Laura’s Immigration Story – Tegucigalpa, Honduras to Wilmington, Delaware


Laura grew up in La Ceiba on the northern coast of Honduras where she lived until the age of nine. From an early age, Laura had a love for dance and performance.

Above: Laura dressed as Wonder Woman for Halloween

Laura’s father is Colombian, and her mother Honduran. Her parents were both doctors, so her family was financially secure. She remembers walking up and down La Ceiba’s town square, going to the Pizza Hut and movie theatre.

Laura started learning English in the first grade at a bilingual school and, over time, she competed in English competitions at the national level. Once, she came in second place in the entire country.

“I was really sad because I lost to a boy. The word that got me out was “clothes” plural. I think I spelled “cloths.”

Above: Second-grade school picture at Saint Teresa’s Bilingual School

United States

Laura’s parents had wanted to move to the United States long before Laura or her sister were born. Her father had family living in the US, and he began the immigration paperwork in 1985, the year her older sister was born. 

Laura remembers her parents sitting her and her sister down to tell them they were going to be moving to the United States. Laura was nine, and her sister was 12.

“I didn’t know why, but I felt it was the end of my life.”

Above: Vanessa, a childhood friend, who Laura lost touch with, gave her this box shortly before she left Honduras. “It’s one of the few things I brought with me.”

Looking back on it, Laura understands the opportunities presented by their move to the US. Her parents could see that their country was moving in the wrong direction politically.

“It was dangerous in Honduras, and because my parents were doctors, they were part of the minority that was financially well off. Several times they tried to break into our house. My dad had to keep a gun. We had to get a guard to sit outside and watch the house at night. Our maid was held up at gunpoint.” (audio below)


In June 1997, they flew to Orlando, where her uncle and grandparents were living. They had to do all the paperwork, fingerprinting, and photos to get green cards. 

“I was really scared. I was a nine-year-old kid in this room full of people that don’t look anything like your people – all very serious-looking men who looked like cops. They all were in uniform wearing a belt with stuff on it, official and scary, and already you feel like you are imposing. When we finally got out of that which took hours and hours, we got our cards that said ALIEN on them. I remember that card.” (audio below)

Laura’s uncle picked them up from the Orlando airport.

 “We were in the backseat with my cousin. She said ‘put your seat belts on!’ My sister and I looked at each other then replied, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘because it is the law’! It was one of those culture shocks. In Honduras, people didn’t wear seatbelts. Now when I get in the car, it feels so strange if I don’t have my belt on.” (audio below)

Laura and her family lived at her grandparents’ two-bedroom apartment right behind Universal Studios. Her grandfather and aunt worked at Disney, a place every Floridian gets tired of in the end.” Disney ended up playing a prominent role in their introduction to the USA.

Above: Laura and her sister at Disney, one week after they arrived in the United States. You can see we were all about the American spirit with our clothes and our hats.”


Laura’s first year in Orlando was “hell.” She was in fourth grade, and although she could speak English, she didn’t feel like she belonged.

“I didn’t have the slang – all the things the cool kids were saying. I didn’t fit in with any crowd and only had two friends – a Chinese girl and a Pakistani boy. We were the outcasts in the class. I didn’t want to go to school because I didn’t enjoy it; I couldn’t wait for the day to be over. It was hard.”

Above: The family at Grandma’s in Orlando on Laura’s Dad’s Birthday. “He always gets a chocolate cake for his birthday.”

At the end of that first year, her father got a job in Miami, and they moved there in 1998. In Miami, Laura fit in, as three-quarters of her classmates were Hispanic. She stayed in Florida for more than a decade.


Laura came to Delaware in 2011, to get her Ph.D. in Sociology. The University of Delaware offered her a scholarship, so she decided to go to a state where she had neither heard of nor visited. Laura explains how northern Delaware, where she lives, is more metropolitan and populated. In contrast, the south, an area she doesn’t know well, is more rural and empty.

Laura describes Wilmington as a complicated city, with a strange history that has led to a lot of social issues. Segregation, gerrymandering, poor urban planning, gang violence, drug trafficking, and murder – nicknamed “Murder Town USA.”

“There are parts of Wilmington that are incredibly wealthy with million-dollar homes, then you drive four blocks, and you have broken windows. It is bizarre.”

Laura also sees Wilmington as a special place with artistic people full of passion and with big hearts, all working towards the betterment of the community.

