominican-American. By deconstructing our cultural identities, our childhoods, and the ways in which some people misrepresent us, we are reclaiming our individuality.




“I place a large emphasis on cultural identity in my life. I feel very comfortable and am proud to call myself Indian, but I think it is very easy to lose touch with your roots when you don't have a community. I have personally experienced that, being a queer, masculine-presenting South Indian person. The number of friendships I have personally cut off due to a fear of rejection, the number of family members I have kept in the dark about my identity, the tension I feel when I step into the Hindu Temple in Flushing, Queens only to have every pair of eyes following my every movement, bewildered by the shaved sides of my head and the patterned button-down I am sporting. I have been able to salvage a connection to my culture by enjoying its food, speaking its language, and playing its music. But as someone who craves human connection, it is difficult to stomach my inability to find accepting community.”

—Sruti Swaminathan, photographed when she was 22 years old. She grew up with South Indian parents who migrated to the United States from Madras, India in 1985. 

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"I grew up with my parents only speaking to me in Italian and would not let my siblings and I speak English at home so that we would maintain our Italian as we started surrounding ourselves more and more with classmates as we grew older. In terms of my identity, I do sometimes think how different my life would have been had I grown up in Italy. I feel sure that my personality would have been shaped very differently if I had been raised there, just as I am sure that it would have been different if my parents were not immigrants. I don’t always think of myself as Italian or American or Italian-American. Oddly enough, when I’m here in the states, I think of myself as a little more Italian, but when I’m in Italy I think of myself as slightly more American. For me, being American has to do with a certain way of life. The New York lifestyle is much more frenetic than the laid-back Italian lifestyle." -Giorgio Ravalli, 22, sitting in one of his favorite bakeries that he would frequent growing up in New York. His family migrated from Italy to the United States.

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"I grew up with my parents only speaking to me in Italian and would not let my siblings and I speak English at home so that we would maintain our Italian as we started surrounding ourselves more and more with classmates as we grew older. In terms of my identity, I do sometimes think how different my life would have been had I grown up in Italy. I feel sure that my personality would have been shaped very differently if I had been raised there, just as I am sure that it would have been different if my parents were not immigrants. I don’t always think of myself as Italian or American or Italian-American. Oddly enough, when I’m here in the states, I think of myself as a little more Italian, but when I’m in Italy I think of myself as slightly more American. For me, being American has to do with a certain way of life. The New York lifestyle is much more frenetic than the laid-back Italian lifestyle." -Giorgio Ravalli, 22, sitting in one of his favorite bakeries that he would frequent growing up in New York. His family migrated from Italy to the United States.

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"Something that I haven't been able to call my own lately is my last name, just because I feel like I haven't earned it. I feel like religion was lost on me because I ate meat and could never speak my parents' native language, and that was always hard growing up with. I was kind of the black sheep of the family."

—Akshai Ajit, 21, the son of Indian parents who migrated to Queens, New York in 1985 and 1988. 


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Akshai Ajit, 21, Indian-American ×
Akshai Ajit, 21, Indian-American ×




“I am exceptionally proud to be the child of immigrants and I feel that we are all children of immigrants in some way. It saddens me that this term would ever carry negative connotations and I have been fortunate enough to never truly experience that form of hatred. I think it's difficult being a child of immigrants and staying connected to your roots- but this is exacerbated when you're from war-torn countries, like myself. Having a multi-national heritage and growing up somewhere different from where either of my parents are from has left me with an unwillingness to fully accept one cultural identity. My identity is that I don’t really have one. I have no real sense of nationalism, as I see the world as one, and I consider myself a part of one world and one human race. I think people my age tend to have identity crises and feel lost. Be what you feel, accept what you are and realise that the choice is yours. I think the world would be a far better place if everyone spent more time understanding that we are all members of one human race sharing one planet. Not only am I a child of immigrants, but a family of immigrants, emigrants and expats.”

—Soraya Ali, photographed when she was 23 years old. Her mother was born in Somalia and raised in Italy and her father grew up in Egypt. She grew up in London, United Kingdom.

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"When people meet me, they want to know what culture I come from or where my family is from. They want to put me in a box or assign me a label. So the question of ‘what are you’ has always made me feel defensive of who I am and how I’m presented in the world."

— Shirley Acuna, 22, Peruvian-American

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"When people meet me, they want to know what culture I come from or where my family is from. They want to put me in a box or assign me a label. So the question of ‘what are you’ has always made me feel defensive of who I am and how I’m presented in the world."

— Shirley Acuna, 22, Peruvian-American

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"Funny enough, most of the kids I grew up around were of Russian descent. And oddly enough, I felt a much bigger disconnect with them than I did with any of my American friends. Growing up, I always felt like the Russian kids didn’t have as much respect for their heritage as I did. I found much more solace being the Russian one among my Puerto Rican, Italian, Polish, Ghanaian and American friends. The amalgamation of cultures and backgrounds made for such a richer experience."
— Sasha Kazachkova, 19, Russian-American

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Sasha Kazachkova, 19, Russian-American

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Sasha Kazachkova, 19, Russian-American

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"I would like to say I feel comfortable calling myself an Argentinian, but every year when I return there I am reminded that I have missed huge cultural changes since I was 9, and as perfect as my Spanish may be, there are always tiny indicators to them that I am not one of them."
— Alex Fiszbein, 19, Argentine-American

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"I would like to say I feel comfortable calling myself an Argentinian, but every year when I return there I am reminded that I have missed huge cultural changes since I was 9, and as perfect as my Spanish may be, there are always tiny indicators to them that I am not one of them."
— Alex Fiszbein, 19, Argentine-American

