March 3, 2008
‘Immigrant’ a reality
with many faces
Vialla Hartfield-Mendez is director of the Emory Scholars Program and a senior lecturer in Spanish.
I have always been aware of immigration in my family; it just was not called that. Growing up in south Mississippi, with roots in Louisiana and Alabama, I knew that some of my ancestors crossed the Atlantic from Scotland and England. Family members told the story of my great-grandparents’ move from Alabama to Mississippi in a Ford Model T. I even heard from this great-grandfather himself about the seven years he spent in Texas as a migrant worker, though he did not call it that.
“Immigrant,” “migrant,” “immigration,” were all words I learned later, and in reference to “others” who were pretty much very different from “us.” They were in the history books: the Irish, the Chinese, the Italians, almost always in the abstract. Somehow the people in my family tree who “came over” never had the adjective “immigrant” attached to their stories.
Studying Spanish in college, living in Spain, returning to the doctoral program in Spanish at the University of Virginia was all transformational, but even the sojourn in Spain did not necessarily bring me closer to the Spanish-speaking reality just to the south of the South of my childhood. I eventually came to realize that I had lived all my life a short flight from Mexico, and knew almost nothing about this extraordinary country whose people’s history are so intertwined with our own.
Now, married for 20 years to a Mexican, the mother of an “American-Mexican” daughter and with eight years of working to connect Emory with the “Hispanic/Latino” community in Atlanta, I have learned that “immigrant” is not an abstraction, but a reality with many faces.