E.J.’s Immigration Story – Pasay, the Philippines to Anchorage, Alaska

“Our people have proved our resilience over and over again throughout history. The issue is not our resilience – the issue is oppression. Our resiliency is not permission for others to keep oppressing us.”


One of E.J.’s earliest memories is of his dad driving a jeepney in Manila. Jeepneys are remnants of America’s military presence in the Philippines. They were left by Americans, modified by Filipinos, and are now the country’s primary form of public transportation. Starting at three years of age, E.J. worked as his father’s “barker” (the person sitting up front in the jeepney barking out to possible passengers on the street where they’re headed). He specifically remembers yelling out ‘highway, highway, highway!’.” (audio below)

E.J., his older sister, and their parents lived in a little shack with a bathroom, a kitchen, and a bedroom, where they all slept in one bed. But when E.J. turned four, his father moved to the United States to find work. By the time E.J. turned six, his family built a house in Las Piñas, a nice suburb of Manila, with the money his father sent home.

A lot changed in E.J.’s life at age nine when his parents divorced.

“A lot of the responsibility for trying to better my family fell onto me because it was my dad who left. I took that to heart, and I wanted to help my mom.”

USA is Better

From an early age, E.J. learned that the United States is a better country than the Philippines. E.J’s mother used to take him once a month to buy an action figure from the toy store. The price of almost every toy was negotiable, but his favorite, the American G.I. Joe was not. E.J says his mother, “the best bargainer in the world,” would try each month to bargain down the G.I Joe price, but she never won. All the sellers had to tell her was that the toy came from the USA. (audio below)

The idea stuck with E.J. – everywhere else has a lower value than the United States.

“The message I received as a kid is that anything made in the USA is more valuable, more precious, and better than anything made in the Philippines.”

Pizza & Honey Buckets

After leaving the Philippines, E.J.’s father settled in Barrow (as of 2016 it is Utqiagvik), Alaska, remarried, and started a second family. He worked at the post office, as a cab driver, and at a pizza place. E.J. remembers that job because whenever his father returned to visit them, he would make delicious pizza. After that job, his father drove the town truck that retrieved “honey buckets” (sewage). 

“Disposing of human waste was the job that helped my family a lot.

Carrying Crucifixes

At 14, E.J.’s parents decided to send him and his little brother to Barrow to join their father. E.J. remembers feeling excited – especially about a trip to Disneyland and Universal Studios – but he was also unhappy to leave his mother behind. 

“My mom put her two very young children on a plane to cross the Pacific Ocean and go to a place she had never seen before. She didn’t even know if she would ever see it! She did this just because life would be better for my brother and me. That was a big sacrifice for my mother. In the back of my mind, I didn’t know when I would see my mom again, if ever?”

Aside from their checked bags, E.J. and his brother each carried a four-foot-tall crucifix as carry-on luggage. His dad had requested these from Pampanga, his home province – one for his house and one for the local Catholic Church in Alaska. 

 “We were walking in airports and onto airplanes carrying crucifixes all the way to Barrow, Alaska. It’s funny, but also symbolic. We were literally carrying crosses on our backs.” (audio below)

Los Angeles vs. Barrow

E.J. and his brother first arrived in Los Angeles, where their aunt lived. Even though their stay was short, she took them to Disneyland and Universal Studios. This initial experience set the bar high for what E.J. expected from this new life in the United States. 

Barrow, Alaska contrasted drastically with Los Angeles, California – no paved roads and wooden buildings that sat on stilts to avoid melting the permafrost. E.J.’s dad took him for a drive around the remote town of about four thousand people. E.J. asked to go to the city to get some clothes. His father informed him that the only way in and out of Barrow is by plane! 

Above: E.J. wearing #34, the jersey of Pamiuq, his late best friend.


E.J.’s dream growing up in the Philippines was to one day become a professional basketball player. He believed it was the one way he could make enough money to help his mom. Luckily, basketball is popular in Barrow, and this helped E.J. adjust to life in the United States. 

“Basketball kept me straight, away from trouble, and it gave me something to dream about. Basketball forced me to stay in school. To do well enough in my classes that I could remain eligible to play ball. In the process, I ended up doing pretty good in school!” (audio below)

Above: Junior year with his basketball teammates


E.J. had been going to an all-boys school in the Philippines, but when he started middle school in Barrow, he had girls in his class. It didn’t take long before he noticed Margaret, who is Koyukon Athabascan (indigenous to Alaska). E.J. knows that Margaret’s fair-skin increased his initial attraction to her. 

“I thought I was going to marry her, and we were going to have light-skinned kids together, and I could show them off to my Filipino family.”

Today E.J. recognizes the problematic origins of where the attraction to pale skins comes from.

“I grew up in the Philippines in a context where anything American is better than anything Filipino and being American is equated to being white, and anyone who is lighter skin is more attractive than dark skin folks. I grew up in a context when people were using skin whitening products – soap and bleach. People tell you not to go in the sun, and skin whitening clinics are everywhere.” (audio below)

They talked for the first time when E.J. asked to walk Margaret home. She let him walk her to the corner of the street, but no farther. E.J. reflects and laughs, “She didn’t want me to know where she lived!” E.J. and Margaret dated for a few years, broke up, then got back together in their senior year of high school. They’ve been together ever since.

