Alhambra students share their immigration stories

San Gabriel Valley real estate developers Sam and Jackie Wong approached Alhambra Source last winter with one question: How can we motivate San Gabriel Valley students to explore their roots and ethnic background? The Wongs were interested in helping students pursue higher education, and together we organized a scholarship that asked Alhambra students to answer questions about their name, heritage, and growing up as a child of immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley. The resulting essays were astounding.

The Sam & Jackie Wong-Alhambra Source Scholarship winners and judges.

We were taken aback by the diverse set of experiences and cultures we read about in the submissions. Our essay applicants trace their lineage to Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, France — a world of rich stories and life lessons. Because of the Wongs' generosity, we awarded students Monday in a ceremony at Mosaic Lizard Theater with $1,500 and publication on the Alhambra Source website. 

"The stories are amazing," said Linda Yamauchi, wife of Alhambra Councilman Gary Yamauchi and one of the scholarship judges. "Some of the imagery is beautiful."

Councilman Gary Yamauchi stands on stage to congratulate the winners.

Community judges from various fields in Alhambra — including social services, education, city staff, the police department, and the media — helped us narrow down our list of 13 applicants to nine scholarship and publication winners. The selected essays will be published once a week starting Sept. 3. Below are excerpts from the winning stories.

Taking first place for her essay about the two stages of shame that come from being a child of immigrants was UCI student Shannon Ho, who received a scholarship in the amount of $500:

Shannon Ho reads from her essay.

I didn’t feel as though I looked “American.” I, like almost every other girl who was born in the early 90s, was a huge fan of Britney Spears and the Olsen twins. Heartbroken, I realized that I didn’t look like them, nor would I ever. Being an American-born Chinese girl wasn’t ever too big of a deal for me before this. I was born in Monterey Park and lived in Alhambra with my family, went to a Chinese church, and lived my life surrounded by Chinese people and Chinese culture. But now, I wished for blonde hair, blue eyes, and long legs because I wanted to be an “American” girl.

In second place for her essay about accepting her upbringing and background, Syracuse University student Yvonne Lee received a scholarship in the amount of $400:

I realized that for so long, I had been trying to emulate this version of “American,” that in order to be successful I needed to move away from my modest, first-generation upbringing. It wasn’t until I was in New York that I began to embrace where I come from. I had worked very hard to leave home, but I realized that my parents had made these opportunities possible for me and that it was important to recognize that. I realized that no matter where I went, I would always be a product of my parents’ traditionalism and would forever recognize the Asian foot massage parlors and dim sum restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley as home.

Vanessa Solis reads from her essay.

Mt. San Antonio College student Vanessa Solis placed third for her essay about ethnic labels and identity for American-born Latinos, receiving a scholarship in the amount of $300:

In Alhambra, I am lucky to live among a rich mix of Asian and Latin American communities, where I can interact with people like me, people whose families can reach into the recent past and find immigrants seeking a new life here. We share similar stories of difficult immigration journey, strong families, and the search for opportunity.

In fourth place for her essay about overcoming domestic violence in the Latino community was East Los Angeles College student Jessica Ramos, who received a scholarship in the amount of $150:

Jessica Ramos reads from her essay.

Being an American born to Mexican American parents, I have learned to adapt to both ethnic backgrounds. I learned by observing, absorbing, and appreciating the diverse ethnicity that my parents’ culture provided for me. As I was growing up, my mother taught me many valuable lessons, but mostly to stand up for what I believed was right and never allow anyone to belittle me.  She said, “You should be proud to be an American and never forget where you came from.” 

The final scholarship recipient was Alhambra High School graduate Valerie Cabral. For her essay about keeping her immigrant status a secret, Cabral received a scholarship in the amount of $150:

Valerie Cabral reads from her essay.

I grew up watching all the American superhero movies. I saw how Superman and Batman had to keep their true identities a secret so they wouldn’t be singled out for not being normal. As I grew older I began to relate to these superheroes because I was forced to keep a secret identity as well. Every time I left my home I was reminded by my mother, “Si te preguntan algo, no contestes,” meaning, “If someone asks you anything, do not answer.”

Four additional students were selected by the judges and Alhambra Source editors as publication recipients. First was San Gabriel High School graduate Dara Dan for his essay on battling poverty in Cambodia:

It was not long ago when I lived in Cambodia. When I visit, I notice things never seem to improve for the commoners. Many people continue to face poverty. Being born and raised there for nine years, I know that many families do not put a major focus on education and community service due to the lack of opportunity.

Our second publication recipient was East Los Angeles College student Jane Fernandez for her essay on growing up the child of Cuban immigrants:

Jane Fernandez (left) reads from her essay.

Being the child of immigrant parents can be a struggle, sometimes limited, maybe embarrassing. But it’s a learning experience that leaves you happy to be your parents’ child. Being an immigrant is getting a second chance in life, and my immigrant parents got a second chance to have everything they had always wanted. They gave my brother and I a better future and life.

The third publication recipient was San Gabriel High School graduate Anna Huang for her essay on rejecting her Chinese upbringing as a child and eventually reconnecting to it as a young adult:

This play [in my AP Mandarin class] was more than a final exam, it was an entrance to the path that I derailed from after first grade. It reconnected me with my family, morals, and culture. I actually talk to my parents in Cantonese now and often translate English into Chinese for them. And all those karaoke sessions and mahjong get-togethers? They now give me warmth and happiness when I need a break from all the school work. I have subconsciously reverted back to my culture, the loving and embracing heritage I grew up with. 

Our final publication recipient was Century High School graduate Huy Nguyen for his essay on his academic and behavior issues at school as a child of Vietnamese immigrants:

Alhambra Source Editor Daniela Gerson (front) congratulates the winners.

My family of three and I started out with really almost nothing. My father, who was a Vietnamese refugee, somehow managed to get my mother, sister and me to the United States from Saigon in September 1999…Now that I have matured, I understand that our family difficulties were partly the result of sacrifice. I appreciate every little thing around me, but I appreciate my parents more than anything…I want to make my parents proud and make their journey to America worth it. My parents gave me everything they had and spent nothing on themselves. Their clothes are 20 years old but they will still send me to college. My parents may be too stoic to say "I love you,” but I know they love me.

Congratulations again to our winners, and a special thanks to our community judges:

Valarie Gomez, Executive Director, YMCA West San Gabriel Valley

Lena Woo, Prevention Specialist, Asian Pacific Family Center-Pacific Clinics

Diane Hyland, President, San Gabriel Valley Parent-Teacher-Student Association

Mike Pedro, SGV Youth & Community Coordinator, Asian Americans Advancing Justice

Gary Yamauchi, Council Member, Alhambra City Council

Linda Yamauchi, Resident and activist

Clifford Mar, Police Captain, Alhambra Police Department

Victor Chang, Executive Director, United World Society, World Journal

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