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"I don’t feel it’s right for me to say I’m from El Salvador or Nicaragua because I haven’t experienced growing up and living there. I’m proud that my roots are Central American and that the culture has influenced my life, but I feel like a fraud when I call myself Nicaraguense or El Salvadorian. I remember in middle school there were Latino kids that understood their parents’ culture more than I did. And since I didn’t speak Spanish they didn’t really accept me completely, so my nickname was “white girl”. I want to stay connected to my roots, but I feel most comfortable calling myself a San Franciscan Latina."
—Mandy Linares, 22, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan American

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"I don’t feel it’s right for me to say I’m from El Salvador or Nicaragua because I haven’t experienced growing up and living there. I’m proud that my roots are Central American and that the culture has influenced my life, but I feel like a fraud when I call myself Nicaraguense or El Salvadorian. I remember in middle school there were Latino kids that understood their parents’ culture more than I did. And since I didn’t speak Spanish they didn’t really accept me completely, so my nickname was “white girl”. I want to stay connected to my roots, but I feel most comfortable calling myself a San Franciscan Latina."
—Mandy Linares, 22, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan American

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"When others ask, ‘Where are you from?’ I tend to respond with ‘New Jersey.’ Usually, they are never satisfied with that answer because for them, it does not explain why I have the last name I have, why my hair is so conspicuously curly, why my skin is brown, and why I am able to speak Spanish."
— Alex Santana, 21, Spanish- and Dominican-American

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Alex Santana, 21, Spanish- and Dominican-American

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Alex Santana, 21, Spanish- and Dominican-American

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“I am the daughter of a conservative catholic, Asian family. I always tell my parents how I would have loved to speak their native tongue. Their response was that they always wanted me to be American and to speak English. To them, that was an upper hand that most immigrants would want to have. I grew up eating a lot of typical Filipino dishes with Chinese influences. My grandpa would always go down to the farmer’s market to buy a chicken and kill it with his bare hands, so we could have fried chicken or adidas (chicken feet) for dinner. My parents were very strict with family time and my roles within the household. I learned how to do laundry and clean the house by the age of 7. I always tell my mother how much I wish I grew up in the Philippines, and how I wanted to speak their language and cook their food. I fear by the time I have my own family I won’t have any stories to tell my children like- ‘back in my day, I walked 7 miles to get to school in flip flops.’ When I think of my parents, I feel like I have something very special that my children won’t have the knowledge to understand or grasp. I fear that my children won’t have that culture to feel rooted in.”

—Dorothy Ann Cayabyab Loyola, photographed when she was 23 years old. Her parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines.

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Dorothy Ann Cayabyab Loyola, 23, Filipino and Chinese American

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Dorothy Ann Cayabyab Loyola, 23, Filipino and Chinese American

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"Growing up was definitely a mix of two worlds, Indian and American. At times, I have felt caught in the middle of the two, but it’s one of those things that you learn to find your way through ... It definitely takes mental fortitude to know where you stand and what you want to stand by. I can now stand for more than one thing."
— Taher Hassonjee, 22, Indian-American

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Taher Hassonjee, 22, Indian-American

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Taher Hassonjee, 22, Indian-American

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"I never thought of myself as a “child of immigrants” per se, as I feel the term comes loaded with undertones of immigrant struggles — the old clichés of coming to a new country with nothing and struggling to assimilate. The truth of the matter is my father came to the United States comfortably with an M.D. from Italy, fluent in English since his youth, and I’m the fourth child to my parents, so by the time I was born they were very well established."

— Michael Shami, 21, Syrian- and Hungarian-American. (Painting in background by Guillermo Esparza. On view at NYU Catholic Center. Check out his site: www.guillermoesparza.com )
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"I never thought of myself as a “child of immigrants” per se, as I feel the term comes loaded with undertones of immigrant struggles — the old clichés of coming to a new country with nothing and struggling to assimilate. The truth of the matter is my father came to the United States comfortably with an M.D. from Italy, fluent in English since his youth, and I’m the fourth child to my parents, so by the time I was born they were very well established."

— Michael Shami, 21, Syrian- and Hungarian-American. (Painting in background by Guillermo Esparza. On view at NYU Catholic Center. Check out his site: www.guillermoesparza.com )
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"I think that where you are at the present is the most important, but at the same time it’s essential to not let go of where you’ve been. You should not have to let go of your roots to be a part of American society."
— Avnee, 22, British- and Indian-American

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Avnee, 22, British- and Indian-American

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Avnee, 22, British- and Indian-American

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Studio Portraits

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Avnee, 22, British- and Indian-American

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Avnee, 22, British- and Indian-American

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Claudia Moreira, 22 Uruguayan-American 

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Claudia Moreira, 22 Uruguayan-American 

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Jon Fajardo, 24, Filipino-American

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Jon Fajardo, 24, Filipino-American

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Stephanie Lee, 23, Korean-American

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Stephanie Lee, 23, Korean-American

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Sruti Swaminathan, 22, Indian-American

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Sruti Swaminathan, 22, Indian-American

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Sheldon Walker, 23, Jamaican-American

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Sheldon Walker, 23, Jamaican-American

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Mallika Vora, 24, Indian-American

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Mallika Vora, 24, Indian-American

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Julia Wang, 22, Taiwanese-American

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Julia Wang, 22, Taiwanese-American

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Akshai Ajit, 21, Indian-American

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Akshai Ajit, 21, Indian-American

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Maureen Dai, 23, Chinese-American

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Maureen Dai, 23, Chinese-American

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Jackie Russo, 24, Mexican and Italian American

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Jackie Russo, 24, Mexican and Italian American

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