US Assembly Turns a Personal Lens on Immigration

Behind every immigrant, there’s a story. At last Friday’s Upper School assembly—the second session of programming created around this year’s DEI theme, Engaging Across Differences—attendees had a chance to hear immigration stories from a perhaps-unexpected quarter: Members of Rivers’ professional community who are themselves immigrants or who have close ties to the immigrant experience.

Arianna Martinez Cavero ’24 and Ale Paez Peñaloza ’24, leaders of the Hispanic and Latinx Affinity Space and themselves children of immigrants, moderated the panel, posing thoughtful questions that elicited moving and revealing answers. At a time when immigration has become a hot-button political issue in the U.S., the discussion provided a tangible and relatable reminder that immigrants are not alien or “other,” but rather are our colleagues, friends, neighbors, community members, and families.
As the event—titled “How to Talk About Immigration”—kicked off, each panelist introduced themself and explained why they were part of the day’s discussion. Math faculty member Victoria Mizzi noted, “You may not know I’m an immigrant, but I’m from Canada and became a citizen in 2011.” Her experience, she said, served to illustrate the point that each immigration story is different, and that a person’s status as an immigrant may not be immediately obvious.

Language faculty member Andrea Villagrán told the crowd that she was born in Guatemala and came to the U.S. for college, fully expecting to return to her home country. But she met people here, including her husband, put down roots, and eventually became a U.S. citizen. Director of DEI Jenny Jun-lei Kravitz P'28 was born in this country, but her father came from Hong Kong, and, she said, “That was an important part of my family’s story.”

IDS Department Chair Julian Willard P'24 grew up in a small village outside of London. In college, he met an American woman whom he later married, and he soon moved to the U.S., becoming a citizen in 2018. And Director of Enrollment Management Yassine Talhaoui joked, “If you look up ‘immigration’ in the dictionary, you’ll see a photo of my family.” His grandfather settled in Germany, where Talhaoui was born and raised, and today, he says, he has family all over the globe. 

The moderators asked the panelists to address the question of intersectionality—how the overlapping of various social identifiers such as race, gender, or class informed their experiences as immigrants. Villagrán shared that she came from a background of some privilege in Guatemala, and she described an incident she witnessed at the U.S. embassy when she went to apply for a student visa. An older woman in traditional clothing, who spoke little English, was also there applying for a visa. That other woman was treated rudely and dismissively by the clerk, while Villagrán—clearly a member of a different socioeconomic class—was whisked through the process. 

Mizzi’s experience echoed Villagrán’s: “As a white, upper-middle-class, highly educated English speaker, it was easier for me to go through the stages of getting my visa…. [During the process,] I was often mistaken for an American and asked who I was there to translate for.” Despite the geographic and cultural proximity of Canada and America, she said that she nonetheless experiences “otherness” here and sometimes feeled “pulled between wanting to be here and wanting to hold on to there.”

The panelists were asked about their experiences with xenophobia or outright racism. Kravitz said that, although she was born in the U.S., she is still sometimes asked where she’s from—meaning her country of origin, not her hometown. It’s worth remembering, she said, that “being ‘foreign’ or ‘alien’ or even ‘an immigrant’ are not natural attributes but conditions or circumstances.”

The next question seemed particularly relevant in the current moment: At a time when the topic of immigration is pressing, and with a contentious election on the horizon, what would the panelists want people to know about immigration? Villagrán said that it’s easy to “scapegoat or demonize people, especially when times are tough. Use critical thinking and don’t be swayed by emotion. Remember that behind the back-and-forth over immigration, there are real people. Your words matter, and what you say will have an impact, so be kind.”

“Get the facts,” said Willard, “and make up your own mind.” Don’t allow others to influence your feelings or actions, he added. 

The panelists also talked about positives tied to their immigrant experiences. Mizzi shared a story about tearing up at an NHL game at which the national anthems of both the U.S. and Canada were performed. It was shortly after she’d become a U.S. citizen, and, she says, “I dissolved in tears, to my husband’s embarrassment. But I really felt ownership of both anthems and both countries in that moment.”

Villagrán said that she gained a family when she immigrated, as well as two new countries (her husband is Mexican). Moreover, she says, “I gained perspective. I was able to appreciate and learn about Guatemala in a way that I couldn’t when I was there.” Willard echoed the sentiment: “I learned a lot about the U.K. by leaving it.”

Talhaoui said that he’s grateful for the courage his parents showed in leaving their homeland, leading him to acquire the “skill and cultural competence to connect with other people” that he might have otherwise lacked. 

As the panel wrapped up, Katie Henderson, associate DEI director, reminded students that the day’s assembly and the follow-up discussions in advisory were meant to serve as a lead-in to the March 4 campus visit of author and journalist Sonia Nazario, this year’s Hall Family Speaker Series guest. And she briefly reprised the day’s message, made vivid by the voices on the Kraft stage: “You’ll hear immigration presented as a political issue. But always remember the stories.”
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