Post 3: Settling into American life

This is the third entry in a series of eight blog entries about the work the Institute for Immigration Research is doing with the Centreville Labor Resource Center (CLRC) to develop an in-depth picture of immigrant day laborers in the United States. In the last two entries we described the wide array of services offered to the day laborers at the Centreville Labor Resource Center (CLRC) and examined several of the reasons the Guatemalan workers migrate to the US.

We learned that the Guatemalan migrants come to the US for a variety of reasons and many of them have relative urgent reasons to leave their home country. Nonetheless one gets the impression from most of them that the decision to migrate to the US has come with a great of amount of contemplation. However, all of this contemplation cannot fully prepare the day laborers for the life that awaits them away from their families and cultural norms. One day laborer expressed it like this: “Every time somebody returned to Guatemala from the States, I saw that suddenly their economic well-being would go up really significantly…you cannot imagine how different it is here compared to what you picture in your head. People, who return make it look so easy and worth it because their economic well-being has improved.”

Most migrants experience some form of what is called ‘culture shock’, which can be defined as the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. The process of culture shock usually follows several key steps; change in place, disorientation, recovery, and adaptation. The sentiment involved in this process of adaptation can vary enormously from one person to another. We learned from our interviews that the phase of recovery and adaptation involves a set of similar obstacles and benefits for all of the day laborers. However, the feelings expressed about their first experiences differ considerably with some of them feeling a sense of gratitude and others expressing: “Nothing was easy when I got here”.

Most signs, like this one in the liquor section of a store, are posted only in English. © Taber Andrew Bain.

A number of the day laborers did not speak any English when they arrived to the US.  Their inability to communicate with English speakers caused a feeling of insecurity, which initially resulted in lack of confidence and susceptibility of being underpaid for their work. However, to compensate for their lack of English vocabulary, the day laborers skillfully make use of their network of friends and family members in Centreville and Northern Virginia. These social networks frequently provide access to facilitators who can help newly arrived day laborers in finding a place to live and settle. The day laborers, who arrived after the opening of the Centreville Resource Labor Center  in 2011, as described in Post 1, have benefited from the center’s services especially with the initial adjustment to their new environment. So, both the CLRC and the day laborers own personal network provide comfort during this initial phase of becoming accustomed to American culture.

Other day laborers mentioned that it is hard to be away from family, to adapt to the changing seasons and the expense of being sick in the US. Adjusting to the changing seasons is a challenge for the day laborers not only because of the cold winters in Virginia, but also because their jobs are seasonal, such as landscaping and general house repairs, which means the job availability drops significantly.

Many of the interviewees found that their lack of transportation complicates their process of settling in, as walking is their only mode of transportation.

Towns in Northern Virginia are built around highways. © Taber Andrew Bain.

One day laborer explains: “It was difficult in the beginning as I worked in two different restaurants. One was in Chantilly and one in Fairfax and I had to walk between the two jobs, which took me an hour from one restaurant to the other. I had nobody to give me a ride, so I suffered a lot because transportation was so hard for me.” When the day laborers in our study needed to travel farther than they were able to walk they would rely on transportation from friends and family.

traffic photo
Shirley Highway in Virginia. Heavy traffic and empty bus lanes.

The day laborers we spoke with are always thinking of their families, who they left behind in Guatemala.  Several of the interviewees have not seen their immediate family members in as much as nine years. To compensate for the absence of their families, the day laborers seem to focus on the reality that they are away from their families to better provide for them through the employment opportunities offered to them in Centreville. Hence, their jobs make the settling easier. As members of a shared community it will always be important for all of us to understand the difficulties we each have in a new place, and as the day laborers adapt to being in the US, this community becomes their home away from home.

Keep an eye out for Post 4 in which the types of jobs the day laborers undertake in Northern Virginia are explored.

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2 thoughts on “Post 3: Settling into American life

  1. Fantastic information. Thank you for this post. I have been transplanted myself into difficult situations–when my son was very ill, I found myself in Cincinnati at Children’s there for 7 months. I spoke the language, but still had such tremendous sense of disconnect. Financial well-being, transportation, and housing were not issues, nor food. I can’t imagine blindly coming to the US from so far, facing so many obstacles, and not feeling crushed by it all. Thank you.

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