If you know me personally or follow me on any social media account, you know a little bit about my life. You can also tell pretty quickly that I am approaching this subject from a very very privileged standpoint – I am white (pasty white), fairly heteronormative, I blend in easily with the way I look and I come from a Catholic upbringing. My parents earn quite a lot of money as well so they can afford to subsidise my journey in higher education as well as my lifestyle.
So let me start off by saying that if, while being this way, I have had these experiences, then imagine someone who doesn’t fit into these guidelines like I do.
I am an immigrant.
I wasn’t born where I live now, nor where I lived before. I left my home country at the age of 20 to pursue my dreams of a career that I had no chance in had I stayed home. Although it was a first for me, I have been travelling since I was a toddler and I find it easy to accept, respect and adapt to cultures different from my own. There is a fine line between sticking to your heritage and becoming the country you choose; I had practise in this, albeit in a small amount.
I moved to Italy. Fairly easy to do, since I am from the European Union and equally Mediterranean. I didn’t speak the language, yet I decided to undertake a three-year degree taught exclusively in Italian, where most of my teachers not only did not speak English but did not understand a word I said. I adapted – I learned the language. I learned the mannerisms and the culture, not so different from mine, but stayed, essentially, myself.
But just from looking at my name, or hearing me stutter in my Italian, I still got the same comments at least once a week, mostly from teachers.
“You’re just a dirty immigrant, coming here to steal our jobs!”
“Do you even know what you’re reading? Do I need to speak slower?”
My english teacher was called in to translate my exams, not because my teachers couldn’t read English (I had seen them read books and share articles) but because they couldn’t give me or my equally foreign colleagues the chance of being considered equal to everyone else. This was a private university aimed for international students and we paid a hefty amount to be there. I felt ostracised and left after four years having made very few friends out of the hundreds of people I met, not because the culture was so different but because I felt permanently left out for not being Italian.
So I moved to the UK. I had plenty of friends here. I’d worked here before one Summer and done plenty of short courses. I knew the people, the language, the culture, much better than I had known Italy.
And then the comments came back. Not as often as before, not aimed at me, but in a much worse form: mass public opinion. I was part of the disease. I was the illness. I was the infected, gaping wound that brought the shadow of death to this once great country. I was to blame for all the bad things that were happening – according to the majority who voted for Brexit and most media outlets. No matter how many people I meet who are kind and accepting to me, I still feel like I am being pushed out of a country where, in my childhood, I felt so at home. The culture was fine. The people were fine. It was the widespread mentality, supported by the government and news channels, that told me I wasn’t welcome. And no bright smile from your barista at Costa can change that.
The reputation of the Portuguese in the U.K. isn’t a good one. Like in France, there are many of us here as we flocked here decades ago. We are known as construction workers, hotel and condominium porters, cleaning ladies. We are satirised as fat, short, loud, kind but stupid, with rudimentary knowledge of the English language, who will never be good enough to do anything beyond the roles we were assigned to – serving others, cleaning up after them, bowing and smiling. With all respect to these people – the utmost respect, as they sacrificed more as individuals in order to make a living than I ever could have – this is not what I want to do.
I don’t claim benefits. I bleed money into my rent and my University tuition. I pay my bills, I pay for my medicine, I pay for my groceries and household supplies. I ask for nothing of this country than for them to let me stay here, literally. Like an AirBnB flat, but long term. Yet I am side-eyed, asked when I am leaving; I am a “dirty immigrant”. I find myself more and more having to pretend I am English, having to blend in even more than before just so I can go about my life peacefully, something I had always thought my whiteness, if anything else, protected me from completely. I am treated constantly as if I moved here on a whim, as if I am just here having fun, laughing my way through life.
Let me tell you something.
I moved out of my home. I made a conscious, reflected decision to leave my home country. And if you think that is an easy thing to do, for anyone, including refugees in war-torn countries, then you have another thing coming. No matter how problematic your home is, how unhappy it makes you, it is still your home. I – we – left everything behind.
We left our family, our friends, our favourite restaurant, the grocery shop man who asks us about our grandmother. We left our entire known universes behind. We threw ourselves into the unknown because we had to, because the other option was too hard to bear. We chose the lesser of two evils. Do you think that is easy?
We came looking for something better, because we had no other choice. Do you think we aspire to be, dream of being, cleaning staff or construction workers? We are people. We have dreams. But sometimes our dreams have to fall by the wayside because we need to eat. Our families need to eat. We need to put a roof over our heads. It is not the free movement of people in the European Union that fuels this so-called “whimsy” of relocating. It is need, it is necessity, it is survival. And it has been happening so much longer than the European Union has been around.
I came here, just as I went to Italy, to follow my dreams. To pursue a career path that did not exist back home. To study a field that was not available to me in any University in my home country. I packed my bags. I said goodbye to everything I had always known. I learned one language and perfected another. I embraced the difficulty that I had brought upon myself hoping that, one day, through blood, sweat and tears, the struggle would pay off.
I am not exotic and I am not Spanish.
I am not the stain, the illness, the disease that plagues your country.
I am the underpaid, discriminated, head-bowing workforce that drives your industries.
I am the highly-educated, eloquent, progress-driven workforce that drives your academia; your hospitals; your scientific endeavours.
I am you, all of you, wherever you are, whoever you are. Because I am a part of your country, just as I am a part of my own.
I am a survivor, and I can and will take whatever you throw at me, so much better and with so much more grace than you could ever aspire to. Because I have taken this burden upon myself. I have left my universe, my entire life behind to be happy, because that is what I needed to do.
I am an immigrant.
A dirty immigrant.
And when I leave, you die.