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Immigrant Roots- Katherine Chua Almiranez

 “Becoming a citizen impacted my self-esteem, concept of self-worth and my perception of what I have a human right to. It’s taken me time to unlearn things I didn’t even know I learned as a result of keeping my status a secret for so long.”

My name is Katherine Chua Almiranez and I was born in the Philippines. In May 12th, 1987, a relative brought me to the United States to live with my grandparents. My Grandparents lived in a 1-bedroom apartment in Sunnyside, Queens with my Uncle, and Great Aunt.  

The night we landed was the night I fell in love with New York. As we were descending I saw a twinkling of lights, I thought they were stars. The closer we came to the ground the lights became brighter and I realized that it was the city.

“I had never seen anything like this in my life, they were just so amazing”

I really hadn’t comprehended what it meant to be in a new city and country or how my life would be different. Until one day my Great Aunt changed my perspective on what I thought was “normal.” Where I lived in the Phillipines, food was scarce. Cheese, for example, is considered a treat because it’s very expensive. But in my new home in America, I was shocked that the fridge was always full. Who was putting all this food in the fridge? And how come every time I ate something there would be more when I checked later? I just couldn’t understand it, but this only made me love America even more.. My immediate reaction because of the environment I had grown up in was to hide the cheese, so I could have it all for myself. I ran into the one bedroom that I shared with my Grandmother and Great Aunt, and hid the cheese under the bed. Soon the cheese started to smell; my Great Aunt found it and I knew I was in for it. Instead of scolding me, she sat me down and told me, “The one thing you never have to worry about here is food; you never have to steal food, I will always provide for you.” This is when I knew that my life here would be different and that I wouldn’t have to want for things like before.

It took 2 years for me to fully grasp the English language and be able to communicate without second guessing myself. I knew I was brought here with intention of assimilating into a community, learning the language and learning the way things worked. But there was still an expectation of having the principles of my family’s community.

“To me it was a double edged sword, where both cultures I grew up with were in conflict with one another.”

As I began to assimilate into American culture, I was teased for trying to become “too American”. I’d be told, “Oh you think you’re American” and it was really confusing to me. At the time I was into teenage movies and wanted to dress like my peers in school, so I would hike up my sleeves and my skirt when I went to school and right before I went home I would un-hike them. I remember thinking I was being respectful to my family and their rules, but also I was learning to fit into a culture at my school too.

“I felt really silent in my own community”

Being undocumented was never something anyone in my house ever spoke about. I understood that it was my status but I didn’t comprehend what it really meant or what the consequences were. In high school, I started to reinvent myself and I took on a lot of leadership roles. One summer, I was nominated for a leadership training in Europe. Without realizing that I couldn’t travel because of my status, I went to my grandmother to get the paper signed and that is when I was hit with the news. “You can’t do that, you don’t have any papers,” is all she said, and that was the first time I felt I couldn’t dream. Soon after I fell into a deep depression. I stopped participating in things at school and just lost my way.

“I started to hate my family, I got angry with them; why did they bring me here and put me in this position.”

I distanced myself from the Filipino community because I was scared and angry at them. I never felt included. It took me a while to get back on my feet. Eventually I joined a theater group, which allowed me to express some of the pain that I was experiencing through the work we were doing. I still never felt comfortable enough to share my status with the people that were close to me. When I was accepted to college, I used the opportunity to study the undocumented population. I started to explore different issues and identities of undocumented youth.

Years after I finished college, I eventually was able to change my status and start the process of obtaining my citizenship. After 23 years of being unable to leave the U.S, I finally visited the Philippines. Once I received my citizenship the first thing I did was to change my last name so I would share it with the 3 women who raised me in America and to identify myself more as a Filipino. I was no longer afraid to be a part of a culture that I once felt excluded from.

In 2011, I created the play Undocumented; which highlights the inner turmoil of an undocumented girl who is found out by the authorities. At the time I was also a part of CAT Youth Theatre; the best part of doing theater work as someone who was formally undocumented is meeting with young undocumented youth and being able to share our stories.

Now, I work in educational theater with Creative Arts Team, I train teaching artists on how to use drama within the classroom as a way to examine the world and create theater.

"It has been a long journey and it is still unfolding."

The New York Immigration Coalition's weekly blog series "Immigrant ROOTS" features the many stories of New Yorkers impacted by immigration and migration. The project aims to explore the "roots" of individuals that make for so many diverse experiences that are a critical fabric of New York.


Share your story! If you'd like to share your story and be a part of this project, please contact us at Thanu Yakupitiyage at tyaku@nyic.org to schedule an interview. 



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