Outside In: Miguel de la Fuente

outside-inIn 1962, a nine-year-old boy named Miguel Lino de la Fuente Alfonso and his two sisters were sent by their parents, with the assistance of Catholic Charities, from Matanzas, Cuba, to the United States of America in one of the world’s largest political exoduses of children in history. An estimated 14,000 unaccompanied children were airlifted from 1960 to 1962 to different locations in the U.S. as part of the Peter Pan project. As Miguel explains, “Under the Castro regime, a communist government, children – like the land, industries, stores, and housing – would become the property of the state. If that happened, parents would lose legal custody of their children.”

Once in the U.S., Miguel’s older sister was separated from him and his younger sister because she didn’t meet the age requirement of the Peter Pan project. So, although the two younger siblings were later reunited with their parents, they were never a complete family after 1962. “I did not come or was sent by my parents to chase the American dream for a better life,” says Miguel, “our life was just fine until it was taken away from us.” 

“Venceremos” oil, stucco Veneziano, shellac, gesso on paper 11 in x 14 in

Miguel has lived in three countries, seven U.S. States, an estimated seventeen cities, and countless residences. He now makes his home in Baltimore, where he works as a fine artist. He made this painting, Venceremos (meaning we will overcome), which shows his struggles to survive “the insurmountable challenge of using an unstable surface through the journey of applying incompatible materials, working each layer to compromise, morph, or dissipate.” He goes on to explain that through the complex experiences of loss, anxiety, fear, love, and happiness, the layers that are applied and removed to cover up, fix, or mask “create the beauty of never giving up.”

Ever since he remembers, Miguel has needed to be resilient. “Nothing is free. I have survived by trusting my instincts, being innovative, and never giving up.” In time, his immigrant status evolved from political refugee to U.S. Citizen, and it’s something he doesn’t take for granted. “Not only have so many Cubans fought and risked their lives to be wards of this great country, but human citizens of the world,” he says. He feels so fortunate to be educated, established, and to have made the best of all opportunities. At the same time, he struggles to make sense of all that he is. “I do have regret, or guilt, that my parents risked so much; risk of imprisonment, being black-listed, and even their own lives threatened for us to be in a democratic country, but we don’t have a democracy in the U.S. There is censorship, class discrimination, and lack of education.”

For Miguel, the strangest part has been not to be able to identify with his Cuban culture; having his life interrupted and not having a consistent upbringing until he was reunited with his parents four years after coming to the U.S. Even so, he makes the most of having two cultures, like observing all the hallmark holidays with a Cuban twist. “Celebrating Santa Claus and Los Reyes Magos, eating Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie but also roast pork, black beans and flan; all the US holidays that always gave us an excuse to get the family together and share our favorite foods.”

But he’s wistful about the happiness, dreams, security, and quality of life that his family lost. “I wonder,” he says, “what our lives would have been if we stayed in Cuba.”

Outside In: Gillian Harris

outside-inwavesGillian Harris has always considered herself a water-baby. She grew up in Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, where the city and the coast, north and south, are a paradise of gorgeous, tropical beaches, embracing the warm Indian Ocean, and the golden sands. “Our family, mother and father included, all loved going to the beach.” Gill says. “This is how I remember my childhood – always in the surf (the bigger the better), and taking vacations in beach cottages up and down the coast.” When she was very young, and her parents couldn’t find her on the beach, her father would say, “See that little head way out there? The person well beyond the other swimmers – that’s Gill!” Most likely, he would join her.

That was that life.

When Gillian immigrated to the States, her American husband soon introduced her to the Northern California coast. It was foggy and cold, and Gill thought to herself that they were the most miserable beaches she had ever seen. “Today, over 30 years later,” she says, “I view those same beaches as utterly beautiful in their misty bleakness and grandeur.” It’s the perfect metaphor for how one’s vision of beauty and belonging changes.

It was in 1983 that Gillian came to the States for a vacation. At the time, she was working in the training department of a human resources company in Johannesburg, and she told her manager that her vacation would be about three weeks long. “He said, since I was coming such a long way, if it wanted to I could stay a little longer. Little did he know that I would never come back!” On her second day in San Francisco, she met a man she would marry four weeks later. “If I had intended to do it, I would at least have brought the right paper work,” she laughs, “my birth certificate, and so on. In fact, I had to go back for it.”

Initially, it was a difficult period for Gill, ending up in a pretty deep depression and sense of isolation. “When I first came, I went to a psychologist and I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, ‘you are displaced.’” The most difficult part was being so far away from her family and often feeling unsupported and alone. “I’m not sure I would ever give anyone advice to emigrate because it is very demanding,” she says. Gill has lived a life in this country and raised a child – ultimately as a single mother – without any extended family around. “So many of us South African friends have had to rely on each other almost as extended family.”