The Santo Niño

Two years after arriving in the United States, E.J. and his brother went to the Philippines to visit their mother. His brother decided he didn’t want to leave. The Santo Niño (Santo Niño de Palaboy) has always been important to E.J.’s mother. She prayed to it for a child, and then became pregnant with E.J. Then before E.J. left the Philippines the second time, she gave him a Santo Niño de Palaboy (known to watch over the homeless and those with nowhere to go) [see the above photo]. She hoped it would take care of her 16-year-old son, who was leaving her again, but this time without his brother. (audio below)


E.J found it hard to live in his father’s house in Barrow, with his stepmom and step-siblings. He felt a lot of anger towards his father and consequently only went home when he had nowhere else to go.

“I ran away a lot and slept in friends’ homes and on couches. I spent my entire senior year of high school sleeping on my friends’ floorI really didn’t have a home. Basketball was my home.”

 Above: E.J.’s birthday with his dad and two of his three half-siblings in Barrow


After arriving in Barrow, E.J. tried to become as American as possible. He watched a lot of Boy Meets World and Saved By the Bell  – where he got a lot of ideas about how an American teenager should be. But Barrow, due to the Utqiagvik indigenous community, was different than the America depicted on these shows. Ironically, while watching this proud community resist the erasure of their language and culture, E.J. was trying to rid himself of his.

“Not only did I literally leave my country, but now that I’m here, trying to erase or hide the little bits or pieces that are hanging on to me. It got to the point where I was discriminating against other Filipinos.” (audio below)

In his junior year of high school, someone left an anonymous message on his locker: “You are Filipino. Act like it!” E.J. knew that they had a point and started to reflect on his behavior towards other Filipinos. He realized he was trying to lose his “Filipino-ness” when most of his family and friends lived in the Philippines.

“Have I abandoned them? Have I forgotten them? Why was I trying so hard to get rid of my accent and be ‘American’?” (audio below)

Without the questions that this note spawned, E.J. wouldn’t be doing the academic work he does today. 

Alaskan Myths

E.J. knows that there are a lot of myths about Alaska. 

“We don’t live in igloos, or swim with whales, or hang out with polar bears!” 

One predominant myth E.J. often comes across is that Alaska isn’t a multicultural state. He explains how it is diverse not only because of immigrants but also because of the different indigenous groups in Alaska. Anchorage is exceptionally diverse. Some studies say the most diverse neighborhood in the country is in East Side, Anchorage.

Filipinos are the largest immigrant group in Alaska, and also the largest undocumented population in Alaska. E.J. explains how Filipinos have an expression for their undocumented population – “TNT” (Tago Ng Tago) – which translates to “always hiding.” 

“Filipinos are virtually invisible when it comes to the national conversation about immigration and undocumented immigration.” (audio below)

E.J. believes many Filipinos aren’t vocal about this situation because they want to remain under the radar. Their priority is to continue being in the United States and supporting their family – not change laws.

Above: E.J. wearing the uniform of his best friend Pamiuq. E.J. put it on, thinking he would have a uniform of his own soon.

Lucky Timing

E.J. didn’t grow up with a plan to go to college. As his dreams of playing professional basketball faded, and he found himself needing money, he enlisted in the U.S. Army after his junior year in high school. He planned to fly to Alabama and start basic training after graduation. 

In E.J’s senior year, Alaska started a program where full scholarships to the University of Alaska were offered to the top ten percent of the state’s graduating class. E.J. found himself in that top ten percent and in a position he could never have imagined. He decided not to attend basic training, as planned, and instead started studying psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“I fell in love with psychology because it was helping me with my personal struggles. In eight years, I went from not going to college, to having a Ph.D.!”


E.J. works as an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His focus is on the effect colonialism has on how people think about themselves, their culture, and their mental health. 

“I turned my personal experience into a career.”

Internalized oppression” is central to E.J.’s research. When groups of people are repeatedly told that their language, worldview, traditions, skin color, etc. aren’t good enough, these messages eventually seep into their minds. You don’t need to tell them these oppressive messages anymore because they start telling themselves those oppressive messages. They start believing it.”

“I see [internalized oppression] with my people. Skin whitening products are all over the Philippines, and nobody questions it anymore. The English language is the language used in all of our schools in the Philippines. The message is that English is the language of education. In this case, the idea that American things are better than anything Filipino has been internalized and institutionalized. We have built institutions that reflect this oppression.” (audio below)

E.J. has published four books so far [see the above photo]. His most recent, We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet (2018), is a series of letters to his Filipino-Athabascan family highlighting issues around colonialism, sexism, racism, and internalized oppression. 

