In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

April 19, 2022

Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences: On overcoming barriers, learning identity, building success as first-generation Americans

By In the Loop

Monica Ibarra, Office of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, and Annie Lam, Human Resources, discuss their experiences of being first-generation Americans and the obstacles they overcame to find their identities in belonging to two cultures.


Mayo Clinic is a unique place: the culture, the values, the people. "Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences" explores the experiences of Mayo Clinic staff as they navigate life personally and professionally. Sharing these experiences increases understanding of others and ultimately contributes to finding connections, belonging and inclusion at work.  

In this episode of Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences, you will hear from Monica Ibarra, an equity, inclusion and diversity adviser, and Annie Lam, a Human Resources marketing and communications specialist, discuss their experience with being first-generation Americans. Lam shares her journey of being the interpreter between her parents and American society, and understanding what the American dream is. Ibarra shares her perspective of being a first-generation American while also having an immigrant story.   


Listen as they discuss how they overcame barriers and found their identity as first-generation Americans:


Read the transcript:

NARRATOR: In this episode, you will hear Annie, a communication specialist, and Monica, an equity, inclusion and diversity adviser, discuss their experience being first-generation Americans.

LAM: I think my definition of the American dream is different from my parents. My parents are Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, where they raised my siblings and worked on a farm before coming to the U.S. as refugees in the late '80s. I'm the youngest of six children and the only one to be born in America, specifically Lincoln Heights, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

My neighborhood was home to a poor to working-class Chicano and Latin American immigrant population with an increasing amount of Chinese immigrants from Southeast China and Vietnam, like my family.

IBARRA: I am the fourth of six children. My mom and dad were from Chihuahua, Mexico. Both have since passed.

I was born in El Paso, Texas, and lived in Juarez, Mexico. We immigrated here when I was 4, with my mom and my sister. My older siblings and my dad drove across the border in a blue Ford pickup truck. The four of them came across on Sept. 16, which is Mexican Independence Day.

A little bit about that confusion of how can you have American status and still have an immigration story: My grandmother, Amelia, found a program for my mom to participate in where my dad paid a fee for my mom to cross the border and give birth to her children in America. And within 24 to 48 hours, we went back to living our regular life in Juarez.

We ended up in the Milwaukee area, where my dad's family had immigrated prior to us arriving. It was really a concerted effort to get the paperwork and the documentation so that the children were all legal immigrants. My mother came undocumented to America and stayed undocumented for the entirety of her life. My dad built his own home through a partnership program with Southeastern Wisconsin. And literally with his hands, he built a home for us to move into Burlington, Wisconsin — a very small rural community where there are very, very few Latin Americans or people of color.

LAM: There were definitely challenges in being first-generation American. One of the challenges was a bit of role reversal in my household, where I assumed the parental role and grew up at an accelerated rate. I had to be independent at a very young age, figuring out my own homework and maintaining my own schedule while also supporting my parents with chores.

I was responsible for their paperwork and translating phone calls because they spoke little to no English. My older siblings were either off to college or busy working. My father worked at a sewing factory, and my mother was a homemaker who also had to take care of six kids.

She didn't have a lot of time to go to night school, although she tried. My father would bring garments for her to sew. That was a source of income for her.

I would say my lack of resources became most obvious to me when I started college. It was a whole new world where my classmates were from drastically different walks of life. I was responsible for my own paperwork, seeking grants and financial aid for tuition, and also applying for a part-time job to pay for rent and food. Some of my friends only had to focus on their studies in exchange for financial support from their parents.

IBARRA: I did not fully understand how to speak English or even understand people speaking to me in English until I was 8. I really learned to pay attention to other people and see what the other students were modeling for me to develop cultural norms.

I think another challenge for me is I am very liberal, and I was born into a patriarchal culture. Having this liberal stance of equity and demand for inclusion, and a lens for oppression, I don't recall ever not having that vision of how folks engage with one another. I wouldn't change being a Latino for anything. It's the beauty of the food, the culture, the community.

LAM: When I think of my parents' culture compared to American culture, I think of the narrative that if you put your head down, work hard, avoid getting into trouble, you will be successful.

In other words, follow the rules. Do as you're told. Don't talk back. Stay quiet and don't draw any unwanted attention.

To an extent, my parents live this way because as immigrants, they weren't aware of their freedoms after coming from a communist country. Or perhaps they feared deportation, even after gaining American citizenship.

I don't completely agree with the limitations of that narrative. I gravitate toward living by a more Americanized culture of endless possibilities. Chase your dreams. Take chances. You're allowed to fail.

I work hard, but I also work smart. I am a go-getter because opportunity doesn't always just present itself. I listen, but I also ask questions. I build relationships and seek help, when needed. I speak up and have my own opinions. I challenge and advocate for myself and others.

IBARRA: I only know of being an American. I only know that because I came here so young. I often pull back and think about the biases that people try to tell me of my culture, as opposed to that culture that I experienced.

Oftentimes, I forget I'm fluent in Spanish. It just blurts out of me. I do try to speak Spanish frequently to people. That was not something we really spoke in my household.

I have a daughter. She's biracial, and we talk about how she was not accepted into the Latino culture as a young woman.

We ate predominantly Latin food. We listen to Mexican music. Our artwork is Latin artwork, Mexican artwork. She was raised as a Latina.

