Caught in the middle
First-generation Americans don’t always feel accepted
You’re becoming too Americanized, Nickie Nguyen’s parents told her when she didn’t speak Vietnamese as well as the other Vietnamese children around her in Des Moines.
You’re not Dominican enough, Geordano Liriano, of Harlem, N.Y., was told by older people when he couldn’t say a certain Spanish phrase correctly when visiting the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, he said, his friends in the United States say he is too Dominican.
The only time Isaac Medina, of Marshalltown, gets referred to as an American is when he visits Mexico. In Iowa and in the United States in general, he always is referred to as Mexican.
Being the first generation of their families to be born in the United States has brought a challenge to these Americans caught in the middle of two different cultures and countries. Micro-aggressions and extra pressure to succeed in order to prove themselves and their ethnic communities worthy are major parts of this struggle.
Not feeling truly accepted as an American is a common feeling for each. They share their stories:
Liriano’s mother came to the United States in hopes of becoming a model. She quickly met his father, who had left the Dominican Republic years earlier. Born in Harlem, Liriano, 21, identifies as a Dominican-American. “Because I exist in both I don’t only exist in one,” he said. “I am that hyphen. I am that middle ground, that breath you take before saying American.”
Liriano said he has had to prove that he belongs at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, as a student. He told of how, he fell asleep while writing a paper at the university’s Main Library in a room upstairs. When he woke up, he said he was greeted by three police officers.
“Just because of either what I look like or what I represented to them they all greeted me very hostilely,” he said. “They greeted me with this sense that I was either homeless or an addict of some sort and they just spoke to me in such a way that sort of felt dehumanizing.”
Liriano said he had to show his student identification card to prove he was a student at the university and had a right to be in the library. He said moments like these have happened numerous times in his life.
“These are all moments where we have to prove our value to the world, to prove that we are, not that we are not,” he said.
Medina, 21, said he often has felt as through he isn’t treated like a U.S. citizen. After his grandfather died, Medina’s father, Alfonso, traveled without legal documents to the United States to work in California strawberry fields, feeling obligated to care for his mother and sisters as the only man in the family.
Alfonso traveled back to Mexico every few months with a plan to reunite permanently with his family once they were in a better financial situation. With increased border security, the trips became too dangerous and Alfonso chose to stay in the United States for work and not return to Mexico. With the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Alfonso was able to gain legal status to stay in the United States.
The Medina family settled in Marshalltown. Several times throughout his life, Medina said people have questioned where he is from. He said his first answer of Marshalltown lends to them asking again, so he says he was born in Davenport.
“Then they continue to seek sort of an inner truth that they believe is there but its not,” said Medina. When he explains his parents are from Mexico, he said his questioners finally seem satisfied, responding: Oh, you’re Mexican.
He said he thinks the color of his skin makes people identify him as Mexican more than knowing he was raised in a traditional Mexican household.
“In a lot of senses you have two masks,” Medina said about living within the two nationalities as a Mexican-American. “That’s part of living on the hyphen.”
Nguyen, who celebrated her 21st birthday on Jan. 1, said her struggles have come from her parents and society expecting her to be exceptional.
Growing up, hearing stories about her mother escaping Vietnam during war by running through elephant grass at night was common. At school, she said teachers would tell her she should be thankful for what her parents went through to come to the United States. Because of this, she said she felt pressured to attain model minority status.
“You’re either not living up to model minority or you are the model minority,” Nguyen said. “I was always deferred to as smart because I’m Asian. People would jokingly ask me to do their homework, or they would just try to copy. And I think that really negates how much work I’ve put into my academics.”
Another pressure point comes from political discussions regarding immigration. She said she’s heard children of immigrants being referred to as America’s future, and others saying this is why the United States should allow immigrants to come into the country.
“So wow, now the children of immigrants have to do something with their lives, otherwise, why else should we let immigrants come to America?” she said. “Why can’t people just live?”
Krista Johnson reports for IowaWatch.org. For more, see the video at