Remember & Honor Your Journey — Working to achieve the American dream comes with many challenges and obstacles. I encourage you to remember and honor the journey you are on. Remember the reasons for your pursuit of the American dream as a way to keep you grounded and rooted as you create your new home.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive. As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, Ph.D.
Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he was trained through a scientist-practitioner model. He has conducted research on health disparities, racial and ethnic identity development, and on the mental health well-being of LGBTQ individuals and people of color. In addition to research, he has trained at various clinical settings and provided trauma-informed care through both individual and group psychotherapy. He has worked in a myriad of settings in the Midwest and the East Coast ranging from hospitals, universities, community health centers, nonprofit organizations, VA’s, and in private practice. He currently works as Licensed Clinical Psychologist at Columbia University in the Counseling and Psychological Services Department and also maintains a private practice in NYC.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born and raised for the first five years of my life in Zacatecas, Mexico. My family and I lived in a rural part of Mexico where there were limited opportunities for education and work. I was fortunate to be surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents from both my mother and father’s side of the family. I grew up surrounded by a community of resilient individuals that taught me the importance of family, culture, and my ancestral heritage. Although I grew up in what some would consider poverty, I always felt that what we lacked in resources we made up for in the richness of our culture. I have very fond memories of my early childhood and often can’t find the words to describe the importance of the loving community that I was surrounded by for the first five years of my life.
After the age of five, I was raised in the United States and lived with my mother, father, and my younger brothers. I quickly saw the change in my family’s dynamic as we settled into a new country with different values, customs, traditions, and a new language. I learned to navigate two worlds rather quickly as a survival mechanism. I was the first to learn English and was responsible for translating for my parents at various appointments, stores, government agencies, as well as in parent-teacher conferences. It was both an honor and a responsibility to speak two languages and I grew up trying to find balance between these two worlds that often felt so far away from each other.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
There has always been a complex history between the United States and Mexico that has impacted my family for many generations. My paternal grandfather had been in the United States as part of the Bracero program during the period of 1940–1950’s and worked as a farmworker. He took advantage of this opportunity in order to provide for his family. In the 1980’s, my father also came to the U.S. and worked as a farmworker. He was able to apply for permanent residency status through legislation in the 1980’s that offered farmworkers a legal pathway in the United States. After my father worked for a few years in various states, my mother made a difficult decision to come to the United States.
As a young child, I heard many stories of the individuals in my hometown who had left Mexico in pursuit of their own American dream. Many left our small, rural town to find work to provide for their families. While I heard of the opportunities available in the United States, I also heard stories about the dangerous bordering crossings. My mother has shared her own stories about her experience crossing the border and it brings tears to my eyes knowing that she sacrificed many things in order to provide a better world for her son. Once my mother was able to cross the border safely, she reunited with my father in Kansas. My mother has shared with me that this was one of the hardest times in her life; being so far away from her son. As a result of this separation, my parents made the necessary plans to bring me to the United States at the age of five.
I had no idea what awaited me in the United States and only remember being excited to go the United States, or as my family called it, “El Norte” (The North). While there were many reasons, the trigger point came down to economic hardship and the lack of opportunities for education in my hometown and country. My parents wanted to provide me with an opportunity they did not have, the opportunity of pursuing attaining an education with the hopes of changing the narrative from a life of poverty to a life of opportunity. As I reflect on my family’s history, I am reminded that context is an important factor when talking about trigger points for why people emigrate to the U.S. There are many sociopolitical factors to consider when we talk about why people emigrate to the U.S. and it is often based on economic necessity and opportunities that are not available in our respective home countries. The better we understand these factors, the easier it becomes to understand the reasons why my family and many other families have made decisions to uproot their lives and families in order to pursue the American dream.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
When my mother and father decided to bring me to the United States, they did not have any legal options available. The only option available was to hire someone to help me cross the U.S. and Mexico border like many other individuals seeking better opportunities in a different country. I cannot stress the significance and importance of this decision, which is one that many undocumented families have to make in order to pursue their version of the American dream.
At the age of five, my paternal grandparents and I left our small, rural hometown in Mexico and made our way to Ciudad Juarez where my journey to the U.S. commenced. I remember packing an overnight bag with very little belongings. I specifically recall packing a pair of socks with Lucha Libre wrestlers (Mexican Professional Wrestlers) on them. These socks were special to me as it was rare that we had money to splurge on clothing items like these socks. I remember sitting on a bus with my grandparents with my overnight bag and holding onto a prayer card of a Catholic saint my maternal grandparents had given to me to protect me on the journey. I was both excited and scared to leave the only place that I knew as “home”.
