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."