“Oppression is redundant; it is nothing new. Be ready, but please don’t get used to it. Don’t habituate to it, don’t put up with it, and don’t accept it. Be fed up with oppression. Be sick and tired of it, be angry, be outraged, be devastated by it. It’s natural to be distressed by something so violent and wrong. I have been devastated by it many times, in fact, I am even permanently damaged by it.” (audio below)

Above: E.J.’s tattoo of his family that he keeps adding to


E.J. explains how Alaska is a “very red state” (that produced Sarah Palin) and the 2016 presidential election heightened E.J.’s fear and paranoia. At any time, he may be feet away from people who don’t want people like him around.  

“Bigotry and racist ideologies and anti-immigrant sentiments have always been a part of America. These are stolen lands – especially here in Alaska. We are aware that those things have always been a part of this country – colonialism, racism, and cultural genocide. 

On the positive side, E.J. believes the 2016 election encouraged more people to fight back and resist oppression.

Audio: An election focused reading from his book We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet (2018)


E.J. thinks it is essential to include America’s indigenous peoples in the national immigration conversation. He feels like his mixed indigenous-Filipino family is at the intersection of the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between indigeneity and those trying to immigrate. 

“As immigrants, we need to acknowledge the indigenous peoples of this land and work with them. Until this day, they are still fighting the oppression of their culture. As immigrants, it is our responsibility to pay respect to the people and respect the lands. The most important way we can respect indigenous people is to work with them to make sure these lands stay welcoming, and that injustice and oppression do not happen here.” (audio below)

E.J. believes people should be careful when repeating statements like “immigrants make America great” or “America is the land of immigrants.” 

We cannot advocate for immigrant rights at the expense of further erasing indigenous people.” (audio below)

Beyond Economics

E.J. also thinks it is problematic how society often judges immigrants solely on their economic value.

“We shouldn’t put a price tag on people’s humanity and dignity. We play into this system that says we are only valuable because we contribute this much money. Are immigrants any less of humans? We don’t do that with the native-born, so why are we doing that to the immigrants?” (audio below)

Above: Margaret works as a midwife, focused on intergenerational healing and wellbeing. She is holding an Athabaskan baby belt, used to carry babies on one’s back


E.J. thinks it is important to question why people immigrate, and why life is better in one country and worse in another. A lot of answers lie in colonialism and exploitation. Unlike how a salmon instinctually swims upstream, humans aren’t naturally inclined to migrate. 

I wasn’t born with a ‘go to the United States instinct’ – to leave my family behind, and my culture. Nobody is born with an instinct to sacrifice everything you are familiar with. Why did I develop this dream along with so many others?”

E.J. explains how it becomes easier to understand why people want to leave the Philippines and move to the U.S. after one studies the Philippines’ complex history of resource and labor exploitation.

I’m here because America went there first.” (audio below)

Creating Superheroes

E.J. & Margaret want their kids to grow up understanding their Koyukon Athabascan and Filipino heritage. While E.J. tries to share Filipino culture, Margaret shares her language, food, and the stories her parents told her growing about her people’s history. These stories grounded her, and she hopes they do the same for her kids. 

“We try to tell stories, read stories, and talk about our family. They have the privilege of these different heritages. Along with that, they have this responsibility of figuring out how they want to help our community.” 

E.J. wants them to see their own diversity as a privilege. 

“I want my kids to use their roots and see them as their superpowers. Just because you have superpowers doesn’t mean you are a superhero. You have to use your superpowers for good, otherwise, you are a villain. I want my kids to be superheroes.” (audio below)

*Update: Since the interview, E.J. and Margaret have welcomed the newest member of their family, Tala Raine Nodoyedee’onh.


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 Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Vicky’s Immigration Story – Slough, the United Kingdom to Lexington, Kentucky


Vicky was born in Slough, a town she describes as a “busy dirty place” (right next to the “very posh” Windsor) and says British people make a lot of jokes about Slough. Vicky’s sister used to go for riding lessons and Vicky tagged along. For the first couple of years, she was terrified by the thought of riding. Once she got over the fear, she fell in love.

“When you are little, they are huge. You’re not strong enough to hold them, so you fall off. You have to be quite tough to get going. When I was 11, I got my first pony. He was like a dream pony. I used to go to shows, do jumping, and win rosettes. My biggest dream was having a room full of rosettes.” (audio below)

Vicky’s grandfather was really into horse racing – specifically gambling at horse races. He would take Vicky to the tracks, and she was awe-struck by these “big beautiful animals and their power and strength.” When Vicky was 19, she got her first chance to ride an actual racehorse.

It is like driving a mini and then suddenly going and driving a Rolls Royce. You just can’t believe it. Wow, this is amazing! When you are going flat out on them, it’s the best feeling in the world.” (audio below)


Vicky’s husband Pat was born in New York City to a third-generation Irish bricklaying father and a mother from the United Kingdom who taught Irish step dancing. Pat’s father passed away when he was five, and his mother wanted to go back to the UK to be with her family. Despite leaving the US at five, Pat always held on to his American identity. He figures it was his way of holding on to his father. (audio below)

He spent a couple of years in London with his grandparents, and then his mom married another Irishman. They moved out to the quiet suburbs, near Epsom, home of the famous Epsom Derby. When Pat’s parents took him for pony riding lessons, he was instantly hooked. Pat ended up getting his own pony, doing show jumping, and then getting into horse racing. He tried to become a jockey [see the photo below] but discovered that it isn’t the best choice for an asthmatic.

