by Taisha Pavlica
Hello, I am Taisha Pavlica, a former LaGuardia Community College student, currently pursuing a master’s degree in forensic psychology at John Jay college of Criminal Justice. I aspire to make my way into the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Ever since childhood, I have been interested in the intersection of criminality and psychology, heavily gravitating towards the study of serial offenders throughout my academic years. Having spent a year working at an emergency foster home during my undergraduate studies, my scholarly interests lie in the understanding of psychopathy, especially in relation to juvenile offenders, and possible early intervention initiatives. Outside of education, I am an avid traveler, with aspirations to backpack through the Ukraine and Russia in 2021.
In 2013, President Barack Obama gave a speech in which he stated, “unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from someplace else. Somebody brought you” (Obama, 2013). This statement encompasses the notion that America is built on the backs of immigrants, who have flocked to this nation in hopes of a better life. Along the way, these individuals have encountered slander, mainstream hate groups, and overall anti-immigrant rhetoric. From as far down as Florida, and across the fifty states to Washington, vociferous opponents of immigration laws have used negative discourses as a means of normalizing the marginalization of an entire group of people. Drawing on critical social psychology perspective, this paper seeks to examine how mainstream society conceptualizes immigrants and constructs their identities, often forcing them to conform to the socially constructed domains they have been confined to. Focusing on the personal experiences of my friend Alexandra*, I will also explore how, as an immigrant, she resists and fights social oppression and marginalization and redefines the negative perceptions of being an immigrant.
While traditional social psychology is dominated by scientific models of understanding the human behavior as individualistic process, researchers have increasingly shifted towards more socially and relationally based explanations of human behavior. Specifically, critical social psychologists critically review the findings of cognitive experimental research tradition and build upon ideas of social constructivism that conceptualizes self and identity development as socially constructed processes that emerge within societal interactions and individuals’ engagement in social practices (Gough et al., 2013). Further building upon the discursive tradition, this notion sets forth the belief that different versions of the same language are used to construct an otherwise unforeseeable narrative. By painting a picture of Hispanic immigrants as ‘illegal’ and ‘uneducated’, society is able to construct a distorted version of who they believe immigrants to be. As Spiro (2010, p. 20) posits, “the demonization of “illegals” blames undocumented noncitizens for taking the jobs of citizens, and overwhelming social services, all of which is demonstrably false.” These competing notions of immigrants as both ‘lazy’ and as ‘job thieves’, are contradictory in nature, yet still serve to position immigrants as the villains threatening patriotic values. Anti-immigrant rhetoric and slanderous discourse has continuously presented immigrants as individuals with one kind of undesirable identity. However, as Gough and her associates remind us “the self is distributed across different social arenas rather than limited to a space within the person and is connected to multiple roles rather than one central core” (Gough et al., 2013, p. 167). Due to the difficulties that arise for immigrants in this country and complex nature of social relations, their process of self-development involves taking upon various social roles and positions.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is at the forefront of the idea that those who come to this country having not been birthed here reach to grab things that they have not earned. Raised in Venezuela by her Italian father and Venezuelan mother, Alexandra spent her childhood exploring the world and all of the cultures it encompasses. Entrenched with wanderlust and yearning for knowledge, Alexandra came to New York City in search of a future that her home country could not provide. Over the years civil unrest has upended the Venezuelan population, resulting in acts of force and social injustices. To avoid the violence of home, Alexandra chose to stay in this country and continue educating herself. Somewhere along the way, we became best friends. Over the years, I have been privy to numerous instances in which she faced oppression and institutional discrimination.
While Alexandra’s linguistic abilities are just one of her amazing talents, she has experienced her share of criticism for her language skills. It has been pointed out on numerous occasions that she has gotten similes or American idioms befuddled. While in college, there was a particular instance in which a classmate at a party made a joke about ‘stupid Mexicans’ mixing up English words. By ridiculing her language abilities, that classmate was positioning Alexandra as ‘unintelligent’ and making a derogatory generalization that all ‘Hispanics’ are uneducated, in essence, making her fit into his preexisting notions of what an immigrant looks like. As a Venezuelan immigrant in this country, Alexandra has contended with the thoughts and beliefs that some individuals tend to have about her, merely based on her country of origin.