“People who grew up here will defend this place until the day they die. Recently I was having a conversation with somebody, and they were talking down Wilmington, and I found myself defending Wilmington. I never thought I would call myself a Wilmingtonian, but I must like this place. I think there is a lot of struggle here, but also a lot of knowledge and wisdom.” (audio below)

Latin American Community Center

Laura works at the Latin American Community Center as the Manager of Prevention and Advocacy. At the Center, she has worked with families in the community on issues like HIV, drug and alcohol addiction and recovery, as well as financial literacy.

“We do a little bit of everything. It is a non-profit, so we all wear a lot of different hats and pitch in when needed.”

Laura is especially concerned about the Latino community in the United States, specifically in regards to the policies of the current federal administration. 


In her youth, Laura remembers hearing about people coming to the United States “illegally.” It bothered her because her family came “legally.” She knew it cost her parents a lot of money and time, waiting for more than a decade to get their visas.

“As a kid, I remember thinking, wait your turn in line and pay your dues. That is definitely something that has changed. Because I never realized as a kid just how privileged I was. Ya, my parents did it the ‘right way’ but they had the means to do so; they had access to the financial and legal means to do so. They had access to lawyers and knew how to read forms properly. My parents were able to go through the process. They were also not necessarily without other options. They did it the ‘right way’ but they had more opportunities to do it that way.” (audio below)

Laura now knows that her upbringing was not like most Hondurans and many other people who immigrate to the USA. Today, she is an advocate for those who are undocumented.


Before the 2016 election, Laura was in charge of training people at the Latin American Community Centre about how to register voters.

“One message we always relay to our community is the importance of voting. If you have citizenship and the ability to vote, it is that much more important you do for those that don’t have that ability or opportunity. The policies enacted by our politicians impact them, but they aren’t able to affect those policies. It is our job to speak for those that basically can’t. We tried to remind people that they were not just voting for themselves; they were voting for two or three other people who couldn’t vote.”


Laura emphasizes the need to recognize the full spectrum of immigrant experiences, specifically within the Latino community.

“We are not all the same, and we have varied experiences. There are a lot of stories of immense struggle and strife, but there are stories of privilege like mine.” (audio below)

Whatever Laura does in the future, it will continue to focus on improving the situations of minority and oppressed groups.

“I think when we recognize one form of discrimination or oppression, it sheds light on all the other types as well because there are parallels.”

Laura believes that increased exposure to different types of people and diverse ideas leads to more tolerance and acceptance.

“By default, most people are good.” (audio below)


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Sophia’s Immigration Story – Lahore, Pakistan to Little Rock, Arkansas


Sophia remembers a happy childhood in an upper-middle-class family in Lahore, the capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab. She was as privileged as could be – for a girl.

“Pakistan is still a very traditional patriarchal culture, and there is only so much a girl can do. My family allowed me a lot, but there were still very strict boundaries.”

Intellectual Pursuits

The men in Sophia’s family had a long tradition of coming to the United States for higher education, and Sophia wanted to study in America too.

“I could see there was a lot more equality and freedom for women in the United States, and they could pursue intellectual pursuits with fewer barriers than in Pakistan.”

Sophia completed her bachelor’s degree in Pakistan. She started looking at foreign universities, but she knew her father wouldn’t let her go if she didn’t get married first. She had an arranged marriage to a man who was already going to America to do a Ph.D. Together, in 1994, at age 20, Sophia and her husband went to Penn State. They then moved to Utah to continue studying. At the University of Utah, Sophia became the school’s first-ever female Muslim valedictorian.


Sophia had two children and became active at their school and in local organizations. She was a full-time professional volunteer and very happy.

“I was in awe of all the opportunities we had here. The ability to do whatever you wanted to do. If you really work hard and struggle, there are no barriers in America. I still believe that. You can achieve anything. The opportunity is there for everybody – it just depends how badly you want it.” (audio below)

Above: Sophia inside the Arkansas House of Prayer, an interfaith haven for silent contemplation.

September 11th

“My life really changed after 9/11.”

Sophia still remembers the way she felt when she heard on TV that Muslims were responsible for 9/11 – that Muslims hate American freedoms. She asked herself,

“Is my faith really out there to usurp others’ freedoms?”

After 9/11, some of her friends decided not to wear their hijabs when they traveled, out of fear of discrimination. Sophia used to teach Sunday School at the local mosque in Utah and would only wear a headscarf when she went there. She remembers her husband asking her not to wear it anymore.