Pat loves the connection he feels to the horse when riding and also the adrenalin rush. He finds the features of horses comforting. Even though they are big and robust, they aren’t aggressive. 

 “It is a timeless thing. Horses really were the things that first helped people be more than they could be on their own.” 

Pat also feels like horses bring him closer to nature. 

 “If you are out riding on a trail, you have a different perspective than on foot. You can see more, and wild animals don’t scatter. It’s a nice experience. Except when you are on a thoroughbred, then it is a frightening experience. Some people get a bit addicted to it. You feel alive.”  (audio below)

Equine Studies

Pat and Vicky both enrolled in Equine Studies – the first one of its kind in Europe – at Warwickshire College. They studied anatomy, physiology, nutrition, biomechanics, and everything else required to become a “competent horse person.” 

It was at the “Horse Racing Club” Pat organized where they first saw each other. Vicky remembers Pat getting up to talk, and saying to her friend, “oh, look at him, isn’t he awful!” Three months later, they got chatting at a college bar and began dating. 

 “It was easy being around each other from the start.” 

Vicky jokes that they have been together so long; she could have murdered Pat and gotten out of jail by now! (audio below)

When they finished their finals at college in 1994, they decided to take a summer holiday to Kentucky. They had a great time, and the night before they were going to return to the UK, Pat turned to Vicky and said, “this is where we want to be.” Vicky didn’t think so. 

 “I literally begged Pat to come back to England with me.” 

Above: Jack, first day at school, age five


Vicky and Pat married in 1996, and by that point, had their own stable yard with horses where Pat trained, and Vicky helped him. That same year they had their son Jack [see the above photo].

 “The first thing he ever saw when he went out of the house after coming from the hospital was a horse’s head over the door. He’s been good with animals his whole life.” 

When Jack was a boy, and people would ask what he wanted to be, the answer was always a “jockey,” and that dream never died. Pat and Vicky signed Jack up for pony racing.

 “I didn’t think he would have the strength to get the pony to the start, let alone ride in the race. But he did and fell off at the start. The race was off, and he finished third. I thought, ‘Oh, hell! He’s going to be a jockey!‘” 

They tried to steer him away from working with horses, but Jack just got better and better, and admittedly, Pat and Vicky have put some of their own dreams into Jack. 

United States

Vicky tried to convince Pat and Jack they had everything they needed in England. Jack went to Kentucky for a week exchange as part of the British Racing School, and after returning, every day, he asked when he could go to the US again to race. 

They waited a year so Jack could finish school. Vicky and Jack applied for visas through Pat, to help make their son’s dreams come true, It took 18 months, and when the green cards were approved, they only had six weeks to pack up 25 years of their lives together and leave before they expired. Vicky had expected they could leave England whenever they wanted, but that wasn’t the case. 

When they landed in New York in 2014, it was Pat’s first time back to his place of birth since he was a kid. 

“The things you don’t do are the biggest regrets in your life, and I had it in me to come and spend time in America where I was born, and I’ve done it.” 


When they arrived in Kentucky, Vicky couldn’t stop crying and continued to have “tears for the first month”. She felt useless and lost. They needed to find a place to live, and she hated driving the big truck they got. The second time Jack raced in Kentucky, the horse broke its leg, and Jack went down with it. It gave them a real scare, and Vicky started to really question why they had moved to the US. 

Vicky had to stop watching Jack race – it is easier on her nerves. 

“The way I deal with it is I don’t watch him, yet when he does win, and you are there, it is the best thing ever. When he does fall, your whole world stops. We’ve been lucky so far. I always say to him the day you don’t want to do it, you stop. It’s been a roller coaster.”

Above: Pat watching Jack’s race from his living room (audio below)

Jack says he hardly remembers England now, but Pat is much more reflective. He realizes had they come to the US for a year, then headed back to the UK, it would have been enough for him, but he knows how much Jack loves living in the US.

“I know a lot of people emigrate out of harsh economic necessity, but even when you have a choice, it’s a tradeoff you gain something and lose something.”


Ultimately Pat and Vicky like where they live in Kentucky – rolling hills and giant trees. One thing that stuck out to them when they first arrived is how many people wear jeans and t-shirts. It’s a lot different than the New York Pat remembers of “slacks and collared shirts”. They like how laid back everyone is in Kentucky.

 “I thought the Irish were laid back, but the Kentuckians make us look like strung-out messes – and in the summer, they’re even more laid back!”

Father & Son

When they arrived in the US, Jack, age 17, didn’t have a driver’s license. To race, he needed to travel to nearby states and the five different Kentucky tracks. That first year, Pat, as Jack’s “chauffeur”, drove 80,000 miles. They would leave at four in the morning and arrive back home at midnight. That year of being together non-stop involved a lot of tears and laughter, as they tried to get Jack established in the racing scene. Pat was doing something with Jack that he never got to do with his father. 

