This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/amazing/challenging things. This is the story of Poly and her time in America as an undocumented immigrant and her decision to move back to Brazil.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I was born in Governador Valadares, Minas Gerais. The city’s known for international hang gliding competitions and “exporting” Brazilians to far off countries. After close to 20 years in the U.S., I moved to São Paulo, where I work as a Search Engine Marketing Consultant. I’m also working on an MBA here, and when I have time, I like to travel all over, jog, blog, dance, work it at pilates, and discover São Paulo bars with my friends! Oh, and I’m 25.
How old were you when your family immigrated to America?
I was two years old. My parents went after the “American Dream,” so to speak.
When my parents found out they were pregnant with me, my mother was finishing up school and my dad was working a very low wage job. The opportunity came along to go to the US to live with my mom’s brother who was working there at the time.
When my mother and I went though, the “visa,” we had gotten was stolen. Determined, we ended up flying to Mexico and crossed the border illegally and my father with his visa, legally. Today I joke about it with my friends, but I’m sure it was terrifying for my mother to cross with complete strangers and a two year old.
Growing up in America, did you ever feel out of place?
I guess I never completely felt out of place. I did grow up in a very wealthy part of the US though, in Fairfield County, Connecticut and attended prep school for high school. My parents worked blue collar jobs my whole life, so I would feel left out more socio-economically than culturally for the most part.
While most kids traveled over the summer breaks, I would go to work with my mom (who’s in the cleaning business) and spend my summer reading on her client’s porches and living rooms. I felt most out of place when it came to things like getting a drivers’ license, applying to college, traveling abroad and getting jobs and internships. I was never able to do any of that and had to keep making excuses for why I couldn’t without revealing that it was because I didn’t have a green card.
How frequently did you visit Brazil when you were living in America? How did you family maintain their Brazilian culture while living in America?
Since our family was undocumented and risked not returning had we left the US, I didn’t visit Brazil at all. When I was 11, my dad applied for his green card through an employer and was denied. In my senior year of high school, he was 'grandfathered' in through the same law and applied through another employer. I was “safe,” under this application.
Despite never being back, I was a lot more Brazilian than American. The Brazilian community also grew significantly in my town, so there were a lot of us at school and church. We went to a Brazilian church and we spent a lot of time at the community center. We watched Brazilian TV, I would go to Brazilian concerts, perform dances at all sorts of events, and World Cups were sooo much fun (’94 and ’02, what?!). When I got to Brazil, people couldn’t believe I spoke Portuguese without a “gringo” accent and knew how to samba!
When did you start to consider moving back to Brazil?
When graduating from college, I tried applying to a number of jobs and was recruited by top organizations... until they would discover I was undocumented. I did land a non-paid summer internship in DC at a think tank post graduation though, so I decided to take that and buy some time. There I learned about how Brazil was growing and a good place to be at the moment and decided to “come home.” I discussed this with my parents, and a few months after being in Connecticut, I bought my plane ticket (although my mother refused to believe it for a while). I saved up some money working under the table at a restaurant and came to Brazil in February 2008, and after briefly visiting family in my hometown, settled in São Paulo.
Was readjusting to life in Brazil challenging at all?
It was easier than I thought it would be! Fortunately, my Portuguese was good enough to get through job interviews pretty well and I landed a job teaching English as soon as I got here. I quickly made it to a digital advertising agency through a student’s referral. I’m pretty out-going, so making friends wasn’t too tough and I couldn’t ask for better ones! What was most difficult was adjusting to all the bureaucracy of every little thing here and also the insanely high prices. I still order loads of clothes and electronics to my parents’ house because everything’s so expensive here!
Do you ever miss America?
I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would. I do miss my family and friends miserably! I also miss little things. Just tonight I was telling my roommate about Olive Garden breadsticks! But this was also over fresh black bean soup we’d just made & homemade papaya & coconut paste with fresh cheese from Minas for dessert... so I guess there’s a balance amongst the little things?
What advice would you give to someone else who feels out of place where they live?
My biggest advice is surrounding yourself with people you trust who you can vent to and cry with. Having good friends to talk to who I can relate to has always been a great way for me to keep my sanity and not go around pessimistic about everything. And also, always be positive and try to see things in a good light. I’m you’re average “Pollyanna,” and think this was all really just meant to be!
Any questions for Pollyanna? Have any of you ever considered permanently relocating to another country?