Before 9/11, religion was a small part of Sophia’s life. After the tragedy, she found herself on a spiritual journey to learn about her faith. Everything she learned growing up in Pakistan had cultural elements of patriarchy, which she knew was not her faith. Sophia also knew that what they were saying on TV about Muslims wasn’t representative of her faith either.

In 2010 Sophia started wearing a headscarf every day despite her husband trying to convince her otherwise.

Little Rock

Sophia and her husband moved the family to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2011 so he could work at the university, and Sophia got into a master’s program. Sophia is an economist and strategic planner by profession. While working as a consultant in her field, she never stopped getting involved with passion projects on the side.

In Arkansas, Sophia found herself doing less and less consultant work and more and more interfaith work. She wanted to help those around her understand Muslims better.

Interfaith Center

In 2012, an Episcopal Church in Little Rock invited Sophia to help lead the Interfaith Center. It was perfect timing. The goal of the center is to help reduce fear about different world religions, promote cross-cultural learning, and create a more inclusive, harmonious, and pluralistic culture in Arkansas. 

“We want to move from diversity to pluralism. Diversity means people from different faith and race backgrounds live in the same community. It could be good, or it could be bad. However, if diverse communities do not engage with each other, it could be toxic. Pluralism is when diverse communities are actively engaging with each other with a commitment to the common good. They communicate and create an inclusive community where every voice is heard, and there are no ‘diverse slums’ in the community.” (audio below)

Internalized Oppression

One night, around the dinner table, Sophia’s daughter announced that classmates at school had called her brother a terrorist. Her son said,

“Mom, just ignore it – it’s no big deal. Everyone thinks Muslims are terrorists.”

Her daughter told Sophia she had taken care of the Hindu boy by insulting him back. Her daughter was proud, but Sophia was mortified. Sophia’s son was internalizing this oppression, and her daughter was turning into a bully! (audio below)


This incident at the dinner table inspired Sophia’s first initiative – an interfaith youth group. The idea is to encourage dialogue as the youth from different faith backgrounds complete service projects together. Both of Sophia’s children were members of the group.

“The goal is to give these youth the communication tools that my children lacked that night at the dinner table, and some of our politicians still lack.”

The Interfaith Center has also created an interfaith supper club called “Common Table,” where people of different faiths share a delicious meal. There’s also a weeklong Interfaith Summer Camp for elementary students, which is the first of its kind in the USA. The Center also hosts interfaith prayer services where people of all different faiths come and pray together in their own way.

“The whole idea is to create platforms where people can come engage with a purpose in mind and commit towards the common good. That could be making sure a neighborhood park is safe, or children are safe in school. People of different faiths need to come together for a common purpose.” (audio below)


Sophia is aware of how many people don’t expect her to be in the spaces she’s in. At work, when she was warming her lunch in the cafeteria, a new congregation member came in, saw Sophia, and seemed a little taken aback.

“He asked me, ‘Can I help you?’ I started laughing a bit and replied, ‘No, I’m fine – I’m right at home. May I help you?’ We have these mental barriers we have created about who belongs where, and they are becoming more distinct and harsh since this past election – where Muslims belong, where Christians belong. If we see a Christian in a mosque and we say what are you doing here – that needs to change in America. Our public spaces need to be more inclusive. That’s my hope, and I will continue working at it until the last day of my life.” (audio below)

Her Mosque

When Sophia’s family arrived in Little Rock in 2011, the town only had one mosque. She found it to be too “mainstream” and a “little conservative.” Sophia, a Sufi, dreamed of opening a more inclusive, open-minded, and progressive mosque in Little Rock. She wanted to create a welcoming and non-judgemental space for all types of Muslims, as well as non-Muslims.

They organized the building of Sophia’s mosque at her church For a year, the planning committee met there every single Sunday. The interfaith community has been key in helping her create this mosque.

In 2016 Sophia bought the property and embarked on this lifelong project. There is still lots of work to be done (like fixing the hole in the roof pictured above).

“God willed it to happen. There was a need for a mosque like this in Arkansas.”


Like 2001, the year 2016 had a profound impact on Sophia’s family. The night of the presidential election, Sophia’s son called and asked her not to go out wearing her headscarf.  (audio below)

“Fear is a very real part of Muslims’ lives. They do not feel safe when their wives, mothers or daughters wear scarves and go out in public spaces.”

