Proud Daughter of Immigrants
Prospero’s Associate Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Theresa Soriano, describes her parents’ courage in building a life in America
Creating their “American Dream”
My family’s story of immigrating to this country is similar to the quest of many others who seek the “American Dream.” I am a first-generation Filipino American, born in Chicago, Illinois. I grew up mostly in and around New York City. My parents were raised in the Philippines in humble households, and they were the first in their families to go to college and earn advanced degrees. They met and were married in the Philippines, each spending time separately visiting and studying in the United States prior to their wedding. In the late 1970s, they immigrated permanently to the States and settled in Queens, New York.
They worked hard in steady jobs (my mom, a food scientist-turned-accountant; my dad, a draftsman-turned-CPA). My parents’ stable incomes allowed them to support family still living in the Philippines, purchase a home, and provide my sister and me (and often live-in grandparents) with what many would consider a “normal” suburban upbringing.
My parents valued education and self-sufficiency above all else, always encouraging us to seek out and learn about what interested us. Growing up, my parents had limited resources, opportunities, and encouragement, and I think this left them feeling that they didn’t have much of a choice when it came to career opportunities.
They stressed that my sister and I, especially as women, needed to be able to support ourselves. “Never depend on a man” was one of my dad’s favorite sayings! My aspirations of becoming a teacher, social worker, or journalist somehow led me to social science and then medicine, and my sister pursued the arts and design, which led her to become an arts education professional in the NYC public school system. Both my sister and I are now parents ourselves, and are fortunate and proud to be able to now continue our parents’ “American Dream.” We are both humbled by the privileges and opportunities we’ve had, stemming from our parents’ sacrifices and hard work. In many ways we represent the “fairy tale” immigrant story and therefore have chosen paths that allow us to promote opportunities and equity for other families who are working just as hard to realize their dreams in this country.
Celebrating with food
Like most cultures, our celebrations center around family and food. My immediate family is small, but I grew up with an extended “family” of Filipinos, some of whom my parents grew up with in their home cities. Holidays, birthdays, and other life celebrations were often 50-person events — everyone would bring a dish to the hosts’ home, potluck style.
I remember as a kid, Filipino dishes of roasted pork (lechon), noodles (pancit), and spring rolls (lumpia) were served side by side with baked ziti, turkey and stuffing, and cheesecake. And because celebrations would last five, six, even 12 hours, there were plenty of opportunities to sample all of the food! Over the last many decades, our celebrations have grown from two generations to three and even four. This past year we haven’t had the ability to gather together like we used to, and it’s something we all really miss and cannot wait to celebrate together again safely.
The courage to start again
As a child of immigrants, I am so proud of and grateful for my parents’ courage and foresight to leave the familiar comfort of their families and home in the Philippines so they could build a life together in a new country. They knew that in the United States, they could use their education to raise a family that could live more freely. They worked hard against (and despite) quiet bias and stereotypes to advance in their careers, while juggling the full-time job of raising two daughters who were growing up with the mixed messages of two cultures that occasionally clashed. I used to view my parents as fairly risk-averse and conventional, but as I’ve gotten older I appreciate that they actually took many risks and faced a series of uphill challenges so we could all benefit from the stability and privilege they worked so hard to achieve.
In hindsight, the grit, determination, and vision that they, like many immigrants, have displayed on their journey are the very same ones that they passed on to us.
A rise in anti-Asian violence
The increased incidence of anti-Asian violence across the country has been unsettling for me, as it has been for most Asian Americans and all people of color. Somewhat against my parents’ preferences, I’ve always felt it is important to speak out against practices or events that violate civil liberties, but I admit the most recent events have hit much closer to home. In the last few months, my parents don’t feel as comfortable visiting us in the city they love, because they are nervous about being victims of the attacks on people who look like them. They say it reminds them of when they were new to the US and were mocked, ignored or overlooked because they spoke English with an accent. They express fear for me and my sons, and even though I assure them we are fine, it does make me wonder if we need to be more careful than my White husband, simply because of how we look. It has motivated me to support anti-racist efforts — not only because of how it affects me and my family as Asian Americans, but also because no people of color, or those whose identities are seen as “other,” should ever feel scared to be a part of society because of what they look like or how they choose to live. Despite my parents’ sometimes negative experiences as Filipino-Americans, they made sure we were proud of our heritage and traditions, and also embraced this country and its history. My father enlisted in the U.S. Army, ready to serve if needed, as his father did in the Philippines when it was a U.S. territory in the late 19th and early 20th century. Growing up, we visited many parts of the country, by road, train, and air — depending on the state, sometimes met with stares or even cold shoulders.
Finding a path forward
Learning from and talking to people, both Asian and other nationalities, about our individual experiences, reactions, feelings, and areas of growth helps me validate that these issues are hard, longstanding and affect everyone to some degree, even if indirectly. While my family and I participate in and support organizations that promote equity, I find the most comfort in doubling down on the simple, everyday activities that role model for my sons the world we want to live in: talking with them about what is happening in the world, serving our local community, being there for our family and friends, and impacting the world in a positive way through my professional work in the organizations committed to caring for vulnerable populations. If we truly believe equity and opportunities are what the American Dream is all about, I challenge us all to do something that helps people get closer to that dream.