“It was the first time in my life that I ever really thought about my father. He was gone, and I was in another country. When I came back here, it felt quite strange. In the end, I saw a counselor and spoke about it. It was quite emotional. I never really grieved for him.” (audio below)

After a year and a half, Jack got his license and could drive himself. Pat cherishes that extraordinary experience of spending so much time on the road with his son. Pat was a racehorse trainer for nearly two decades. It was so special that Pat decided to take time off to write about the experience. In 2018, he published Around Kentucky With the Bug.

WinStar Farms

When they arrived in Kentucky, Vicky didn’t plan on working with horses. She had so many incredible years in England with horses and figured nothing would be the same in the US. 

“I said, ‘I’m never going to ride a horse again. I was done with that.’ And then you find you miss them, they are in your blood, and you just can’t get away.”

She started her job at WinStar Farm in 2016, working as the Barn Foreman, who oversees the smooth running of the barn and assists the trainer.  

“Just being around horses every day is good for your soul. They don’t ask too much of you. I mean, they drive you crazy: they bite and kick, and push you around and don’t do what you want them to do, but they are so beautiful. I prefer being around them to people, I guess. They don’t judge you, and they forgive you. I guess I’m a half-horse!” (audio below)

Vicky loves the people she works with and finds that, in general, people in the US are more open and easy to connect with. Christie, from New Jersey, is one of Vicky’s coworkers [see the above photos].

“It is nice being around young people. I think it is a bit of the mother thing. We don’t have that much in common, and Christie’s so much younger than me, but when you work with horses, you have them in common.” (audio below)


Vicky and Pat miss their family in the UK, including two horses they still own back in England, that they consider part of their family. Vicky went back to the UK recently and was surprised to find herself missing Kentucky. 

“It was weird; I wanted to come back here to Kentucky. This is home now. I prefer the weather here. It makes you feel great to be alive. You don’t get that in England. Everyone is miserable.”

Audio: Vicky talking to the horses


In the future, Pat and Vicky hope Jack continues to pursue his dreams.

Pat says he has passed the stage in his life of grand ambitions and feels grateful for what he has. He jokes that he hopes his book “sells better than Harry Potter”!

Vicky hopes that Jack will one day have a family, and she will have grandchildren, but she emphasizes that it is all up to him. She also would love to open a cat sanctuary one day, with a few horses there as well.

*Update: Since the interview, the two horses (who are like family) in England, have now immigrated to Kentucky too. At the beginning of 2020, their son Jack bad accident breaking a collar bone and smashing his whole face. He fought hard to return to racing and is now competing again. Vicky and Pat, are happy (for their nerves’ sake) to know that Jack only plans on competing for a couple more years tops.


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 Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Laura’s Immigration Story – Quevedo, Ecuador to Houston, Texas

“I feel like Ecuador is one of those countries you don’t really hear about, but it has so much to offer. Some people call it the country of “four worlds” because every region is so different – the Galapagos, the Coast, the Sierra, and the Oriente.”


Laura was born in Quevedo – “a little city where everybody knows everybody.” Her best childhood memories are of running around with her cousins on her grandfather’s land.

“We would eat in the morning, get lost, and when we got hungry, we would crack watermelons open.” (audio below)

Laura’s dad worked with computers, and her mom stayed home with Laura and her older brother. Her dad was the type of man everyone knew in town. At the time, cars weren’t as accessible. For practical reasons, her dad opted for a motorcycle. Laura dreamed of one day having her own turquoise Yamaha Passola moped.


When Laura’s parents left Ecuador for the United States in 1998, she and her older brother moved to Guayaquil to live with their paternal grandmother. The goal was for Laura and her brother to eventually join their parents. Laura’s parents lived at her paternal grandfather’s house in Houston until they had enough to move out on their own.

Laura knew very little about the United States, aside from how everyone wanted to go there. After her parents left Ecuador, Laura went to school and told her teacher that she would be moving to “Washington” soon. She has no idea why she thought they were going to Washington! (audio below)

In 1999, a year after her parents left, Laura, age seven, and her brother flew to the United States. When she thinks of that day, she remembers chewing gum, wearing Winnie the Pooh overalls, enjoying her first plane ride, and smuggling soup. Her father had such a craving for grandma’s soup that the family had Laura bring a concealed jar of grandma’s frozen soup in her backpack. (audio below)

 Above: Laura at Mission West Elementary in Houston, the second elementary she attended and where she became fluent in English


“Meeting my parents in the US was like the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Laura felt lonely and out of place after the move. Although she noticed the streets were cleaner in the US, she could run around her grandfather’s land unsupervised in Ecuador. In Houston, Laura lived in an apartment complex. She had to always be supervised and the only kid Laura played with was her brother. She didn’t like this new life. 

“I kept telling my mom I wanted to go back to Ecuador.”