“The founders of America came here for refuge from religious persecution, so facing religious persecution in America is against basic American ideals. I think I have a responsibility to protect the freedoms I have enjoyed – and protect them for my children.”


A lot has happened to the Muslim community since she moved to Arkansas. Sophia will never forget the truck that pulled up outside the other mosque in Little Rock, displaying pictures of a bleeding Jesus on the cross. The people in the vehicle were yelling at them to “Go home!”.

“Safety is a big concern for Muslims. We are at a major intersection here. My congregation asks me if we can put a US flag outside, and can you make sure there is security here because people don’t feel safe? Can you put a fence around here? No, I am never going to put a fence around here and tell the neighbors that we are different from you and need to protect ourselves from you. We are going to remain open. The doors will be open, but yes, we will put a flag out there, so people know we are Americans.”

Sophia never expected this to be her path – becoming an interfaith leader. She would never have dreamt of opening a mosque, emphasizing how Women don’t lead mosques in Islam!” 

“I think by nature I was always a rebellious person. It was in my nature to always challenge. I was not happy to see gender-differentials in my society.

Today, Sophia’s children are attending university, and she starts her days working at the church and then finishes them working at the mosque she built.

Welcome in America

The director of an independent film about a young Syrian girl who goes to Little Rock Central High School asked Sophia to play the mayor of Little Rock in her movie. Sophia rejected the offer at first saying,

“You can never have a scarf-wearing mayor in Arkansas!”

In the end, she took the role of the mayor in the film.

Sophia continues her work of promoting pluralism, trying to help create a future where everyone is not only welcome in her mosque, but also welcome in America.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Moon’s Immigration Story – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Portland, Maine


Moon’s father had been a soldier in Sudan since the age of 12 and ended up in Ethiopia after escaping the Second Sudanese Civil War. He met Moon’s mother, Fetelwork, in 1984, while she worked at the camps as a translator for the UN. Fetelwork knew nothing about Sudanese people and felt scared when she found out that he liked her. He was persistent, bringing her tea and cookies and always asking her for help with his homework. Then he invited her over to his house. The first night she stayed there, she hid under the bed out of fear that he may eat her. In 1990 they married.

Life in Ethiopia was never easy for Fetelwork and her husband.

In Ethiopia you have to struggle for your life.”


Moon was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Growing up, her father called her “Cow Eyes,” saying that her eyes were way too big for her head.

“I remember herding sheep in the hills. I remember hearing hyenas laughing outside at night.”

Moon is the middle child in the family. According to her mother, Moon was more independent and mischievous than her other seven children. To have quiet when visiting Grandma, they would tie Moon by bedsheet to a table leg. Only then, Fetelwork recalls, could they drink coffee peacefully.

Moon’s parents’ common language is English, so Moon picked up a little bit before coming to the United States. According to Moon’s mother, the fact that Moon’s father is a Sudanese refugee helped their case for being formally resettled to the United States.


Moon, at four years of age, didn’t understand why her family was leaving the refugee camp. She had just planted this little watermelon plant, and they were ripping her away from it. She was excited to watch it grow, and now she couldn’t. (audio below)

In 1995 when her family arrived in Maine, Moon remembers how it may have been cold outside but the local community made her feel warm. It was a time when there was a massive influx of immigrants and refugees moving to the state. Maine’s population is 98% white, and in general, the white Mainers approached these newcomers with curiosity, not stigma. Still, it didn’t take long for Moon to experience racism.

“I remember when they called me ‘nigger’. I didn’t know what that word meant.” (audio below)


Understanding her family’s history has always been of great importance to Moon. Growing up, her father would always quiz her about their family tree, making sure she never forgot where her people came from. (audio below) 

Moon still feels most comfortable in her mom’s kitchen. The smell of incense and familiar foods, bring her peace.

“If my mom is making coffee, it means everything is okay.” 

In the Portland neighborhood, where Moon’s mother lives, she is famous for her popcorn. All the kids in the area come by regularly to taste this simple secret recipe she takes pride in. (audio below)


Moon works in youth advocacy and is passionate about empowering peoples’ voices that aren’t being heard. As a survivor of abuse herself, she wants to protect others from losing their innocence.

