Hola, glad you stuck around! As I am writing this I feel I might be nearing the end of my journey and I am only now getting to the images, stories, and writing I have been wanting to share. All due to some incredibly frustrating laptop issues (thanks Apple). Even so, I am still more determined to continue what I started and will see to it.
Since the last blog post and after my road trip in Europe, I headed south of the Equator to Buenos Aires to start my South American aventura. Apart from sharing photos of the sights and culture that are unique to each city, immediately in Buenos Aires I realized another perspective I was interested in sharing. The idea surprisingly came to me while shopping.
I was on a search for a book in the wet winter of Buenos Aires when I actually realized what my next photographic endeavor would be. I had searched online for a bookstore that carried a particular book and I found a few stores that were a couple of blocks away from each other. I grabbed my wallet, scarf, wool socks and headed outside to explore. While dodging the regular groups of canine feces on the streets of Buenos Aires, I came upon an area that stood out to me.
It was a square block that was filled with dime shops that had everything from cell phone chargers, kitchenware, slippers, to children's toys, and other knick knacks. I stopped by to see if there was anything I might be missing for the rest of my travels. After looking through several manicure sets in various stores throughout the block, I realized that almost all the employees manning the stores were Asian immigrants. Whether they were store associates, cashiers, or owners. Later on, I would visit Chinatown and I would also learn that there are more Chinese supermarkets than I could count spread all over city and that some immigrants mostly spoke only their mother language and could only communicate basic Spanish. While others even carried the natural, thick Argentinean accent, putting in "che" appropriately here and there.
Perhaps if I was still in Chicago something like this wouldn't surprise me as much. As a Latina in the United States, immigration has always been in dialogue within my community, within North America, and especially the United States. However, immigration within this hemisphere of the world so frequently points at Latin Americans migrating to the United States. In Buenos Aires, the topic of immigration to Latin America became one I wasn't familiar with but was intrigued by. Of course this is not a new subject matter nor unknown fact. Immigration from other countries to Latin America has been occurring for centuries. I was pretty familiar with the waves of immigration in most Latin American countries, but what about the waves occurring now? What opportunities lie in Latin America for others and why? Who were the immigrants interested in setting roots there? Are Latino America's doors/puertas open for these immigrants?
With this in mind, I decided I would start a mini photo essay on the immigrants I meet in Latin America and share their stories. At the very least my hope is that this project might even develop into a more expanded, well resourced photo essay. A project I would love to one day complete.
To open my mini photo essay I started with Linda Wong from Taiwan..
I met Linda while going back to that same square block area of dime shops one Sunday morning. I realized that investigating the details I was after would be no easy task. The goal was to at least get a small interview if they didn't want to be photographed but I was turned down by many immigrants. I knew it would be hard to try to trust a first time amateur journalist like me, but I was unprepared for how difficult it could be to record at least one perspective. Later I realized that apart from a cultural custom to protect one's personal life, Argentina has experienced a considerable amount of human smuggling. There are even mafia clans that are involved with bringing in immigrants illegally. Protecting their immigration story could be their way of playing it safe.
I walked into Linda's sunglass store a little discouraged and at the point of giving up when she pleasantly agreed to talk to me for a while about her experience in Argentina. Linda is a grandmother, Taiwanese immigrant, and her and her husband own a store that sells sunglasses in bulk. Her shop is filled with boxes of sunglasses and their samples taped on the front of their box. Some shelves hold pictures of her family, bonsai trees, and little buddha figurines.
She asked if I need help, I replied "no, thank you" and asked her how long she's had the shop. From there we conversed a little bit more and she agreed to tell me her story.
Linda had been the store owner for about seventeen years now. After completing her studies in a university in Taiwan, she and her husband heard rumors of China becoming a Communist country. In order to avoid this government, the couple considered going to Argentina. They had heard about how easy it was to find work and build a business. Unlike most predominately continental Chinese immigrants that rode the wave to Buenos Aires as well, Linda and her husband arrived with capital to have their own store. They raised their sons in their new country and their children are natural born Argentine citizens. When speaking about them Linda laughingly remarks that they are more Argentine than Taiwanese, they are both married to Argentine women. She lovingly points to the pictures of her grandchildren on the shelves behind her counter. Despite working hard and for many hours in Argentina for years, she appreciates the opportunity she had to open and own a business.
As I remembered the many immigrant stories in the United States I have heard before, I became curious if there was a dream within immigrants in Latin America about going back to their mother country with their hard earned savings. Linda smiled peacefully to this inquiry and replied "no", there was no turning back. Her developing family was now in Argentina, but she still visits Taiwan every year to see her ninety-six year old mother.
Still, Linda didn't always feel her future was in Argentina, she recounted how hard it was in the beginning to be a part of the country. She and her husband arrived without knowing any Spanish, without having any friends or family members in the country. "It was a lonely time", she remembered, "and you have to work very hard and work very much". It wasn't in her or her husband's plan to sell sunglasses in bulk, but due to the other popular markets of products manned by Asian immigrants like cell phone accessory, toy, and food produce stores, her husband and her thought sunglasses was a safe and rewarding bet. "You can count on your hand how many stores do what we do", she laughed.
Life in Argentina has been a challenge and full of ups and downs Linda described. Discrimination, inflation, and assimilation are all topics she included in her tales of struggle. The growing numbers of Asian immigrants in Argentina developed some xenophobia and discrimination from some Argentines. Harder to figure in numbers, but present nonetheless through experiences, Linda believed that one of the most important reasons why other Asian immigrants wouldn't grant me an interview is because the discrimination they have experienced from Argentines that sometimes leads to lack of trust. "They might have thought you were going to twist their words or report them somehow" she said when I told her my frustration. "Most mistrust Argentines, they have been told nasty things to their faces, and have felt threatened at some points, I've seen restaurant owners even being asked aggressively if they are selling dog meat or not ". As she told me this I felt extremely lucky to capture her perspective. Later on her son would enter Linda's store and disapprovingly question her in Mandarin on why she was allowing me to interview her.
Apart from racial tensions, Argentina's inflation issues has shifted lifestyles and consumer trends and Linda had seen that first hand. She admitted that purchasing power dropped due to the rise in prices over all Buenos Aires. Although the more recent inflation phenomena could have been a tougher patch in her life in Buenos Aires, she's making it through and she claimed that assimilating to life in the city is no problem now.
In the midst of attending a customer Linda informed me, "now we have Taiwanese friends, and people hold cultural events in some parts of the city.. Chinese New Year is celebrated in Chinatown". On another day while walking through the tiny, but lively Belgrano strip dubbed "Chinatown" in Buenos Aires, I saw what she meant. I came across a Taiwanese Community center, a Budhist temple, and Chinese airline offices. Linda's assimilation to life in Buenos Aires was eased with developing celebrations of her culture in the city. To understand how important the growing Chinese community has been to the Porteño culture, you could consider that arch in Chinatown was only recently donated by the Chinese government in 2009. Despite not being formally authorized by the Argentine government. This arch and what is represents for Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants could even remind them about their former concerns over government that have followed them even to their new home in Buenos Aires. Proof that with more growth in community, their culture and what's important to them, can't be so easily lost or forgotten.
Almost serendipitously when closing the interview, I asked her why they named her store SAN SONG. She "aha"s and replies with a smile, "SAN SONG refers to a mountain pine tree that withstands wind, snow, rain, and a little bit of everything". "Durable", I said, like her and her family. "Exactly", she replied.