Miriam Burbano wants immigrants to understand something during these trying times: we are not second class citizens. In her new book, Memorias Migrantes, Burbano recruits second generation immigrants to write the story of their families and other immigrants in the hope that the younger people can appreciate the past, and recognize that in it, lies their story too.
“This book was actually written by 16 youths,” Burbano said. “The idea was for these kids to wake up to their own stories because I heard them say, ‘I am tired of hearing my mom or my dad’s story’, but what if it was a job? What about if they had to go and interview people and actually realize that their parents’ story was their story?”
The book is only a few years in the making, but the sentiment behind it was born decades ago, when Burbano first came to the U.S. from Quito, Ecuador. She and her husband, who was an American citizen, decided to come to the U.S. because they wanted their young children to be bilingual so that they would have better opportunities in life. It was when Burbano and her family came to the U.S. that she encountered an unexpected realization.
“When I was in Ecuador, I was respected; I came from a good family, I had an education,” Burbano said. “But when I got to the United States, I found out that I was a minority, that I was a woman of color, that I was unwelcome. I was a part of a second class of citizens from the point of view of many.”
The experience prompted Burbano to write her first book. Knowing her own story, she said, she knew she had not come here under the stereotypical reasons that Latinos are often associated with, like drug dealing or criminal behavior. If she had come here to work hard and to get a better life, she knew there were more people out there like her, it was just a matter of proving it to those saying otherwise. And so, she started interviewing immigrants from all different backgrounds to find out why they came to the United States.
“The first point to write a book was to show the world and Donald Trump that we were not criminals,” Burbano said. “But the second and most important point was to wake up in our own conscience, of the Hispanic or Latin people, the realization that we are wonderful people and that we are not better or worse than anybody on this planet and that we deserve to be happy and that we deserve to be treated with dignity and that we are capable as anybody if given the opportunity.”
With the first book, Burbano felt like she had covered the story of the first generation of immigrants, but she still felt she owed something to the younger generation. So, she decided to start working on a second book, one that was written with and for the youth. In it, second generation immigrants went out to interview successful immigrants and ask them about their journeys. And, as Burbano makes sure to point out, successful didn’t mean “having $2 million dollars in your bank account”, it meant people who had defied hardships to be where they are, who had to grow out of their comfort zone, who fought for what they wanted. In short, Burbano said, people who are happy.
“Becoming very successful for a woman that didn’t go to school like my mother, money has nothing to do with it,” Burbano said. “Seeing us graduating from college and having kids that go to school and graduating from school is happiness for her.
“For me, an immigrant woman, seeing my daughter being a PhD student in neuroscience or knowing my son has a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and they were both born in Quito knowing no English brings me happiness.”
A clear source of happiness for Burbano is talking about the young people she works with. She talks about how one of her kids, now 19, “just published a book about creating peace through communication.” Another one, she says, is just 8 years-old and already “talking about how to create peace in Mexico.” There is also Laura, a 16 year-old who has been working with Burbano since she was 13, and is now “an ambassador of peace” who gives conferences talking about respect for women and does presentations about domestic violence.
“These are not professional people, these are just teenagers,” Burbano said, “But [what this book is about] is making the youth aware of who they are and the fact that they deserve to have the opportunities for education, to be successful, to share their knowledge and to be happy as anybody.
“So if we break the cycle and make people own who they are, no president will come to tell them what they are because they already know. And most importantly, if we don’t tell our stories, nobody will tell them for us. We have to write who we are so people understand, so people get to know and get to see us as, as equal to everybody.”