I feel like all of humanity is sick.” (audio below)


Moon found the stigma she faced in her own community, as a survivor of abuse, to be debilitating. This is why she became obsessed with getting strong physically and joined the national guard for four years – trying to show that women can be strong. Her father encouraged Moon to have a voice – always bringing her with him to important meetings with elders in their community.

“I think that women will be the ones that bring back healing. My father always told me to be better than the boys. A woman can stand in a man’s presence and be as strong as she wants to be and even surpass a man. (audio below)

Moon and her colleague Patricia (above) are trying to put together a new social enterprise organization focused on “kindness projects” to empower women. She hopes it will eventually lead her to help specifically with women in South Sudan.

Spoken Word

Moon likes to express herself in spoken word. When she was going through a period of depression, she found it lifted after she wrote her poem, Have you seen my Son? (audio below)

Moon feels like immigrants, in general, are misunderstood and vilified. She thinks it’s important to put faces and stories to who they are and for Americans to learn about what happened in these peoples’ homelands that caused them to move.

“I want to empower others like me to rise above all stigma placed against us. I want to show them that an African girl can speak on prestigious platforms and that conformity isn’t a transition plan we are willing to accept in this country. America was built on the foundation of being a new land of dreams and opportunity, and I should not feel ashamed for asking for the freedom and opportunity offered to everyone else. I love to tell my story, because past being an immigrant, I’m just a passionate human.” (audio below)


Moon feels like the warmth she felt upon arriving in Maine is thinning with the current administration.

“I often find it strange that the place I know most as ‘home’ isn’t a place that necessarily sees my presence as a positive addition.”

Still, Moon’s commitment to her community is unstoppable.


Moon’s family lost their whole suitcase when moving from Ethiopia to the United States.

“We literally landed here and had nothing.”

She knows what it is like to lose everything, and that’s why her goals and how she will measure her success is more focused on relationships than tangible things.

“I always say I would be happy living in a hut. I constantly make sure that my end goal is nothing materialistic.” (audio below)


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Youness’s Immigration Story – Fez, Morocco to Burlington, Vermont

Tour Guide

Youness was studying English and working as a tour guide in Fez, Morocco [see photo below] when he gave a tour to a woman from Vermont. It was this encounter that set him on a path to the United States in the year 2000 and marriage.

Audio: Youness and his daughters discussing changes to the amount of hair on his head


Youness will never forget how amazed he was by the sheer quantity of snow that first winter in Vermont.

Above: Youness’s first winter in Vermont with his buried car (audio below).
Above: Barbecuing outside in the snow for his first Eid in Vermont (audio below).

During his first year in the US, Youness started coaching the local youth in soccer. He loves soccer and grew up playing in Morocco.

Meeting Lamiae

After he and his first wife divorced, Youness remarried a Moroccan woman named Lamiae, who he knew from university, and together they had their two daughters.

Audio: Youness describing how he met his wife


After being here for almost two decades, Youness views Vermont as an accepting, and peaceful state. He thinks it is a place where Muslims are respected. 

“I’ve never been harassed, discriminated against, or racially profiled. We have a few interfaith groups – they come to our mosque, and we go to their synagogues or churches. I fell in love with this place.”

Audio: Youness describing his love for Vermont

Islamic Society of Vermont

Youness misses Morocco, especially his social life there. It is at the Islamic Society of Vermont (ISVT) where Youness has made connections and become engaged with the local community. He is chairman of both ISVT’s Board of Trustees and the Islamic School.

The Islamic Society of Vermont serves a few thousand people and first opened its doors in 1997.  Aside from a small house where some members of the Somali community prays, this building is the only mosque in the entire state of Vermont. It serves Muslims from all over the world, many who were refugees resettled in the area.

Audio: The sermon from Friday prayer at the Islamic Society of Vermont

The idea of ISVT started when a few of the society’s founders were praying in a house. Saint Michael’s, a private Roman Catholic college, was made aware and invited them to come to pray in their church. As the population of Muslims in the area grew, they sought out a building of their own. First, they purchased one-third of the current structure, and then a few years ago, they collected the necessary funds and bought the rest.

Audio: Friday prayer at the Islamic Society of Vermont mosque
Above: Youness’ daughters enjoy looking at old photos of their father

“I want to share my story because I want other people to know that if you work hard, get married, and have kids, you can achieve happiness anywhere in the world.”

Youness owns a taxi service in Vermont called Star Cab, does IT on the side, and referees soccer.