When Laura started first grade, she couldn’t believe it when another student talked back to the teacher and didn’t get hit. She had never seen a lack of respect like this in Ecuador. Making friends didn’t come easy at school. In Ecuador, Laura loved playing soccer at recess. When she tried playing in the US, all the girls called her a boy and teased her. Even though some of the kids in her class were Spanish speakers, Laura couldn’t understand some of their words. Nobody had ever told her there were different dialects and ways of speaking her language. When her parents finally bought a house, Laura transferred to the school where her cousins went, so she became friends with their friends.

Audio: Laura reading her poem “English as a Second Language”


Trying to fit in was a predominant theme of Laura’s adolescence. She went through all sorts of stages – lots of makeup, dyed hair, colored contacts, and at one point, an emo look. (audio below)

It took Laura until freshman year at George Bush High School to adapt to American culture. She became part of the dance team and found it to be a “gateway into self-expression.”  It’s also where she made friends.

Above: Senior year photo from George Bush High School

Body Art

When Laura got her first tattoo as a teenager, she knew her parents wouldn’t approve, so she didn’t tell them. 

“They thought tattoos are only for criminals and gangsters, and here I was getting flowers and all these colorful things!”

Eventually, Laura’s mom spotted her tattoo. Although she did cry when she saw it, Laura thinks her mom and dad have grown to understand and appreciate that body art is part of their daughter’s creative side. 

“I see my body as a canvas – a visual narration of my story.” 

Family Business

Laura’s dad worked in insurance, and her mom’s first job in the US was at Popeye’s and then McDonald’s. Her parents were continually sending money back to Ecuador to help the family. 

Laura’s mom missed being at home with her children like she was in Ecuador. When Laura was in middle school, her mom came up with the idea to start a dog grooming business. It was surprising, as they had never owned a dog before. Still, she took a dog grooming training course, got a loan from the bank, and opened Norma Petcare in 2007. They have since expanded and now offer boarding services as well. 

It has truly become a family business – Laura, her older brother, and sometimes even her grandma help out.

Working with dogs inspired Laura to get one of her own. Clutch is a “little fluffy guy” who has stolen a large chunk of Laura’s heart. She explains how her dog was a little worried when she started helping out at her mom’s business.

“Why are you coming home smelling like all these other dogs? Now he’s used to it. He loves going to mom’s shop and looking at the girl dogs.”  (audio below)


In 2009, Laura’s senior year of high school, she found herself unsure of what she wanted to do next. When her school held a career day, Laura had forgotten to sign up for a presentation, so they sent her to learn about the military. As Laura remembers, they showed a video with all these people doing cool things, and by the end of the presentation, she had signed herself up to join. Laura didn’t want to tell her parents, but as a 17 year old, she needed their signature. Her mom surprised Laura by signing the form right away.  

After graduation, Laura left for basic training, and then to military police school. She graduated in 2010, as a 31 Bravo (military police). After graduation, she joined the National Guard and prepared to go to college. When she reported to her assigned unit, they informed Laura, “You are on the list to go to Africa.” Laura put college on hold and started a year of training to go overseas.


As a part of Task Force Raptor, Laura was deployed in 2012 to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti [see the above photo] and then to Camp Simba in Kenya. As the Military Police, her unit’s job was to provide security patrolling and guard the bases.

On Laura’s days-off, she often went to volunteer at an orphanage.  

“Anything where I could interact with the locals I did. I want to be able to say that I didn’t just come here and stay on base. I wanted to see what else is out there. I’m just curious about the rest of the world.”

Above: Art that hangs in her home in Houston, that she purchased while deployed in Africa

Laura never thought she would spend her 20th birthday in Africa. 

“There were a couple of moments where I was like, ‘what am I doing here? I was born in Ecuador, moved to the US. I’m here in Africa? What is going on?’” (audio below)


Laura spent six years in the military and overall considered it a positive experience. The military is where Laura matured and learned that she could depend on herself. 

“I was so far from home, and ya, my ‘battle buddies’ were my friends, but at the end of the day, I had to depend on myself.”

Before the military, Laura didn’t see herself as “American”. She learned to feel proud of the flag, wearing the uniform, and the US Army name tape. 

“It allowed me to connect with a society that I felt rejected me before then. I’m part of the one percent of the US population that decides to join the military, and on top of that, I’m part of the one percent who are women. As an immigrant, a woman, and small – the military allowed me to gain confidence in myself. I can do as much as the six-foot guys!” (audio below)


Laura appreciates Houston’s diversity, especially the variety of Latin foods – Cuban, Colombian, Peruvian. She isn’t a fan of Mexican food because she doesn’t like spice, and she especially can’t stand Tex-Mex

In 2017 when Hurricane Harvey left Laura stuck for two weeks, surrounded by flooding. She loved how people from all over the US came to help people get out of their flooded homes. She feels like this tragedy highlighted what a great city Houston is.

