Class, Culture, and the Immigrant Story

By Jen Gillan

My husband and I have stable, upwardly-mobile jobs.

My parents are near retirement age, but unsure if they’ll have enough money to retire.

I was born and raised in the United States and received a good education all the way through graduate school.

My parents were born and raised in Guatemala City. They immigrated to the United States when they were 19-years old. My dad finished high school; my mom didn’t. They met in Chicago, got married, and raised three girls. My dad has worked at a factory, delivered pizza, was a doorman for several years and then landed in the field of building maintenance and janitorial work. My mom has worked as a nanny and house-cleaner to various affluent families.

Throughout my life, I’ve learned to be a person of two. Two cultures – my parents’ and the dominant, American culture. Two languages – Spanish and English. And two or more classes.

In the hay day of my dad’s most stable and high-paying job, my parents bought a house, sent us to small, Christian private schools, and took us on multiple trips to my parent’s homeland. In other, less stable seasons, especially in my earlier years, we lived in a cockroach and mice-infested apartment and my dad worked multiple, crazy shifts to make sure we had food on the table. I remembered feeling mostly content – my parents were loving and nurturing, and we had lots of fun playing with the neighborhood, church, and school kids. However, there was always this intrigue with “the other world” of some of my parent’s jobs – the penthouses they worked in and the lives of their bosses. Beginning in college, I became increasingly aware that a lot of my friends had a different kind of upbringing – their moms didn’t clean other people’s homes.

Even now, while my husband and I are blessed with good income and meaningful work, it is still sometimes jarring to go from stepping into my parent’s world of an uncertain retirement, helping them navigate forms and thinking through ways we can help in the future, to spending a weekend at our friend’s parents’ second home.

Perhaps I’m more or less exploring the relationship between class and culture and the immigrant story. Perhaps I’m naming that my parents are a part of this sort of invisible sub-class that many Americans find themselves in, in which at a glance all looks well, but if you look further, there is deep financial uncertainty. Perhaps I’m voicing that I’m learning through my mother’s eyes how to roll with financial setbacks and trust that the God who took care of my mom when she crossed over the Rio Grande is the God who will keep caring for my parents when they cross over into retirement. And that as I straddle the world of my parents and this new world of opportunity that I’m experiencing as a second-generation Guatemalan-American because of my parents, I’m inspired to not forget their immigrant story and the greater story of the God who cares for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger and welcomes them all to sit at Table in God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom where there is abundance for all.


One thought on “Class, Culture, and the Immigrant Story

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  1. I so appreciate your allowing me to have a glimpse through your multifaceted view. Thank you also for integrating this with a sense of God’s provision.

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