When friends or family come over, in traditional Moroccan fashion, Youness serves tea alongside cookies, dates, and nuts. This is a tradition his daughters enjoy.

Youness has made a home for himself and his family in Burlington, and he has no plans of leaving. His custom-made traditional wooden table, Quran, and Moroccan decorations provide him with a sense of home in the USA.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Diana’s Immigration Story – Coban, Guatemala to Worland, Wyoming


Diana has fond memories of the mountains and trees where she grew up near Coban, Guatemala – an area visited regularly by a soft rain known as “chipi-chipi”. As a child, Diana walked every morning to her school, greeting friends and neighbors along the way.

Audio: Diana reflecting on her childhood in Guatemala

Molletes (custard or cheese-filled bread, covered in egg batter, fried, and boiled) are part of Diana’s family culinary tradition. Diana’s Abuelita, a mother of nine children, passed down the recipe.


Diana’s mother, a psychologist, stopped working when she had Diana. Diana remembers her constant presence, her love of reading, and her playfulness. She vividly recalls her mom chasing her and her siblings around with the water hose. Diana returned to Guatemala to be by her mom’s side before she passed away from cancer in 2013.

Diana’s father is a retired lawyer of Mayan descent. When it came time for Diana to go to university, he was insistent that she studied Law. He wanted her to be able to work for herself. She finished her degree but left for the United States before becoming a practicing lawyer in Guatemala. While she cannot work as a lawyer in the US, if she ever returns to Guatemala, Diana knows there will be work for her.


At the age of 17, right before she left on a student exchange to England, Diana met Cordel, the man that would one day become her husband. Cordel was also born in Guatemala to a Guatemalan mother and American father. At the age of 20, Cordel moved to the US and joined the Marines. During vacations, he would go to Guatemala and see Diana. After Cordel and Diana married in 2010, it took two years for their paperwork to be processed so Diana could come to the US. Every time she flies and sees someone clutching their immigration documents, she recalls those stressful times. She remembers holding her papers tightly in 2012 when she first arrived in Utah.


In 2014, Diana and Cordel moved from Utah to Wyoming, because of Cordel’s job. Diana describes Worland, a town in the least-populated state, as empty and open. Worland has a population of just over 5,000 people. It lacks things to do – but she thinks it is beautiful.

Everything is really far, and that’s something I don’t like. The nearest Walmart is one and a half hours away. I like that it’s peaceful, and I don’t have to lock my doors.” (audio below)

In Wyoming, Diana doesn’t have many friends or family, and her husband’s family is far away in Utah. She has found making friends difficult, and of the two that she has, neither are American-born.

“People from Worland are not super warm. In Guatemala, you say hello with a kiss, while over here, you keep a distance. I am used to it now.” (audio below)

After arriving in Wyoming, Diana started working at the local library. Inspired by her mother’s commitment to parenting, Diana decided to become a full-time mother when her daughter was born.

Audio: Diana’s daughter counting to 10

Child Photography

Diana wanted to have great pictures of her newborn baby girl. She decided to take them herself [see photo below] and realized she had the eye and interest in doing this for other mothers. Today she has a studio in her home for maternity and newborn photo sessions.

Diana continues to grow her child photography business and says the trick of the trade is patience. She hopes to have more clients in the future. It isn’t easy in Worland since there aren’t that many people, let alone babies.


Motherhood has been a challenge for Diana. She finds it hard to make time for herself.

It’s not your time anymore. It’s their time.

Even when Diana’s children are sleeping, she is thinking about them and whether or not they are okay. It’s all-consuming and exhausting, yet wonderful at the same time.

“It’s so amazing to see how they grow and how much they learn from you. But it’s also hard because you have to be a good example for them. It‘s not just saying ‘don’t do that’ or ‘do this.’ You have to show them. Being a mother changes you. You have to be the best person you can be to be a good example for your babies.” (audio below)

Diana’s husband works in the oil and gas industry as an equipment operator. This means he is often away from her and their kids.

“I have no one here; I came because I love him. He is a good provider, but he is away for two weeks, then back for five days, which is not enough, and then he goes again. This is our life.” (audio below)

Reading is a pleasure Diana learned from her mother. Sadly, she never brought any of her books from Guatemala to the US. Diana says she doesn’t buy books for herself anymore, only for her children.

“Their books are what I read now.” (audio below)


Even though she could apply right now, Diana doesn’t know whether or not she wants to become a US citizen. She still travels regularly to Guatemala, and someday she would like to move back.

