By Martha Wessells Steger — The newest exhibition at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, “New Virginians: 1619-2019 & Beyond,” reaches across the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia’s Eastern Shore with at least three personal connections.
By way of background, think back fewer than 50 years ago, when only one in every 100 people living in Virginia had been born outside of the United States; in 2012 (the most recently updated census figures), that number was one in nine. Recent estimates put the number of foreign-born Virginians at just under one million.
Jose Francisco Garcia
Some longtime American citizens would undoubtedly identify with Jose Francisco Garcia — raised on his family’s farm in El Salvador — who first worked on the Shore for the chemical company Glades Crop Care. He came to events such as field days at the Virginia Tech Agricultural Research and Extension Center (VTAREC), where Lauren Seltzer, the executive secretary, said, “We discovered how smart he was. He already had his undergraduate degree and we encouraged him to pursue his master’s degree work on campus in Blacksburg.”
After fulfilling requirements for his graduate degree during the fall and spring 2016, he returned to VTAREC in 2017 as a Ph.D. student in plant pathology. In describing his arrival in southwest Virginia in a videotaped interview, he said, “I don’t know if everybody feels the same, but every time when I have to take a …step, I’m always in terror [about] what’s going to be, what’s going to happen. … Never being in a college in the United States, I [hesitated to apply for graduate school here] because I didn’t know how it was going to work for me. I don’t understand English very well. … There are different terms [in academic fields] such as mathematics. It was a little bit scary.”
Given the differences in educational systems between his native El Salvador — the smallest and most densely populated nation in Central America —and Virginia, he said he was surprised to see so many people from different countries. He found comfort in seeing, “a lot of people from Asia, Nepal, and African people” in Blacksburg.
At the same time, he sometimes felt it challenging to overcome what he calls “indirect negative reactions.”
“…[Y]ou don’t have to be told in words. You can sense a negative reaction in people’s actions — people who aren’t Latino.”
Pedro Sanchez and Loida Tema
Two other immigrants living in the United States much longer — Pedro Sanchez and his wife, Loida Tema —came 19 years ago as migrant agricultural workers. In their videotaped interview, Pedro told researcher David Bearinger he first worked in Florida fields “picking strawberries, tomatoes, oranges, tangerines, watermelons and cantaloupes. … I really respect the people working on the fields because I have worked there, and I know how tough it is … sunrise to sunset.”
In Virginia, he’s “picked cucumbers, chili peppers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes”; he’s now employed in the Shore’s poultry industry, where he says he makes “barely $12 an hour” stacking boxes that weigh 50-80 pounds, hard work after “an accident” to which he alludes. At the same time, he says of a potential life for his family in Mexico, “There is nothing there.”
His wife, Loida, has been raising their four children and said people on the Shore “have been kind to me, even at school and at meetings … [As Pedro says], most people in our community are good people, [who] come here fleeing starvation and to help our families.”
She and Pedro talk often with their parents via phone – hers in Guatemala and his in Mexico. Pedro says, “They say it doesn’t matter what I have accomplished. They want me to come back.”
Loida’s parents echo the same thing: They keep “telling us they want to see us … that we should come back”; but she says, “If I take my kids to Guatemala, they won’t have the future they can have here. They will end up like us. I want them to study, and they have better opportunities to study here.”
Other “New Virginians” and the Commonwealth’s 400th Anniversary
Some Virginia immigrants, here much longer, have achieved high levels of education and secured very good jobs. Virginia’s Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni, came to the United States from Pakistan when he was 10. Bol Gai Deng, who works at a Richmond home-improvement store, is campaigning to be the next president of South Sudan. Alisa Khidr, from Egypt, is a professor in the University of Virginia’s speech pathology program.
2018 statistics – such as one of every nine Virginians being foreign-born – are enlightening, but personal stories are what really pull us into the immigration and refugee experience. The exhibit runs through Dec. 7 of this year as the commonwealth commemorates the 400th anniversary of several major historical events — among them the bringing of the first Africans to Virginia and the first women to come to the 17th-century colony in significant numbers. The most recent exhibition explores in-depth some of the faces behind the state’s immigration story.
On the eve of the 2020 federal census, the exhibit highlights the commonwealth’s changing demographics. Through videos (60 hours of recorded dialogue) and artifacts, visitors can step into the shoes of Virginia immigrants – and even see some of the precious, few mementos brought with them on their often-hazardous journeys from countries such as Bolivia, Iran, Laos, and Nigeria. Honduran native Karla Almendarez-Ramos, who is human services coordinator and manager of the office of multicultural affairs for Richmond, has said, “This journey has to be shared … it’s the only way to get stronger.”
