For young Latino immigrants in Gainesville and Hall County, there is a growing sense that they are standing on the threshold of a shift so dramatic that the only Americans who could relate are the ones who washed ashore from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
At stake are their heritage, culture and sense of belonging.
“For parents today, there exists an unspoken reality that their children will be the last generation to bridge the gap between the two cultures,” said Nataly Morales Villa, a student at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus and legal permanent resident of the United States.
Villa traveled to Mexico, the place of her birth, over the Christmas holiday last month to visit her grandparents, cousins and friends.
“Every year come December thousands of families encounter the long and dangerous journey to visit their loved ones in Mexico,” Villa said. “It is generations like mine that have grown up with the best of both worlds … a life in the United States and a taste of Mexico come summer and winter break. I’m very privileged to have both connections.”
Villa said she works in her community to retain the Mexican culture so deeply rooted in her family’s story while embracing the opportunities that a life in America brings.
But with each passing generation, immigrants lose touch with their native language and customs as more children of Mexican immigrants are born in the United States and grandparents die, Villa said.
“Then there are those immigrants who were born in Mexico and brought to the United States at a young age but are unable to reconnect back home due to their immigration status,” she said.
That’s where Hall County resident Maria del Rosario Palacios’ story begins.
Her parents came to the United States in search of better economic opportunities and education, but Palacios said America’s “broken immigration system” has immense consequences for families like hers.
Palacios is also a legal permanent resident, but her sister remains stuck in a kind of immigration limbo on the Mexican side of the border.
“My biological sister, my closest friend, who I grew up with until the age of 19, has been awaiting an immigration update for seven years,” Palacios said.
Despite having been raised in the United States, her sibling has been denied re-entry. And that disconnect kept Palacios from exploring her heritage until she joined the Latino Student Association at the University of North Georgia a few years ago.
“While some may argue that American culture should be the only culture needed to learn in this country, it denies young individuals with a more secure sense of self,” Palacios said. “Your self-identity is derived from both your environment and the traditions shown to you by your parents. Genetics passes on more than biological tendencies, and denying cultural understanding of someone’s past can leave an empty feeling.”