“I feel that if I choose to become a citizen, I will never go back.”

“It is weird that I had this dream of living somewhere else, but now I want to go back home. I want to be there, I want to be happy, but I want to be with my husband. I wish he didn’t have to work so much. Him being away makes my job as a mother a little bit harder. I can’t say it is like being a single mom, but I can’t rely on anybody else when he is gone. It is only me.”

Audio: One day Diana hopes to return to Guatemala

“My dad is getting older, and I want to spend time with him. I wish my daughter could grow up with nieces and nephews. I have friends who have children in Guatemala, and I wish my children could grow up there with them.” 

*Updates: Since the interview, sadly, Diana’s father passed away. Luckily, Diana has found more clients and friends in Worland. Also, as her kids get older, Diana is finding that the time she has for herself is increasing.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Juan’s Immigration Story – Tepic, Mexico to Mobile, Alabama

Streets of Tepic

Juan grew up with 12 brothers and sisters in the large city of Tepic in western Mexico. Since the age of five, he worked on the streets – something that seemed reasonable to him at the time. Now that Juan has kids of his own in America, he often reflects on how different his childhood was from theirs.

When Juan worked on the streets as a child, he sold jello, bread, donuts, carried luggage, and shined shoes. Tips were the only form of payment he got to take home.

“Most of my recollections of my childhood are of work.”

Audio: Juan explaining to his daughter how he used to shine shoes


Juan’s parents were teenagers when they married. Although they were opposites – his mother sweet and caring and his father a “strong macho Mexican male”- they always stuck together.

“Her life was us – her children. She always greeted us at the door and never went to sleep until everyone was inside. We knew she would be there waiting for us.”

Audio: Juan telling a story representative of his mother’s love

Juan’s father made money by smoking fish. At five in the morning, Juan and his brothers would wake up, gut, scale, and prepare 50 kilos for smoking. After school, they would take the fish their father hadn’t sold during the day to sell in the neighborhood. However, the fish business wasn’t always a sure thing. Juan’s father struggled with alcoholism, and he often didn’t have money to buy fish. Sometimes money would have to come from tips the children could make on the streets, or else they wouldn’t eat.

“We didn’t wait to be told that there was no food – it was an ingrained family duty passed down from my older brothers and sisters. They did it. You saw it and knew you were next.”

Juan learned how to do the right thing from his mom, and he got his work ethic from his father.

“He showed me everything he knew how to do, and in that sense, he was a good father. If we needed to wake up at three in the morning to move rocks, he woke us up and worked with us. He moved the first rock and showed us by example.”

Father Tony

At 14, Juan went to live with his sister, who was studying in Puerto Vallarta. On the day he arrived, he walked by a clothing store for tourists with prices higher than he’d ever seen. He had his eye on a blazer for sale when a voice in broken Spanish asked him, “Do you like that?” It was a white man – he’d never met one before. The man told Juan that someday he could buy it if he wanted it. He also asked Juan why he wasn’t in school. The man asked questions Juan had never considered before. This was the start of a long friendship between Juan and the missionary Father Tony.

While working as a janitor at a hotel, Juan started volunteering with Father Tony to visit the sick and elderly in the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta. Juan didn’t know it at the time, but Tony had connections to wealthy people interested in sponsoring young men to study in the USA. Looking back, he realizes that Tony was testing him to see if he was right for sponsorship. One day he asked Juan whether he wanted to go to the US to study English, and Juan said yes. Juan realized how serious Tony was about helping him when they went together to visit Juan’s parents in Tepic, to get permission.

Studying English

Juan arrived in 1988 with the plan to study English for a year and return to Mexico with increased job opportunities. The school in Nogales, Arizona, that Juan would be attending was for Mexican children from wealthy families and run by nuns. Juan liked the nuns and got along great with the other students, but the parents did not want him, this poor kid from public school there, and they voted against his return. When Father Tony heard this, he spoke up for Juan, and the parents reversed their decision.

Above: Juan holding a photo of himself taken by Father Tony at the Chicago airport on the day Juan arrived

“There were so many cases where things were not supposed to happen for me but Father Tony stood up for me and made it happen.”

Audio: Juan explaining how Father Tony fought for him

It also wasn’t easy for Juan to get a visa to study in the USA. After denying him twice, Father Tony went and wouldn’t leave the office until they stamped Juan’s visa.

