Six first generation Philadelphia-Americans, whose families immigrated from Italy, Poland, India, Syria, Nicaragua, Trinidad, and France, share their experiences regarding living in Philadelphia, and assimilating into a new country and culture.
Maury Z. Levy, 67, columnist for SJ Magazine and former, award-winning Editorial Director of Philadelphia Magazine. His father came to Philadelphia from Poland and his mom was born in Philly.
Emma Teelucksingh, 18, is a college student at University of Scotland and was raised in a global household. Her mom was born in Tunisia to a French father and British mother; her dad is from Trinidad and Tobago.
Patrizia D’Adamo, 49, Director, US Operations, Travel and Tourism. Her parents came to Philadelphia from Italy.
Ajay Raju, Esq., 47, Chairman and CEO, Dilworth Paxson. He arrived to Philadelphia from India at age 14.
Joseph Assali, 21, is a Temple University student. His parents are from Syria.
Miriam E. Enriquez, Esq., 38, is the Director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs for the City of Philadelphia. Enriquez was born in the United States, but spent much of her childhood living in several different Latin American countries, including Nicaragua, her family’s country of origin.
The early years and mixing cultures
Levy: The language was always a challenge. When my parents spoke to each other or other older members of the family in front of the kids, they spoke Yiddish, which is a mix of Polish, German, Russian and the kitchen sink. Over the years, I started to understand what they were saying better and better. My mother often cooked like she was from the old country, I didn’t like or eat any of that. I wanted to eat American food, like my friends.
Teelucksingh: When I was younger, I always thought it would be so much easier to just have a normal, American family. It was challenging having so many labels thrown on me that sometimes I felt I didn’t belong anywhere, not in my dad’s culture, nor my mom’s, or in American culture. I’ve never faced any real prejudice because of my ethnicities, but it wasn’t always easy, especially when I was younger. Kids can be quite cruel sometimes. I remember once my dad packed me some leftover food for lunch, which was traditional Indian dal and rice, when I opened it up at school the next day, some boy started commenting on its appearance and smell. Being a shy six year-old in a predominantly White community, it really upset me, to the point where I was ashamed of my food and of my Indian heritage.
D’Adamo: As a child I was not aware I was different until I started school. I spoke only Italian until age five, so kindergarten was a difficult adjustment. I can remember not knowing “Ring around the rosy.” When I was younger I was a little embarrassed about being “different.” [At the start of ] every school year when the teacher was taking roll call on the first day and they got to my first name and paused, not knowing quite how to pronounce the name Patricia with a “z”- Patrizia. I remember feeling different and weird for having to come home earlier than everyone else when there was a party during my high school years.
Raju: When I was a teenager, I asked my dad if I could get an after-school job at a restaurant. In India back then, teens didn’t typically go to work unless there was some financial imperative for the family, my dad was offended at the perceived implication that his income wasn’t enough to support the household. Needless to say, he wouldn’t let me take the restaurant job. Naturally, I snuck off and began working as an usher at a nearby movie theater, telling my parents that I was going to the library to study. The ruse went perfectly until another Indian family saw me at the theater and, of course, dropped the dime to my parents. But the happy ending to that story is that my dad’s refusal to let me take a wage-paying job is what prompted me to start my own business, AJ’s DJs (which was precisely what you’d think it is). My entrepreneurship was far more palatable to my parents’ prideful sensibilities, and I suppose that may explain why I’ve been an entrepreneur ever since.
Assali: I realized at a young age that I was different from the other students, and was often mocked for my ethnic appearance and food. As I got older, the jokes became racist and vulgar, especially as Arabs gained more of a negative stereotype in America. One time following the September 11 attacks, our house was egged, and another time a group of people in a car even threw shaken-up soda cans at me and my sister while we were playing outside. These experiences often made me feel embarrassed to be Syrian-American when I was a child.”
Enriquez: Growing up, we did not have many Latinos in our neighborhood or in school. I was always “the only Latina.” That said, my house was always different from those of my friends but my friends enjoyed the culture shock at times. We spoke Spanish, ate Nicaraguan rice with every dinner, and gallo pinto as often as possible, and had a statue of the Virgin Mary in our front yard. When there was a party there was always some salsa or merengue music playing and there was plenty of dancing. At some point, el palo de mayo (a traditional Nicaraguan dance) would play and all would join in. I loved the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” because although the family was Greek, the immigrant experience was the same. We even had our elderly grandmother living with us! She only wore black because she was mourning the death of my grandfather, who died in 1973 in Nicaragua. And unlike the family in that movie, we did not have the Nicaraguan flag on our garage door, but we did have it displayed proudly outside our house.”