Bearinger and Pat Jarrett at Virginia Humanities, and Barbara Batson, the library’s exhibitions coordinator, became aware of many interesting personal stories in pulling together the exhibition. In the 34 in-depth video interviews, completed by Bearinger and filmed by Jarrett, with first-generation immigrants and refugees who arrived in Virginia after 1976, Bearinger said in an interview, “Two things surprised me most. … One is how willing, even eager, people were to share their immigration stories; and how thoughtful they were in describing what these experiences — good and bad — had meant to them.
“The other was the way that gratitude became a universal theme, expressed in one way or another by every person we interviewed: gratitude for the privilege of being part of this country, and a desire — I would even say an eagerness to give back.”
Experiences and Meaningful Objects
Like Garcia, Sanchez and Tema, other people interviewed represent a wide range of personal backgrounds, experiences, ages, and countries of origin – in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. “Some of them,” Bearinger explained in a Library of Virginia magazine article, are “people fleeing oppression, war or genocide. Others came seeking greater opportunities for themselves and their families, their children especially. They are from Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Mexico, Ireland, the former Soviet Republics, and the Middle East.”
All of them reveal touching portraits of determination and gratitude; some of them cover what Bearinger calls “tough emotional terrain” – “[b]ut they also contain immense joy, hope, and profound appreciation for the values and institutions that have made this country the beacon that it is.” The people interviewed were selected based on the diversity of their personal stories and their countries of origin; they included medical doctors, teachers, college professors, a world-renowned artist, a computer engineer, and two former U. S. Marines.
Topics discussed in the interviews include the circumstances leading the men and women (and children or families) to leave their homes; their arrival in Virginia; the challenges and obstacles they faced or overcame; questions about identity, assimilation, language, and culture; and what it means to be a Virginian (and an American).
Some of the immigrants came with only a handful of possessions – or, Bearinger said, “in a couple of cases, nothing but the clothes they were wearing. In every instance, the conversation somehow turned to gratitude for the chance they’d been given and their desire to ‘give something back.’”
“To complement the excerpts from the videos,” Batson explains in the same article, “objects that have special meaning for the interviewees” are displayed – including “a graduation stole given to Isabel Castillo by her grandmother to celebrate Castillo’s receipt of an honorary doctorate from the University of San Francisco; a copy of ‘Wedding Song,’ a memoir by Farideh Goldin of her journey from Iran to the United States; a mask crafted by Ganna Natsag for a tsam (“masked dance”) ceremony practiced in his native Mongolia; a stringed instrument called a charango from Bolivia; and a Quran from Aliaa Khidr representing the free practice of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.”
Overview, Events and Programs
A brief historical overview of immigration to the commonwealth is on view in the library’s lobby. “Virginia,” Batson wrote, “has welcomed immigrants since the arrival of the first English colonists and has always supported a diverse population.” The library’s research shows one in six Virginia workers is an immigrant; one in five self-employed business owners in Virginia is an immigrant; two in five adult immigrants have earned a college degree; more than half of all immigrants in Virginia are naturalized citizens; and nearly twenty percent of owners of the state’s accommodations and food-service industries are immigrants.
At a time when aging Americans need the Social Security revenue from younger members of the workforce, it’s significant that nearly half of these new residents are between the ages of 25 and 44. Beyond economic implications that are local as well as statewide and national, the exhibit raises the question of what immigration means for public education, electoral politics and a social fabric that has long held the state and nation together through a shared history.
Look for information about exhibition-related events and programs on the library’s website calendar and Facebook page. The complete interviews are available through the library’s YouTube channel and website; go to http://edu.lva.virginia.gov/changemakers/new-virginians
“The composite portrait of Virginia is becoming more complex, challenging an older, simpler understanding of what it means to be a Virginian,” Batson wrote for the exhibit’s overview. “The challenge and opportunity is to reconsider what kind of place Virginia is – and what kind of place it should be – or can be. Whether our roots in the state go back ten thousand years, ten years or ten weeks, we create the future of our commonwealth together.”
Plan Your Visit
The Library of Virginia is open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.; 804-692-3500; events: 804-692-3999; www.lva.virginia.gov; calendar: www.libva.com/news Check www.americanevolution2019.com for information on how the commonwealth is engaging with the public to tell Virginia’s 400-year story.