She'll go out into her culture and her community where they treat her as a Black woman — a Black American, like her dad. That really muddied for me this idea of how intersectional we are in our cultures, how we immigrated here and how we took on these different dispositions and traits as Americans and lived them as our own.

I don't feel confusion in it anymore. But as a young woman, I often sat in confusion of that. There was no model for us back then of how to be one or the other. They were almost these unspoken truths about who we were, and there was no one to clarify it for us.

LAM: There is definitely a language barrier between me and my parents. I'm not as comfortable with a second language as you are. Code-switching isn't easy for me.

My parents speak Cantonese, Vietnamese, Mandarin and other dialects of Chinese. I am fluent in English, and I can barely speak conversational Cantonese to them. So there was always the challenge of them being able to speak English in public but also me communicating with them and translating their phone calls. Sometimes, I didn't know the words.

I can only imagine how hard it is to learn English because there were times when my dad took adult classes. I would try to help him with his homework. How do you explain "conjugating?" It's difficult.

I did take Spanish in high school. For me, maybe my younger brain, it was easier for me to retain and understand those rules. It was eye-opening and made me appreciate that I somehow picked up English, and I feel fortunate about that.

IBARRA: I think about my mom and having to look at her home when she immigrated and what she would not take. I think about those choices. What will you take?

I think about right now, as we're looking at our fellow global friends who are in a forced, unintentional migration. What would you choose? You don't speak the language. You don't know how to manage the culture, the money or setting up a household.

My parents' immigration was very thoughtful. We didn't go to an empty room. We didn't go to a tent. We didn't go to our refugee camp. We actually had homes.

My dad had connections to get a job. He was the only one who spoke English. The rest of us, nothing. My older siblings went to high school and middle school, not knowing a thing about English. Yet everyone graduated from high school.

LAM: I wouldn't discount your experiences at all. Even if you had a house to move into, it was still difficult. There were still a lot of challenges. I wasn't part of that, but I recognize that it must have been a struggle for my parents lugging around five kids, fleeing a communist country. Recent events get the wheels turning and make me think about their journey.

What is one thing that you would want your colleagues or friends to know about being first-generation American?

IBARRA: I think about how our personalities are built, and how we find purpose or cause to move forward. I think it would boil down to safety. I tend to be distrustful of people. I don't admit that often.

I have my guard up frequently. I'm an extrovert by nature, but I think I have seen spaces where people were distrustful with our trust and how we learn as first-generation immigrants or migrants to really hold back until we built relationships.

LAM: Seen, not heard — I think that was the silent expectation in my parents' culture. And I think in some ways I wanted to break away from that.

IBARRA: I agree with you wanting to break away from that. I think about my children and how I intentionally parented them to ask questions, be observant and advocate for themselves.

LAM: You mentioned you're more of an extrovert. I think it's a good reminder that it's OK to be both. It's OK to be either. We have quiet leaders. We have more extroverted leaders. It just goes back to the endless possibilities of being American.

IBARRA: Do you feel that you've refined what the American dream is? Historically, the American dream is you make your way and you're chasing after wealth, right?

I think some of us have changed that vision. I don't know if that's what we're chasing, or if we're more chasing this idea of bringing our authentic self to work.

I'm a Latina, an American. I'm a mother. I'm a Mexican mother. I find myself chasing joy more than I chase professional accolades or credentials. I do feel that that comes from that young woman who went to Mexico, had the smells, the music, the art and the laughter. I feel like that's where I have gone back to that place of chasing joy intentionally.

LAM: My definition is definitely different from my parents and even that of my siblings because they were young immigrants. I think my definition of the American dream is that freedom to choose. I was lucky enough where nothing was really imposed on me.

Although, when I was younger, I sometimes wished my situation was different. Like wishing that perhaps my parents were wealthy. Or they simply spoke English fluently so that they were able to help themselves navigate.

I can find appreciation from the adversity. I used to think the combination of having immigrant parents and growing up in an underserved community would hinder my potential. But after reflecting on how far I've come being a first-generation American, graduating from a top university and now am a seasoned marketing professional newly employed at Mayo Clinic, I wear my upbringing as a badge of honor.

Although my parents lacked finances and formal education, they kept food on the table, granted me the autonomy to make my own personal and professional decisions, while indirectly instilling values in me. Building me up to be resilient, resourceful, a balance of street-smart and book-smart, grateful, open-minded, always willing to learn and give back, humble, yet confident and strong-willed.

I think that's my definition of the American dream — that freedom to choose and not be told by my parents or my siblings how I should be.

IBARRA: That's very beautiful. I really appreciate that. As a mom, what you described is exactly what my hopes are for my kids — that freedom to choose and fail, right? Choose and fail and be fine with it because we'll get back up.

We have a little family mantra of "I belong to you, and you belong to me." It comes from that Latin culture and is a reminder that our successes have been built on that of our ancestors and that we didn't do this alone. We are just a part of another piece of it, and there'll be other people who will be building on our successes. That sacrifice of that pregnant mom, leaving Mexico with all her belongings behind — my achievements are built on hers. And then my kids' achievements are being built on top of mine.

NARRATOR: Reflect on this conversation. What did you learn? And what are the questions you could ask fellow colleagues to learn more about different cultures and perspectives?


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Tags: Annie Lam, Employee Stories, Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences, Monica Ibarra

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