Gillian has permanent resident status in the States, rather than being a naturalized citizen and, while a part of her wishes that she had been “smarter” many years ago like her friends who became citizens when it cost $50 instead of $800, she recognizes that, unconsciously, a part of it may have been not wanting to give up her heritage. “My father was British, and when I was still at university in South Africa, I applied for British citizenship. I still have a British passport.” Another part of the picture is that, while home is here for Gill now, it’s actually always her adopted home. Even in the community where she lives in California, she has the sense that the underlying message is, ‘you’re not really one of us.’ “I miss that profoundly personal feeling of, ‘this is truly my home.’ I would call this home but I can’t say it is truly my home.”

This manifests itself in subconscious ways. Both her parents have died, but she is now, at the age of 63, experiencing these dreams where she is back in Durban, and asking people if they know her parents’ phone number, or their address. “It seems I want to go back ‘home.’ This dream takes the form of all sorts of contexts, but the final realization is that, if I found our old address, and tried to knock on the door, strangers would answer, and my parents would not be there. Where do I go?”

Yet, despite the dreams, Gillian is bound to the States now, for all the history and experience she’s enjoyed here. “I think what plants me here now in the USA, is the fact that my 30-year old daughter is very much American, loves living in San Francisco, and I am eternally grateful for her in my life.” Gill believes that the experience of immigrating has made her into a survivor and self-sufficient person, and the best part is that she has come to love this country and feel completely content to make her life here. “I live among the vineyards – what could be better than that? I have access to all sorts if physically glorious splendors – Yosemite, Tahoe, the Pacific coastline …” And, under current circumstances, she adds, “I am so grateful that I have an immigration story to tell, at all!”

Outside In: Cherry Clark


When she was 10 years old, living in Durban on South Africa’s east coast, Cherry Clark‘s father was under the surveillance of the apartheid government. He was teaching South African politics at the University of Natal, colleagues had been banned or even jailed and, as the founding member of the anti-apartheid Progressive Party, he was apparently close to the same sanctions. With the help of the South African academic, Arthur Keppel-Jones, who taught history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Cherry’s father was able to secure a position in the political science department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Cherry’s family did not expect ever again to set foot in South Africa.

Travel was prohibitively expensive at that time – 1964 – but Cherry’s mother saved what she earned as a teacher to allow them all to travel home at four-year intervals. “My eighteenth birthday was at the end of a six-month sabbatical that allowed my father to bring us back to Durban while he and my mother debated whether to accept an offer from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg,” Cherry says. “We all concluded that we could not live as unwilling participants in apartheid.” She did not see South Africa again until 2015, at the age of 60.


This image is a photograph taken this past July, while on a dawn shark trip out of Simonstown near Cape Town. “The image represents far more than the day or the event,” says Cherry. “The string of lights piercing the dark, bisecting land and sea, symbolizes the two halves of my existence, my early life in South Africa and the time since in North America, the light being a moment of magical fusion when it all came full circle.” Another interpretation also suggests itself to her in the distant lights – the warmth and life of home, viewed from far away as though in a dream. “All that water in between, and one might despair of ever making land, just as I thought I would never find myself back in South Africa no matter how much I grieved and yearned to be there.”

Cherry has a double longing. She grew up in Halifax, her ex-husband was a French Canadian, and their children were born in Canada. As her children grew up, Cherry studied canon law – Catholic ecclesiastical law – and obtained a master’s degree through a sponsorship from the diocese of Toledo, Ohio. The terms of the sponsorship required that she work in Toledo for a period of time, and so she came to the United States in 2003, having met her present husband, an American, in the canon law class of her final year. He was a Catholic priest on sabbatical, and resisted the lure of a career as a canonist, leaving his studies and the priesthood, and following Cherry to Toledo. The strangest part in all of this has been that Cherry now finds herself living indefinitely in the States rather than with her family in Canada. “In the back of my mind, the original move to Toledo had been a stepping stone until something came up somewhere in Canada. After living away from extended family while growing up, I truly never envisioned choosing to live in a different country from my own children.”

While Cherry has found that the most difficult part of being an immigrant is having no extended family in Canada or in the United States, a close second has been adjusting to the differences in political culture – being from a strongly socialist background and finding that many Americans consider this a bad thing. “There is a strong suspicion regarding government and those needing assistance here, versus the expectation of finding necessary help from government agencies in Canada,” she says. “I am much more comfortable with Canada’s ‘European’ attitudes regarding politics, religion, sex, family structures, and so many aspects of life; it was a surprise to discover such a strong expectation to conform to traditional behaviors and beliefs, especially among young adults here in the States.” The genuine belief that America is the ‘greatest nation in the world’ is very difficult for Cherry swallow, especially when combined with incredulity that she chooses not to become a citizen. “I live here, I am married to an American and love his family, but I would not choose to live here if I were not married to Curtis. I am here for him, not for me.”

