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Immigrant Work Ethic & Anxiety: A Love Story

By Kendra Augustin

This narrative that immigrants are lazy or a drain on society is so blind it’s borderline delusional. Especially because as Americans many of us believe we’re owed a good life. If I know anything about immigrants they sacrifice a good life to start from the bottom because of the promise of the American Dream! I remember reading a post in Humans of New York that said: “it’s agreed upon first generation immigrants that they are going to sacrifice their dreams so that their children can live the best life.”

I believe this is why us first gen kids are miserable. It’s because our parents give up everything so that we could have everything (and maybe pay it back to them in old age). This is so sad to me. I think about this one precious life we have and how there are people who break their backs so that maybe they’ll be at peace by the time they reach old age. But back to first gens being miserable.

It’s a heavy burden to be a vessel for your parent’s nirvana. Those of us who choose to rebel by choosing artsy fartsy careers crush our parent’s hearts.

We choose to live a life of struggle so that we could find some joy, however fleeting, however fruitless it seems to outsiders because we know this is our one precious life we have. Our parents are so hard on us because they suffered so we wouldn’t have to. But we go after one of the most unreliable careers which will likely cause great suffering (which is probably why many of us suffer greatly from depression and anxiety: although not all of us!) and that breaks our parent’s heart.

Leela Tours The Boroughs: Dixon Place. Seen left to right: Kristen M. Ladd and Natasha Hakata. Photography credit: Victoria Jackson.

As a performing artist in New York, I have befriended many people from different countries here on visas trying to prove that they are worthy of staying in these United States. It’s this never-ending quest to be the most amazing. As a result, they are constantly in classes, acting, producing, stage managing, working with Broadway vets, composing, losing sleep in the hopes that they maybe it’ll be enough to get an artist visa. Maybe it’ll be enough to get a green card. Maybe they’ll be enough. I had one classmate, a PhD, who wanted to work at Mcdonald’s to stay in the US. I had one friend who spent so much time nannying that she didn’t have any time to do her arts, but once she went back to Europe she was putting up shows and constantly performing. I had another friend who was a project manager, who had her own home and left a full life, go through her savings, and choose a life of babysitting and sharing a room with a kid twice her junior. All for America. And it can be seen as beautiful, sure. It’s oddly romantic to give up everything to chase possibility. But, for me, it was heartbreaking to see brilliant and bright people scrape the bottom of the barrel just for the taste of the American Dream. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I realized the idea of the American Dream can be quite toxic. It’s a promise of a future that can’t be promised. Sure, the lovely thing about America, or so I’m told, is that you can truly work from the bottom and eventually get to the top.

But America makes you pay for daring to dream big. It says, “You want to live well? You want to succeed? You want to be happy? Ok, Cinderella sweep the floors and I’ll think about.”

Where does anxiety fit in? I think to be an immigrant in America, an artist one, one without citizenship, one that has to prove they’re good enough to stay, is to be in a constant of terror. Hear me out. Take NYC: here you are, in the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” a city that is there to greet you at any time you want it to, and you’re doing all you can to make it, but you know that it’s not gonna last. You know that it can be taken away at any moment. You know that if you leave you might not be able to come back. You know that you’re gonna drain your savings and you just gotta catch your big break before you completely run out of time because, of course, you can’t legally make money. That’s what anxiety is: a low-grade state of terror.

Upon moving to New York City, I was definitely in a state of terror. Here I was: a south Florida girl who never left the state, but dreamed impossible dreams, who after many years of turning inside of herself finally exploded! I couldn’t stay in Florida anymore. I had to get out. I had to go live the life I wanted or else I would never leave. So I did it. I moved as quickly as I decided. With strange family members, with the belief that I would be able to afford rent in several months time because surely I’d get work. But, I came to NYC and I learned how lonely and how cruel this city could be. My first 7 months in New York were just me terrified that if I didn’t make it I would never make it (and that everyone I knew was going to die in my absence). I was afraid that the rug would be pulled from underneath me and I would be forced to go back home with my tail between my legs and admit that I was a failure. That I dared to follow my bliss and I was wrong and I wasn’t cut out for it and I was no good. This is the state of terror.

Leela Tours The Boroughs: Dixon Place. Photography Credit: Victoria Jackson.

I met Patricia in 2014 at HB Studio. We took a 10-week class and we clicked. We kept in touch after, and many months later, after going to a reading festival I was involved in, Patricia felt inspired to make something happen. And having been involved in festivals I suggested that we put up our own festival. I’ve spoken to many people about making things happen in the past but nothing ever materialized. I’m an unmotivated ambitious person. Someone who wants to go to the moon, but if given the opportunity to sleep I’ll choose sleep. But Patricia, from Holland by way of Spain had that immigrant drive. The drive that I’ve been speaking about in this article. Even though I was an American Citizen, Florida was my Holland/Spain. New York was our North Star. If we did this big thing maybe we’d matter. Maybe we’d be good. Maybe we’d be worthy! Anxiety can be good because you’re always moving. You live your life like you’re dancing on hot coal. Of course, you don’t want to stand still on hot coal so you keep hopping and hopping. But that gets exhausting. Long story short we created a theatre festival in 2015 called The Leela NYC Theatre Festival. It went up for two days. We could have gone on longer, but my expectation of failure limited us to two days! Long story shorter: she is now back in Holland living like the grown up she is.

But with my other half gone what would happen to Leela? Before she left she set me up with a team of seemingly invested women. We did two one day fests in 2016 and frankly, it was overwhelming and it made me terribly unhappy. This year I was ready to throw the company into the pits. I was ready to quit. But, a proposal I submitted months prior was accepted and I got the opportunity to put up the event one day. This time things were going to be different. Though the show was one day, the process wasn’t going to be one day. I had several months to prepare and I found creatives and delegated some of the power to them. Our one-day event happened just a month ago. While dealing with that, a venue that I worked with last year also requested a return. And then I became excited again. It was like a marriage I thought was dead, but we found a new way to bring the magic back!

This year I’m also trying to learn how to ask for help, Trying not stay a victim.

This narrative of “ I can’t handle it” or “it’s too much” or “ I won’t survive New York” does not serve me anymore. It’s been four years. I’m still here.

Even after thinking the end was nigh many many times I’m still here. The thing about immigrants is there are those who do get their artist visa. There are those who do get their green cards. There are those who do become citizens. And even if you don’t make it in NYC now, it will always be here when you’re ready. So will Chicago. Los Angeles. London. Atlanta. New Orleans. Art is everywhere! Even as I am writing this my anxiety is rising because I want the American Dream. I want to get what I want. I want to succeed. But what does it mean to succeed? Maybe it can mean something else. I don’t know what yet, but I guess I’m quite fortunate that if I do lose everything and New York spits me out I do have a place to go. I do have a family. That even though the idea of leaving feels like terror it’s not. I’ll be alright. But, if we have half the drive that the immigrant artists I know have, maybe we’ll all be alright.

Designed by Carolina Treviño
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