Juan enjoyed his high school years in Arizona and has many fond memories, like “funny hat day.” Juan thought he would return to Mexico after high school. Still, when a college in Mobile accepted him, he decided to give Alabama a try.

Above: Juan wearing a homemade monkey hat for ‘funny hat day’

Hard Work

Juan worked three minimum wage jobs – at a deli, at a buffet restaurant, and a small airport – and it still was not enough to pay for college. Just when he was starting to lose hope, he met a man who invited him to help him with some landscaping work [see photo below]. Juan worked one weekend with his man – unclear as to how much he would get paid. At the end of that weekend, Larry paid Juan double what he made at his other jobs. As a student, Juan couldn’t officially work more than 20 hours a week. Larry knew this and told Juan that if anybody ever asks, we will tell them you are helping me, and I am paying for your college.” 


When Juan moved to Mobile in the early 90s, he didn’t feel understood or welcomed. Juan wanted to contribute and get involved but it didn’t feel like the local people wanted to hear what he had to say. At that time, it seemed like if you didn’t know the local politics or sports, you couldn’t join the conversation. Juan felt like a “foreigner” and often heard people refer to him as “the Mexican.”

“Immediately, when I came to Mobile, I felt ignored and invisible. People didn’t care or value if I had an opinion. I guess I can see where a group of people would find themselves with a foreigner and say, ‘oh that’s the foreign guy what does he know’? That sort of mentality is what I encountered right away. I understood far more than what I let know.” (audio below)

Meeting Yohana

Yohana, Juan’s wife, moved to Alabama from Venezuela with her fiancé at the time. She started working at the same place as Juan. She didn’t speak English and enjoyed the Spanish conversations with him. After Yohana’s fiancé was fired, he decided that he wanted to return to Venezuela. Yohana didn’t want to go back with him as she had to continue making enough money to support her whole family in Venezuela. If she went back, the money wouldn’t be enough.

After her fiancé left, she went to Atlanta, Georgia, to live with a friend. Before leaving, her coworker Juan told her, “if you need anything, you can call me”. Shortly after getting to Atlanta, she realized that the situation she would be living in wouldn’t be safe, so she found a payphone and called Juan.

He told her, “Get all your stuff and come back. I’m gonna take care of you”.

Audio: Yohana explaining the circumstances of how she and Juan came to be together

Working Hands

Yohana was working for a health insurance collection agency in Alabama. She started feeling conflicted, realizing that it was her community she was going after. Yohana was trying to get poor people to pay money they didn’t have, so she quit. Around that time, she kept having the same dream.

“I saw the hands of women working in the field – dirt in their fingers and their nails. I felt like it was something important – like God was telling me something.”

Every morning she tried to figure out what the dream meant. She started praying – wanting God to tell her why she kept having this dream? 

Yohana found out about a program by the city that provides services to immigrant families working in agriculture. Despite her academic background in architecture and previous unrelated jobs, they hired Yohana as a social worker. When she went for interviews with these agricultural families and saw the women’s hands working with the dirt, it was like her dream was a reality.


In 2011 Alabama passed an anti-immigration bill (HB 56) into law, and the immigrant community in Mobile was nervous. The local community didn’t seem willing to speak up in defense of their undocumented neighbors.

Yohana already had a lot of connections with immigrant families in Mobile. She and Juan felt like they needed to do something, so they invited a couple of friends over to pray and talk. This meeting planted the seed for what would become BELONG, their non-profit organization. They decided to host a kickoff potluck dinner, and over 300 people showed up. BELONG is a place where immigrants – not just Spanish speaking immigrants – feel valued regardless of social or legal status. They tutor children, provide ESL (English as a Second Language) and GED (High School Equivalency Certificate) classes for adults, and act as a channel to all the other services that are available in Mobile. 

Juan thinks that because of his own experiences immigrating, he can better connect with newcomers.

“I know how difficult it is to be an immigrant in this country. It’s even worse for immigrants who came undocumented since the people they know are invisible too. I have a lot of empathy for the people we serve.” (audio below)

Next Generation

Juan and Yohana are trying their best to raise their two children to be inclusive and value diversity by exposing them to different cultures and experiences – including their own Mexican and Venezuelan heritage. Juan wants them to have the childhood he didn’t have. He knows the opportunities for bilingual kids in America are much better than the opportunities he had at their age.


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