Cherry misses everything about Canada and a great deal about South Africa. In all the time that her family lived in Canada, they considered South Africa to be home. “I did not want to leave, and have spent most of my life feeling that I was taken away,” she says. “Returning now after so many years has been healing, but if anything I want more than ever to ‘be there, rather than here.’” This has become, as for so many immigrants, a real psychological issue for Cherry, and it has pervaded so much of her life.

Outside In: Pantea Tofangchi


Mount Damavand, a stratovolcano built up by many layers, is the highest peak in Iran and the Middle East, as well as the highest volcano in Asia. It is in the middle of the Alborz Range, which surrounds the mountainside city of Tehran, the beloved birthplace of Pantea Tofangchi.

fullsizeoutput_1579In Iranian mythology, literature, and folklore it is a very special place. This is how Pantea tells the story:

“When the bloody and long-lasting war between Iran and Turan came to an end, the rulers of both countries decided to make peace and to fix the boundary between their kingdoms. The defeated Iran was ordered to shoot an arrow towards Turan. Where the arrow landed was to mark the border between the two countries. An Iranian super hero, Arash, agreed to shoot the arrow from the peak of the Damavand; on the morning of Tir 13th (July 4th, ironic, right?) Arash climbed Mount Damavand and faced the direction of Turan lands, and pulled his bow. It is said the arrow travelled for days, and 2250 kilometers later it landed on the bank of the Oxus River in what is now Central Asia. The river remained the boundary between Iran and Turan for centuries. Arash’s body was never found. There are still stories from travelers who were lost on the mountain. They say that they heard Arash’s voice helping them finding their way.”

Pantea took this picture on the road few years back. Although she and her husband, a physician, have been in the U.S. 16 going 17 years, they still spend most of their vacation time in Iran with their family. This particular view is from Haraz Road, which travels through Tehran Province and Mazandaran Province, crosses the Alborz mountain range, and then descends northwards down the Haraz River Valley. That’s where a lot of Iranians spend their vacation time, by the beautiful Caspian Sea in the North of Iran.

So, for Pantea, this image means, “Root . . . and maybe hope, or perhaps that I still believe that Arash is out there watching over the mountain and over all the myth, literature, and every tangible thing that is lost in the era of technology, smart phones, and virtual communication.”

She believes it was fate that brought her to America: a combination of green card lottery . . . luck . . . work. When asked why they left Iran, her response is, “Why did we really?” Her husband wanted to get his medical specialty and sub-specialty from the States, and she followed him. “But,” she adds, “we also believed, and still believe, that there are more opportunities here in the U.S.”

The thing Pantea misses most about Iran is family. The most difficult part for her is that, “when I go back “home” I feel that I no longer belong, and when I come back “home” I still don’t “fit” no matter how many years pass!” She adds, “I have two countries but no home . . . that’s the saddest part.”

And yet, she says, the best part is not knowing. Pantea is a writer and a graphic designer. “I think not knowing makes me more creative!”

Outside In: Yvette Franklin

outside-inYvette Franklin is from Cape Town although, by chance, she was born in Los Angeles.

peter-and-cape-townTo her, this picture means, “coming home, leaving behind, always there, not there anymore.” “Coming home” is reflected in the window’s reverse image of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak in Cape Town. It’s also a refection of her uncle, who took her when she was sixteen to renew her American passport to make sure she could keep her prized citizenship; her uncle, who died of cancer, who is “not there anymore.”

The serendipitous gift of Yvette’s American passport, which made her special and fortunate when she was younger at home in South Africa, was also the thing that opened doors to her that were closed to her loved ones. She wrote to thirty universities and told them she had a dream of coming to America, but that she had no money. She was awarded a scholarship to a small liberal arts college in the Southeast. Working her way to Europe and then onto a plane to the States, she arrived with a cardboard suitcase tied up with bailer twine and six hundred dollars.

The most difficult part for Yvette was saying goodbye. She most misses her grandmother’s voice saying, “Hello poppet,” playing Scrabble with her, sharing meals with her uncle, or walking and talking with him along the beach, all with this backdrop of The Mountain.

By now, she’s lived in America as long as she lived in her homeland – 21 years – and her home is here. That’s “home” with a lower case “h.” The upper case “Home” is still her place of origin, her source, even if she doesn’t belong there anymore – and the strangest part is that they are both fully home. The best part, Yvette says, about making her home here is, “freedom of choice, opportunity, safety, new beauty, and prosperity.” She’s certainly made the most of it. That scholarship to a small liberal arts college in the Southeast? It led to a Ph.D. in education.