We made our way to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to meet the person who would assist me in crossing the border. We stayed in a hotel in the city for a few days. At this time, my father had already obtained his permanent residency through the legislation passed for farmworkers in the U.S. in the 1980’s. He made the trip back to Mexico to ensure everything was in order for my trip. Since my father had been in the United States since I was two years old, I did not have many memories of him. I remember the mixture of emotions I felt when I saw my father for the first time. I was excited to see my father, someone who I had only heard stories about from my mother and grandparents.
While we were staying in the hotel in Juarez, my father ran into an acquaintance from the U.S. who happened to be in Juarez and staying at the same hotel. They started talking and when this friend realized the reasons we were at the hotel, they offered to help me cross into the U.S. with her so that I would not have to make the treacherous journey across the border like my mother had done a few months earlier. This person passed me off as their own son when we crossed the border. I remember saying my final goodbye to my grandparents and wondered when I would see them again. I held on tightly to my overnight bag, my prayer card, and the only comfort of home I had left- my Lucha Libre socks. It was during this time that I remember staying in a hotel in Juarez and being in awe and disbelief of what life looked like outside of our rural town in Mexico. My hometown did not have many of the basic necessities that cities had, such as plumbing, a hospital, police station, schools, etc. To this day, I hear the story of my fascination the first time I saw a toilet in the bathroom of the hotel and how I spent so much time flushing the toilet over and over out of curiosity. While this story makes me smile, it also makes me sad to think of how something so basic would bring me so much joy.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My journey to the United States was manageable due to the community and family that surrounded me during my early childhood. My maternal aunts made sure that I felt loved and cared for, especially during times when I felt sad and missed my mother. My grandparents always instilled hope in me and would tell me about the many wonderful adventures I would have in the U.S. I know this was not easy for them to do. They hid their sadness and pain of having to say goodbye to yet another person in their family. They made sure to stay optimistic during this process to ease my anxiety and worries. I am forever grateful for their help in raising me and ensuring that I was surrounded by a loving and caring community. I am also grateful to them because they also made a sacrifice. They had to say goodbye to their own family — my mother, father, and lastly myself — as we moved to the U.S. for a better life. We often don’t talk about the families and communities we leave behind. My extended family was integral in making my journey possible. They made sacrifices and concessions so that I could have a better life.
So how are things going today?
Things today are going very well. I even feel guilty for saying this, especially as I reflect on mine and my family’s journey in the U.S. At this time, I live in New York City and have been here for the last five years with my partner and our dog. I work as a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at Columbia University and maintain my own private practice where I work with young professionals, queer people of color, and survivors of trauma. All of my families’ sacrifices to ensure that I received an education were not in vain. I graduated middle school, high school, pursued a four-year degree at public university in Wisconsin, and then enrolled in a 7-year doctoral program and worked towards my Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Throughout my educational trajectory, I have always kept my early childhood memories close to my heart. Especially when it felt impossible to continue with my academic journey. I navigated the U.S. educational system as a first-generation, Latinx, Queer person of color and it was only possible through community and family support. I received mentorship from various Latinx, Queer, and other Psychologists of color throughout my training. These mentors helped socialize me into the profession as a Psychologist. They also helped me make sense of my experiences and instilled the importance of my identity as a bilingual and bicultural Psychologist. With these experiences in mind, I am reminded of the importance of my voice in my respective field. I am often in spaces where I can use my voice and my power to advocate for those who have been silenced and who are not offered a seat at the table.
I have had the opportunity to teach at the master’s level and train emerging counselors in the field so they can work in a culturally competent and sensitive way with all of their clients. I have also conducted research on identity development and on health disparities for racial and ethnic communities. Additionally, my clinical role as a Psychologist is one that is central to my identity. I have had the honor of working with so many individuals across the lifespan and have used my own experiences to ground my work. I strongly believe in the power of therapy as a tool to help individuals heal and grow. I also recognize the importance of taking into account all of my client’s identities and lived experiences in order to tailor treatment that is culturally sensitive. More recently, I have started consulting with businesses and organizations on diversity and inclusion efforts in the workplace, as well as on providing presentations to their employees on the importance of mental health well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout these professional endeavors, I am continuously honored and humbled to be part of a profession that is committed to social justice.
You have first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
The immigration system in this country is in dire need of reform. This type of reform is essential to the survival and well-being of all us in this country. I want to provide an example with my family to illustrate the complexities and challenges of the immigration system. When I had arrived to the United States, my father was able to petition for my mother and I to be granted legal permanent residency given his own legal status. This process took a total of thirteen years. We had to attend many appointments at the. U.S. Immigration office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where we lived at the time. We had to obtain necessary documentation, pay legal fees to lawyers, submit applications and other materials in a timely fashion.
