Finding Freedom in a Broken Immigrant Family

The day after our independence day in the US, I reflect on my struggle to be American and maintain family ties in Colombia and the US. This is a personal account of my experience with family reunification and not at all a full account. I have a sizable, loving, opinionated mostly matriarchal family who will have other version of our story AND all our stories are right. For now, this is my story and it matters for me to tell it:

I sometimes wonder if we would have been better off just starting over and separating ties completely. What would our lives be like now?

Curiosity, being a fixer of relationships and love got the better of me, so I will thankfully never know the answer to that question. And in the meantime, I can reflect on how hard love is between immigrant families.

One of the struggles with my migration is the break in the family relationships. As we have moved to different countries, all of us picked up and learned new cultural habits, made new friends and created family by choice -- we essentially formed new bonds and these bonds change us completely. This is also true for the family that "stayed behind." They changed and experienced the world in new ways, influencing who they are today.

One of the most painful and uncertain things for me is trying to reestablish the connection with family over the last four or so years. In my effort to reunite with my family, I find sometimes there have been more failures on my part that successes. I have been actively working on it, investing, time, resources and mostly emotions to put myself out there and also to encourage my mother back into relationship with her own siblings. The road to doing so has been fraught with ups and downs, glimpses of real love and joy, followed by long roads of confusion, silence and misunderstanding. To be clear, it has all been worth it.

And I know this because of my visit to Greece. Greece is a country of beautiful people, wondrous food and amazing views of the Aegean Sea. I spent time in the Cyclades islands and they are also a place filled with rocky terrain, dryness and parts that seem rough and untended to. This is thanks in part to a very large goat population who can eat almost anything in sight. And they are very effective and committed. Despite their efforts to keep the land arid and the vegetation prickly, the Greek community keeps growing new vegetation. They never give up - or maybe they do for sometime - and they keep coming back and finding new ways to maybe outsmart the goats or live in harmony with them. Who knows. What we do know is how much love and commitment that the Greek community has to grow something and make the islands green. A lot of resilience.

My family and the reunification process is no different than the Cyclades islands and the Greeks who tend to it.

Like growing a new tree, there are huge expectations in the reunification process when families are trying to come together again. We expect to know something about each other because of our family ties, some shared family values, some glimpse of looking alike or having similar mannerisms brings a desire to know each other. But the truth is we know very little to nothing.

Yet we expect to know each other -- to instantly fall in place. We expect to get along, to know each other’s personalities and moods. We stay under the same roof, hoping that it will work itself out. And then, nothing….

The shoe doesn’t drop but it doesn’t stay on either. We seem to be suspended in time. It’s the only place where we can meet safely. That time you were six and we got stuck on the monkey bars… The old pink house we all grew up in… the parties at Christmas… Those are safe memories we all share and while we don’t remember them the same, we do remember some part of them, keeping us linked in time.

If we want to grow together, we must move past these stories that have us suspended in time and place. We must cultivate a beginner’s mind and allow for a new story to grow, one we all have a stake in.

Trying to tell the stories of our life after the break is scary, fraught with expectations and perceptions of each other. Explaining why we have been apart and the pressures of migration and separation which no one wants to hear or even tell, are even scarier. After all being suspended in time, means nothing happened, we are all good. We feel good and our lives are in tact. We look like what society wants us to be.

And yet telling the real stories would heal our wounds, fill the break in the river that has run dry. Fill it with enough water to get us to the ocean—to fill our hearts with the love and compassion necessary to know each other again. What would it take to tell these stories?

First, vulnerability – a level of stripping down to stories of change, love, shame, embarrassment that really bring to life who we are today separate and apart from our collective identity. When those stories show up, they are like glimmers of hope that we might be together.

Second, commitment – be willing to hold hands while disagreeing or even fighting about the choices we have made -- good or bad-- in our relationships with each other. This is essential to figuring out the road ahead.

Third, unconditional love – be willing to believe the other person’s story as real even if it differs from your own experience. This may be the glue between vulnerability and commitment. I have my share of stories of why our family broke apart, why we moved on without each other. They also have stories that may differ. Can we love each other beyond the differences? Can we hear the stories with love and compassion without trying to make someone right or wrong in the process.

This is the bridge the lies between my family and I. This is also one part of my American-Colombian-Dominican-Migration story.

Some of them will hate this exposure of us and I am okay with that because this is a part of who I am. And so maybe this puts a crack in the glass, so we can feel more, see each other with different eyes. Or maybe this helps someone else ready to do the work with their own family.