The Reluctant American
In September 1984, just before the start of the academic school year, my mother arrived at Newark Airport from Belo Horizonte, a city in Southeast Brazil. She was twenty-two, alone, and carried along with her bags the name Ceiza Maria Calais Madeira. She has since undergone two name changes (first to Laurenzano, then Gannon) and lost the first of her two middle names along with much of her accent.
My mother, Ceiza Gannon, now nearly sixty, is a lifelong student. After earning a degree in Brazilian literature she came to the United States to study conversational English at Queen’s College, New York, though she attended for only two terms before meeting her first husband and starting a family.
Aside from looking to study English, Ceiza was also disillusioned with the oppressive military dictatorship which controlled her homeland from when she was two (1965), until just one year after her departure (Napolitano, 2018 p. 1).
She said, “I got tired of Brazil…[and] it’s political bull****.” While the people across the country have grown accustomed to the exhaustion of seemingly daily political crises, not all countries globally or historically have had a democratic backbone to rely on.
More than thirty years after the fact, she spoke with vehemence about what was the breaking point for her: “the left [the liberals opposing the dictatorship] made an agreement with the military that the military could choose the first president.” This perversion of progress, she says, “still pisses me off.”
Despite her strong dislike for Brazil’s then-leadership, my mother acknowledges her privileged position in Brazil’s socio-political hierarchy. While she participated in student-led protests and once admitted to having been “somewhat teargassed”, claiming to have been “in the back” of the crowd, she still had countless advantages other Brazilians did not. This includes relatives who helped fund her journey, along with her own contributions.
Ceiza also acknowledges her privilege in easily obtaining a visa (which many Latin American immigrants find difficult or impossible to do) as a “white girl with a college degree.” Her own siblings face difficulty getting visas because they were born in a different town than my mother and one which, according to her, is known for its citizens leaving on temporary visas and never coming back.
But whereas the U.S is a “promise land” for many immigrants, the United States was never my mother’s final destination. Ceiza planned to move on to one of Europe’s many cultural meccas after practicing English cheaply in the states, but ended up getting married to an American only six months after arriving in the country.
In this way, my mother has been inadvertently Americanized, homogenized in a melting pot she never intended to be cooked in. She’s been in the United States for nearly forty years‒almost double the time she spent in Brazil.
While she still has an accent‒though I have to admit I’ve never been able to hear it‒it’s significantly lighter than in old home videos in which her words are almost indescribable over the low buzz of the decaying VHS tapes.
Similarly, those old videos, spanning the 1980s to the early 2004s (from my brother’s early childhood to my own) show a dramatic change. My mother shifts from speaking largely in Portuguese, alienated from those around her by anxiety and a language barrier, to mostly English with only a few choice phrases and lullabies in her native tongue.
Is it best to stop even thinking in one’s native language? Growing up my mother seemed at odds‒entirely in conflict‒with her surroundings. She abhorred that which she deemed overly American: fast, greasy food, reality TV, politics‒anything she didn’t like she labeled “American”.
As time went on, she seemed happier: becoming more and more a product of her adopted land, accepting it as her home rather than longing to be elsewhere (Europe, Brazil, anywhere but where she was).
And I, the small-town girl from Delaware, who once wished to be “normal,” long for a culture I fear got washed down a drain in Spanish Harlem thirty-seven years ago.
Maybe it’s the way of being young, being seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty-two, to always want what is just out of reach, nearly but not quite ours. My mother first wanted political freedom, but the left sold its soul to the devil. Then she wanted Europe, but New York’s grimy imitation instead. Finally, I, her daughter, find myself dreaming about a country and culture long since left behind.
Like my mother, I probably won’t get that, either. Maybe I’ll find something close.
World Population Review. (n.d.). Edgewater, New Jersey Population 2022. Edgewater, New Jersey Population 2022 (Demographics, Maps, Graphs). Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/edgewater-nj-population
Napolitano, M. (2018, April 26). The Brazilian Military Regime, 1964–1985. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://oxfordre.com/latinamericanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199366439.001.0001/acrefore-9780199366439-e-413