“The hurricane did bring the city together. Houstonians helped out each other more than the government did. #HOUSTONSTRONG, you see that everywhere now.” (audio below)


Laura grew up surrounded by books because her father has always loved to read. She started writing in her youth as a way to vent her frustration.  At community college, Laura took a creative writing class, received positive feedback from her professor, and decided to pursue this path further. When a friend texted Laura to thank her for something she had written, she knew she had to keep working on this craft. Before Laura was writing for herself, but after that, she saw how writing could be a way to connect with and inspire others. (audio below)

“The country is so divided because of politics, and writing is an opportunity to bring people together. I owe this to the world. I love to read, and I love to write, so why not use that for the good of humanity.”

Laura writes mostly non-fiction about immigration, being Latina, and self-love: “I like taking the facts and making them pretty.” In 2017, Laura transferred from her community college to the University of Houston where she studies English with a concentration on creative writing.

Above: From 1947 until 1989, the U of H had a live cougar as their mascot named Sasta. “Before an exam or before finals they say it’s good luck to high five the cougar.”


Today, Laura’s experiences as an immigrant, soldier, student, and woman influence her writing. The #MeToo movement has had an enormous impact on Laura and made her reflect on her own experiences. While she remembers the military fondly, she admits that at times she experienced sexism and sexual harassment. At the time, she treated the harassment like it was just part of the job, but now realizes she shouldn’t have accepted it. She always felt like she “needed to suck it up”. 

“I wanted to be a part of the military, a soldier, and I didn’t want to be soft. If I said, ‘you were offending me’ they would say, ‘this is why we can’t have women in the military. You have to toughen up.’” 


Making a lot of money in the future doesn’t interest Laura- she considers herself a minimalist – but she is ambitious.

“I want to make something out of myself and impact my community. What good is money going to do when I’m dead? A work of literature can stay long before I’m gone.”

Audio: Laura reading her poetry

After graduating from university, Laura plans to take some time off and go to Ecuador as a graduation present to herself. She wants to “soak in spending time with family”. 

Jorge Carrera Andrade, the Ecuadorian poet, whose writing focused mainly on nature, inspires Laura. She dreams of one day being in Ecuador, staying on her grandpa’s land, detached from all technology, writing her first collection of poetry. 

Montañita is a coastal town in Ecuador, full of Americans who have immigrated there as retirees. Someday Laura would love to spend time in Montañita and write about the experience of these American immigrants in her country. 

*Update: Laura graduated from the University of Houston and is now focusing on finishing her poetry manuscript centered around identity. You can find her work at llquinton.com


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 Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Yin’s Immigration Story – Tainan City, Taiwan to Acton, Massachusetts

Nine Generations

Yin can trace back her family’s history in Taiwan nine generations. She grew up the youngest of five children, and even though her family was not well off, she was the most spoiled. Her father read three newspapers a day and worked as a chemist for a wine company, so he was rarely home. 

“If I inherited anything from father, it is that I am pretty daring.” 

Yin’s father would often recite a haiku, which she translates: 

“I love life. I love food. So I’m going to eat blowfish – that would be the ultimate taste of my life.” (audio below)

Yin’s parents lived through Japan’s occupation of Taiwan. Consequently, they both spoke perfect Japanese and used it to communicate with each other. Yin, who didn’t learn the language, wasn’t able to understand. When Yin was a child, Taiwan was under Chinese control. Her school forced her to learn and speak Mandarin (Chinese). Today, Yin considers Chinese to be her intellectual language, and whereas Taiwanese is her emotional language. (audio below)

American Apples

Yin lived near a US military base that occupied the best beach in Tainan City. She knew little about America but quickly learned about the American dollar. It was incredible how much you could buy when you converted one dollar to Taiwan’s currency (NT). One item that she remembers being very expensive and sought-after growing up was the American apple. (audio below)

Yin studied English literature at a college in Taiwan. She met an American cultural anthropologist who was there researching, and they soon were married. After their marriage, he couldn’t find a full-time teaching job in Taiwan, so they moved to the United States.

I wish we had stayed in Taiwan.” 


It was the day before Christmas 1982 when Yin arrived in Connecticut. Yin, age 24, and her husband moved in with his parents. 

Yin had “feelings of suffocation” when she witnessed the first heavy snow of her life. She tried to convince herself that this cold fluffy white stuff is harmless and saw other’s having fun in it, but reflects, “I don’t think I ever got rid of that feeling of suffocating.” (audio below)

Yin’s father-in-law was a well-respected lawyer. He made sure everyone in their small, predominantly white, Connecticut town knew that Yin was his daughter-in-law. In retrospect, she sees how much she struggled to fit in. Her husband’s family – affluent and educated -contrasted with her humble upbringing. Yin always felt like they were above her, and this feeling became a source of constant stress. When her parents visited Connecticut, they found her in-laws to be arrogant, and over time, Yin started to see what they had seen too.

Artistic Expression

From an early age, Yin was passionate about art, and in high school, she would make seal carvings on tiny stones. Still, her parents never supported her artistic aspirations.  

After getting settled in Connecticut, Yin started traveling to New York to study sculpturing at the National Academy of Design. She remembers her studies as being fulfilling and intensive. This experience made her believe that she could be an artist.  