On navigating two different cultures
Teelucksingh: Obviously being of mixed race and having immigrant parents presents its challenges. I feel as though sometimes it was hard for them to relate to my American life (school, friends, values, etc.), but they were so keen on becoming a part of this country themselves that I don’t think I was ever not allowed to assimilate. I think the greatest challenge for me was managing my home life and “outside” life. As a child, I would sometimes act differently around my parents versus my friends.
Raju: Like any immigrant, when I first arrived in America I was supremely aware that I was different. But I was also aware that I had a unique and fleeting opportunity to create my own identity and narrative. While I’ve often used my ethnic background as a means to make connections, and while I certainly celebrate my heritage, I’ve never let it define or limit me. Very early on, I made the decision not to present myself first and foremost as “ethnic” but as “Ajay.” In my high school, I was never known as the “Indian guy” but rather the “guy with the hair.”
Assali: I learned English and Arabic at a young age, which allowed me to communicate with my grandmothers that often took care of me as a child. At school, I would speak English to my friends and teachers and learn American values and norms, and then come home to a completely different culture with our own values and customs and speak mainly Arabic to my family. I would experience two very distinct and often conflicting cultures each day, and it was confusing for me at first to simultaneously adhere to both of them. I eventually learned to combine the values and ideals important to me, while still being able to recognize and respect aspects of both cultures.
Enriquez: I integrated into American culture with the help of school, of friends and good old American television. My family welcomed integration into the American culture, they love the United States. But they made sure that we held onto our Nicaraguan traditions as well. We spoke Spanish, we listened to music, heard all about, “Como eran las cosas en Nicaragua…” (how things were in Nicaragua) and of course ate our traditional Nicaraguan meals. My grandmother was always reminding me to speak Spanish. She would tell me that if I didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t practice my Spanish I was going to lose it. Now, more than ever, I try to practice my Spanish, more and more, as I find myself not wanting to lose my native tongue.
The impact of growing up as a First Generation American
Levy: It helped me a lot. My grandparents came here with nothing. The clothes on their backs and the money in their pockets. They had to work twice as hard as anyone else to be successful. My father taught that tradition to me, and I worked my ass off. My last two years of college, I went to school full-time and had a full-time job. I slept about three hours a night.
Teelucksingh: It has given me such a well-rounded view of the world. I’ve gotten to experience so many different cultures and aspects of life. I’ve also had to make my own way in this country which I like to believe has made me a stronger person.
D’Adamo: I mentioned how growing up with Italian parents helped shape my career by nourishing an interest in language, travel and exploration. I inherited not just language and culture, but also a determination that would push me to do the best I can and provide the best opportunities for my own children. I was provided the gift of American citizenship. As a young adult, Philadelphia was a place I wanted to run far away from for many years preferring the opportunity to live and work abroad. It is actually only recently that I have learned to embrace this city and all that it has to offer to the people that live here. I am now proud to be from Philadelphia and part of a community of first generation Italian-Americans.
Raju: Being a first generation American has given me a unique perspective, namely, that I don’t need to follow any preordained path, but that I can forge my own. It’s an atavistic human compulsion to find a tribe to belong to, so it can be a traumatic experience when, in the case of an immigrant, you’re displaced from the tribe you had known and forced to find a new one. But landing where we did, my family lucked out, in the Northeast in the 1980’s, all mothers were everybody’s mother. My neighborhood was tight-knit but quick to embrace me and my family. I know that my experience could’ve been very different, and that’s why I’ve made it a personal and professional mission to return that embrace wherever and however I can.
Assali: I have learned the rich history of America and the opportunities it has to offer, and my education here has been invaluable for my future. I am fortunate to have been given such incredible opportunities to succeed while living here, but I am also very aware of the struggles faced by Syrians that have remained in their country or facing challenges across the world. Being a first generation American has granted me considerable insight into the plight faced by innumerable immigrants and refugees worldwide. Living in America with my own distinct ethnic history has definitely opened my eyes to things that are truly important in life, as well as things that we often take for granted while being fortunate enough to reside in a country able to provide everything we could ever want.
Enriquez: Being a first generation American has shaped me personally and professionally by allowing me to have a greater appreciation for what this country and this wonderful city has to offer. I am so grateful that this city welcomed my family and they were able to make it their new home. Now professionally, as the administration and the Office of Immigrant Affairs continues to work towards making Philadelphia a welcoming place, I am inspired by all the new immigrants who are choosing to call Philadelphia home. We need to make sure that their experience is a good one, and that like my family, they will continue to call Philadelphia home for years to come.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length.