Outside In: Jo Smail

outside-inJo Smail is a South African born painter. She’s been a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art since 1988, and she sometimes asks her students: What would you choose to run off with if the building burnt down? She asked herself that question too, and the answer is: this self-portrait by Joyce Leonard.


Joyce Leonard was born in Johannesburg, but trained at the Royal College of Art in London, and she painted this portrait when she was a student there. She became the mentor of several generations of South African artists, including Jo. In time, Jo’s life circled around to Joyce’s son, Julien Davis, a doctor of science and a photographer, and it was when he was offered a position at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1980s that they came to Baltimore together.

It was difficult to begin with and, when she first arrived, Jo saw a therapist. Many, many things – too many to name one – were strange (if she had to name one, it would be the spelling!) But America had its allure. For Jo, as an artist, the best part is being close to New York City.

Her house is filled with things that remind her of South Africa: baskets, African art, beadwork, and all the myriad other stuff that is reminiscent of “home,” including Joyce Leonard’s painting. Still, if you ask Jo where home is, she responds, “Where I am now!” Perhaps the best metaphor for her mixed feelings is that, even though she is an American citizen, her wish is that she had dual citizenship.

Outside In

outside-inOutside In is a bi-weekly series that highlights immigrant experiences through words and images. Each immigrant chooses an image that somehow relates to their story, and I write up  a profile based on their answers to this quasi Proust Questionnaire:

  1. What does your chosen image mean to you?
  2. Where are you from?
  3. Why did you leave?
  4. How did you end up here?
  5. How long have you been here?
  6. What is your occupation?
  7. What is your immigrant status?
  8. How do you feel about your status?
  9. What has been the strangest part?
  10. What has been the most difficult part?
  11. What has been the best part?
  12. How has it changed you?
  13. What do you most miss?
  14. Where is home?

In all fairness, I can’t ask other immigrants to do something I wouldn’t do myself, so here is my image.

Cape DuskThis photograph was a mistake. I snapped it through the dirty windshield of a rental car when we were driving along Table Mountain at dusk during a visit “home.” The more I looked at it, though – the specs of dust, the monochromatic blue tones, the silhouettes of the stone pines that are so typical of Cape Town – the more I loved it. So much so, that I used it for the cover of Beyond the Baobab, my collection of essays about immigration.

In brief: I am from Cape Town, I left South Africa because I could, I came to Baltimore to be a classical music DJ at WBJC 18 years ago, and I am proud to be an American citizen. The strangest part is accent; the most difficult part is feeling like a misfit; the best part is being artistically spoilt for choice. My immigrant experience turned me into a writer. I most miss lifelong friends. It’s impossible to say where home is.

I hope you enjoy the series!

“I Am an Immigrant”

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My friend, Charles Whaley (via James Whyte), posted these pictures on FaceBook. The accompanying comment is, “Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, making a massive contribution to our society.” It warmed my heart.

The organization behind the poster campaign is called Movement Against Xenophobia (MAX) http://www.noxenophobia.org and @NoXenophobia. It is based in the U.K. but the issues, of course, are universal – the current resurgence of violent xenophobia in South Africa is simply heartbreaking.

I was speaking the other day to a journalist who was doing a write-up of Beyond the Baobab, and he asked me about anti-immigrant feeling. I do understand that countries can’t just indiscriminately open their borders to all comers, but it is true that those of us who are driven enough to undertake the mammoth process of immigration are likely to carry that drive into our immigrant lives to make a contribution to our societies. These are just a few of the people on a Forbes list of “Immigrants Who Made It Big” in the U.S. – Madeleine Albright, Czechoslovakia; Charlize Theron, South Africa; Mikhail Baryshnikov, USSR; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austria; Elie Wiesel, Romania; Michael J. Fox, Canada. I rest my case, as I climb down from my soap box.

More thoughts on the immigrant theme

Time has published a list of “29 Books That Will Enrich Your Inner Literati”


Getty Images
Getty Images


Naturally, this segment of the list caught my attention (no nonfiction books listed yet):

Immigrant Experience (U.S./U.K.): ah, the magical experience of being thrust into a new culture.

  • Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri): say hello to our recent Indian arrivals! (For our tea-drinking cousins across the pond, try Monica Ali’sBrick Lane.)
  • Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan): the book that inspired a movie and furor in the Asian American community about stereotypes and Tan’s possible self-loathing. (For a less controversial read, try Ha Jin’s Waiting–and yes, there’s a lot of longing and waiting there.)
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Julia Alvarez): how four sisters start to forget their Spanish and their native homeland of the Dominican Republic.