His Depression

Yin’s husband, a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, was always in and out of the United States consulting for international development projects. Aside from being away all the time, he had ongoing battles with depression, something Yin tried to understand, but could not. 

“I’m a very upbeat person. I had never known what depression means. I was dealing with his depression.”

They eventually moved to Ithaca, New York, so that her husband could earn a second Ph.D. at Cornell. Yin spent her days alone in the apartment, isolated and without friends. 

“Enjoying life became very hard.” 

Yin started a master’s degree in fine art at Cornell but she dropped out after a professor accused Yin of working too hard and exhausting the school’s resources. (audio below)

Above: Yin standing with her “Our Goddess” Sculpture


Yin’s husband received an offer to work on an international development project with USAID (United States Agency for International Development) in Nepal. Yin encouraged him to take it. They spent five years in Tulsipur, where they had two children, and Yin spent a lot of time painting in the backyard. They had seven “servants,” who could take care of the children, giving Yin time to focus on her art. She was able to learn the ancient tradition of bronze casting from a Nepalese master. (audio below)


Yin and her family returned to the United States in 1988 and decided to settle in Massachusetts. Yin, curious about the academic side of art, started a master’s program at the University of Massachusetts. 

Yin’s loneliness increased, as her husband’s depression deepened. “We drifted apart gradually”. Yin threw herself into her art to distract herself from her failing marriage. Her husband would usually leave on four-month contracts. At one point, due to a commitment associated with the Bosnian War (1992-95), he left for a full year and a half. When he returned, it was only for ten days. 

Looking after her children, cooking, taking care of the house, and studying and creating art was a lot for Yin, especially after being used to having “servants” in Nepal. Yin felt like a single parent – she and her husband had stopped communicating. 

“He would always tell me when we were driving to the airport, ‘Yes, I think we need to talk’ Then, two months later, I would pick him up [but we never talked]. If you really meant to talk, you would say this to me when I pick you up at the airport, not when you are leaving.” (audio below)

In 2005, after 23 years of marriage, they separated. Despite the failure of their relationship, Yin says her husband was always a gentleman.

Quarry Life

Yin created a sculpture of Aristotle and Plato but felt like bronze wasn’t the correct medium. She imagined it in stone and reached out to a professional stone carver to see if he could teach her. He took her to a quarry in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, helped her choose a rock, and began to teach her the art of stone carving. Yin spent six months completing her first piece at the quarry, carving in all types of weather –  snow, freezing rain – it didn’t matter.

“I had children back home, so I would run home to cook, send the kids to school, and then run to the quarry.” (audio below)

Above: Yin’s sculpture of her “Quarry Father”

The family who owned the quarry didn’t charge Yin for using their land, and they went on to develop a strong bond. Yin calls the owner her “quarry father.” He would often leave one page of the bible on her stone and a piece of chocolate. She remembers him remarking to her, “You know I have never seen any man work this hard in my life.” Over the course of almost a decade, Yin carved at least 40 pieces in the Chelmsford quarry.

Container Man

In 1994, for the first time, Yin tried to create a sculpture that involved sound. After creating it, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it and stored it away. Then six years later, in 2000 at an art symposium, she met a Hungarian artist named Viktor. She was impressed by his ability to create instruments and invited him to collaborate with her. In 2002 she received a small grant and they were able to start their collaboration. While working on the project, their connection grew.

“I fell in love with him. He sees what I don’t see.”

In 2005 Container Man, which consists of 14 mechanical kinetic musical instruments and equipped with a sound system and multimedia projection capabilities, went to Europe. Yin felt refreshed being around Viktor’s creative mind.

Above: Yin standing with “Container Man”

Contemporary Arts International

Eventually, Yin’s “quarry father” told her, “You have got to find land for all these sculptures!” He helped Yin find a quarry in Acton, which she bought in 2003 for “a very good price.” The person who sold the land believed in Yin’s dream of using it to create art. 

While working as a Chinese court interpreter, Yin spent weekends with Viktor at the quarry cleaning it out.

“It was a very dirty jungle – millions of bullet shells, broken glass, 27 cars, household goods, cabinets, and chairs!”

When it was ready, they started constructing Contemporary Arts International – a large studio and residency house- from the ground up. 

“We built up this place with our bare hands.”

This mission of Yin and Viktor’s nonprofit is to promote the creation, understanding, and appreciation of contemporary art in the global context. On their land, visitors can find more than 100 stone and kinetic metal sculptures.

A Place to Stand

In hindsight, Yin feels lucky to have been so protected by her former husband and her father-in-law when she arrived in that small white Connecticut town. 

Above: Yin standing on her lookout over the quarry that Viktor built Yin for her birthday

Yin explains how she is enjoying the efforts of people who immigrated to America before her. She appreciates that those people established the rules and regulations that make the country the way it is today. It is for this reason that in American, Yin says she has willingly been “secondary.” Still, today after decades in the country, she feels like she has earned the right to raise her voice. 

“I now am contributing just as much as you to this country. Therefore, I have my place to stand, and you cannot move me.” (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 Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.