Oppositions of less limited immigration laws argue that Hispanic immigrants are attacking the ‘true’ meaning of what it means to be an American patriot. Calling these individuals ‘lazy’, ‘uneducated’, and ‘illegal’, are just the beginning of a well filled with an atrocious hate narrative. Many immigrants are also deemed ‘pollutants’, ‘rapists’, ‘drug dealers’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘thieves. Foucault (1972), emphasizes that discursive language is used as a powerful tool to keep individuals circumvented to a single position and surmises that while “subjects are produced by ideology, [they] can also position themselves outside of particular representations” (Gough et al., 2013, p. 59) and produce counter discourses that help an individual to construct a counter- identity. The majority of discourses used to marginalize Alexandra were meant to position her as an underachieving, uneducated thief who has come to the United States in her quest to steal the jobs of all proud patriots. To circumvent the negative stereotypes placed on her and position herself as an agentic individual, she chose to extensively educate herself. Over the summer when President Trump set forth an immigration bill meant to expel all international students from the country, Alexandra spent weeks conversing with advisors and professors looking for a solution. She was not lazy, uneducated, nor did she act volatile when learning about this bill. Instead, she faced the discrimination head-on, and used her intelligence and patience to proactively face the situation and resolve it with support of her mentors and friends.
While being a Hispanic immigrant in America is no easy feat, being a woman tends to further compound the discrimination. Gillborn suggests utilizing the concept of intersectionality as a means of “address[ing] the question of how multiple forms of inequality and identity inter-relate in different contexts and over time (2015, p. 278). Indeed, intersectionality serves as a tool of identifying the overlapping structures that Alexandra experienced as a form of oppression and discrimination. Coming from a predominantly masculine culture in Venezuela, where her thoughts, opinions and beliefs were valued less than those of men, Alexandra hoped for a different society. She believed she moved to a culture without the prevailing male dominance, and that her place in society would no longer be deemed less valuable than a man's. Instead, she has encountered a multitude of humiliating insults used as a means of demeaning her worth. The usual slur of an ‘unintelligent illegal’, has been expanded and interspersed with gendered oppressive discourses. Often, she has been labelled a ‘girl’, ‘lady’, ‘chick’, or a ‘gal’ in the professional settings where these gendered labels would pass as innocent or even complimentary comments. Indeed, this language may seem innocuous, but the compounding of ‘girl’ with ‘illegal’, or ‘unintelligent’ with ‘chick’, illustrates the oppression that women in society are forced to endure, merely due to their disadvantaged position.
Alexandra is a Venezuelan on her way to American citizenship. She speaks four languages — Spanish, Italian, French, English — and has a bachelor’s degree in business management. She interned with one of the best events planners in NYC and plans to graduate in the spring 2021 with a master’s degree. She is certainly not stupid, worthless, illegal or lazy. Alexandra left a country where her silence was mandatory, only to build a home in a nation rife with anti-immigrant sentiment. Forced to overcome an oppressive regime at every turn, Alexandra was able to subjugate oppressive dominant discourses meant to box her in. Instead, she has found her voice. On a daily basis she defies the dominant discourses of being an immigrant, the image that social institutions are painting and reproducing. Rather, from her agentic stance of an educated young woman, proud of her Hispanic background contributing to this culture and society, she continuously challenges, rejects and resists oppressive positions and practices, and actively constructs a new reimagined identity of an immigrant.
Reflecting on working on this project and most importantly, my friendship with Alexandra, have made me deepen my understanding of the society, including the social institutions that re/produce dominant discourses and social practices that systematically marginalize people who differ from what they mandate as ‘normal’. Writing this paper was in a sense almost cathartic, as it afforded me the opportunity to identify most prevalent negative discourses that have been thrown at someone I care about and let go of the anger. Society has this inherent ability to make people who are considered different or outsiders feel small, insecure and unwelcome. I believe that using the lens of critical social psychology enabled me to be a better researcher, but more importantly, I believe it has made me a better person.
*The name of my friend was changed to protect her anonymity