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Drawing On Her Own Experience, Researcher Examines the Lives of Immigrant Girls









 

Drawing On Her Own Experience, Researcher
Examines the Lives of Immigrant Girls

Norma Fuentes, Ph.D., spent almost a year in Amsterdam studying the daughters of Moroccan immigrants.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

By Gina Vergel

Norma Fuentes, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology, spent 11 months in Holland this past year seeking to understand the immigrant experiences and school-to-work transitions of second-generation Moroccan girls living in Amsterdam and the roles that mothers play in that process.

What she discovered was that the children of immigrants, especially daughters, bear a double burden—learning to integrate into a culture while also helping with the integration and socialization of their mothers.

The research stirred up many memories for Fuentes, herself an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She arrived in the United States with her mother when she was 14, settling in Yonkers. The fieldwork in Holland felt for Fuentes as if she was documenting a phenomenon she had lived herself.

“The children of immigrants are forced to parent their own parents,” Fuentes said. “When we go to schools, health clinics or the housing office, we’re the ones who interpret for our parents and guide them. I know this from my own experience, but I need to document how gender plays a role in this—because it’s the daughters of immigrants who carry this double level of burden—and how education is so important for these girls because in their hands rest the future of their parents.”

Fuentes’ study, sponsored by the Social Science Research Council, is part of a larger study funded by the National Science Foundation that compares the children of immigrants in schools in five European cities with those living in California and New York.

Fuentes hopes to complete her study next fall. First, she’ll need to study a similar cohort—the second-generation daughters of immigrants from the Dominican Republic living in New York City. She plans to interview the New York cohort in the spring.

In Holland, she did in-depth interviews with 25 girls and 15 mothers in an effort to understand how their experiences as immigrants affected the school and work aspirations of their daughters.

“Immigrant women are hardly being studied,” Fuentes said. “We often learn about immigrants from the male perspective. Within the last 20 years, we have learned some significant things about Latino immigrant women and their concentration in the service and nanny industries. But we have yet to learn how the immigrant experiences of women affect the aspiration and future positioning of their daughters in the host society.”

In Amsterdam, Fuentes found that Moroccan mothers tend to keep a more vigilant eye on their daughters than their sons, and the girls are on average doing better in school than boys.
Fuentes said her findings in Holland closely parallel that of other sociological research on the Dominican community in New York City.

“Most of the time, it’s because girls are kept more within the family and are encouraged to dress nicely, speak softly and respectfully,” she said of the better academic performance of the girls. “In Amsterdam, Moroccan girls are not perceived as a threat by their teachers.”
Fuentes said much like the research that has been done on Dominican girls in New York, that second-generation girls are expected to succeed both within and outside of the immigrant community.

For Moroccan mothers, the success of their daughters is measured by their ability to get married, have children and join the labor force, Fuentes said, much the same as Dominican families in New York. “Not only do both groups of immigrant girls carry a double burden,” she said, “but they are expected to be two types of success stories.”

Fuentes intends to publish her findings in the years to come and is preparing her dissertation research on Dominican and Mexican women in New York City for publication, as well. She is hopeful that more scholars will begin to conduct research on immigrant women and intergenerational transfer among their children, work that could ultimately lead to policies that better prepare teachers and educators to understand the lives and challenges of the children of immigrants, especially girls.

“I hope my research serves a positive function in terms of understanding immigrant women and their daughters,” Fuentes said, “and helps guidance counselors in high schools realize these daughters carry a huge burden.”


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