I remember the fear I felt going into these spaces with my family. Wondering if at any point we might be told that there was an error with paperwork or that a form was not submitted on time. These ten years were difficult as we did not know if we would be able to stay in the country while this process unfolded. I remember my mother and I having numerous conversations about what would happen if we were deported to Mexico. I lived in fear day-to-day as I went to school. I worried about my mother’s safety, especially as she went to work every day to provide for her family. I was very attuned to local and national news about immigration reform, as well as the horror stories of family’s who had been separated by deportation.
In order to improve the system, we need changes at the individual and systemic level. I would offer these three suggestions to improve the system.
- It is important for us as a country and a society to centralize the stories of those who have been directly and indirectly impacted by the immigration system. We often go through this process in isolation due to fear. If our stories are centralized in the discussion of immigration reform, we may be able to work towards creating a system that is fair, just, and treats us with dignity and respect.
- I would also encourage politicians and those in power to increase their awareness and empathy of undocumented individuals and their lived experiences. Without this awareness and empathy, we run the risk of creating and implementing policies that will only negatively impact those that are vulnerable and going through a difficult process.
- Lastly, I think we need to consider the immigration policies in place and approach these policies with the understanding that we are working with human beings. It is imperative to consider the humanity of these individuals and the reasons they seek a better life in the U.S. We need to stop using fear to hide our biases and prejudice and we need to stop villainizing undocumented individuals who are only seeking opportunities and a chance for a better life.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
I offer these 5 keys to achieving the American dream based on my own journey. I am hopeful that they will serve as comforting words to those who are in pursuit of their own American dream.
- Remember & Honor Your Journey — Working to achieve the American dream comes with many challenges and obstacles. I encourage you to remember and honor the journey you are on. Remember the reasons for your pursuit of the American dream as a way to keep you grounded and rooted as you create your new home.
- Know That You’re Not Alone — This process can also feel so isolating. We all have felt alone during this journey. Just remember that there are many of us in this collective process and our stories and experiences are real and valid.
- Use Your Support System — Support comes in many different forms. I encourage you to use your family, friends, and community to support you during the difficult times. I also encourage you to celebrate each and every success and step towards achieving your American dream.
- Take Time to Recharge — It is okay to take some time to recharge and take time for yourself. Do things that bring you happiness, joy, and fulfillment. Many of us are not afforded the opportunity to rest from constantly living in survival mode. Rest can be so healing during this arduous process.
- Use Your Voice & Platform — We are here as the result of so many that came before us. There are so many individuals that paved this path for us and have made it easier than it was for them. When you’re able to, use your voice and platform to advocate for others like us. We can continue to pave the path for those who are embarking on their own pursuit of the American dream.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
I greatly enjoy my role as a Psychologist and have the opportunity to work with diverse individuals. Based on my clinical work, research, and encounter with other clinicians, I have come to realize that change is imminent and necessary. In particular, there are three things that make me optimistic about the United States’ future.
- I am hopeful based on my interactions and conversations with younger individuals that are prioritizing and centralizing the importance of social justice issues. I am excited and inspired by our younger generation of Americans who are using their voices to demand action, reform, and their continued advocacy for social change.
- I am hopeful based on the conversations that are happening in America. We are beginning to have conversations around equality, equity, diversity, and social justice in this country. These conversations are the beginning blocks towards creating a society where diversity is welcomed and celebrated. They are difficult but necessary.
- I am hopeful based on the numerous opportunities I’ve had recently as a Psychologist of color. I have been humbled and honored to be invited to provide presentations and facilitate difficult dialogues with many employers and other organizations. These opportunities provide me with hope that we are finally addressing systemic issues at both the individual and systemic level.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
When I was finishing my senior year of high school, I was not certain if I would be able to attend college. All of my friends were excited about hearing back from colleges about their acceptances to local and national universities. At this time, my mother had been able to obtain her permanent residency. My permanent residency application was submitted with hers but there was an error in processing my application that caused a delay in my process. I was saddened that I had to potentially postpone my plans for higher education. Especially since my family and I could not afford the tuition as I would be considered an international student and would have to pay out-of-state tuition without financial aid to attend a local university.
We were working with an immigration lawyer at the time and they suggested we reach out to our state senators- Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl- who were representing the state of Wisconsin during this time. Both Senator’s took our requests seriously and were able to intervene on my behalf to ensure that my permanent residency application would be expedited given that an error caused the delay in my process. Through both of their advocacy and support, I received my permanent residency card exactly one month prior to the deadline for accepting or denying my acceptance to various universities. I was able to apply for financial aid and received various scholarships, loans, and grants that made it possible for me to work towards my undergraduate degree. I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with both of these former Senators. It was through their support and advocacy that made it possible for me to embark on my educational journey.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
The best way for readers to follow my work is by visiting my website at www.drliradelarosa.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!