Posted in Blog Post

Student Initiative: Hyphenated Americans Making Hyphenated America

In the summer of 2020, Sophia Houdaigui (B.A. in History, Barnard 2021) and Maria Castillo (B.Sc. in Environmental Science, SEAS 2021) drew from their background as children raised by immigrants and identity as hyphenated Americans to put forth a community resource to unpack immigration policies. Hyphenated America offers short guides and fact sheets that make policies like DACA and family separation easily digestible, a podcast that features experts such as reporters, lawyers, professors, and activists in the immigration field, and a weekly breakdown to bring attention to related news, activists, and organizations.

BarnardHistoryBlog invites Sophia to share insights on why she co-founded Hyphenated America and her experience at Barnard College as a History major!

Why major in History?

I came into Barnard thinking I was 100% certain I would major in Political Science. Until I took professor Barbara Field’s “History of the South” which became one of my favorite classes I have taken in college. It opened up my mind to the department, and how expansive the major could be. My concentration focuses on the Middle East and the United States as I hope to pursue a career at the intersection of law, politics, history, and media. I am currently in Professor Milanich and Professor Tiersten’s “History of the Present” Senior Thesis track where I am studying Moroccan immigrant enclaves in Virginia. So very curious about immigrant identities!

What is your most memorable class at Barnard/Columbia?

At Barnard, Professor Carnes’ “History of the United States, 1940-1975” is a must-take class. “History of the South” and “History of the Modern Middle East” are great intro classes at Columbia. 

Tell me about your background.

My background is deeply rooted in discussions surrounding dual identity. My baba is a Moroccan Muslim immigrant and my mom is a Jewish New Jersey native. I have always  felt proud to be Moroccan, Berber, and American. My parents instilled pride in our Moroccan heritage and culture from a young age, and as a result, and it is so important to my identity. 

Why did you choose the name Hyphenated America given its turbulent history?

When we set out to create Hyphenated America, we wanted to bring the human face and human values back into discussions concerning immigration. The immigration process is such a dehumanizing experience and as children of immigrants, we were intent on reclaiming the term “hyphenated American.” For me, as the child of a Moroccan immigrant who migrated in the 80s, it’s a fantastic way of taking back the name and discarding the anti-immigrant rhetoric associated with the term “hyphenated American.” It is not controversial. It’s empowering. 

Who is the target audience of Hyphenated America?

Hyphenated America is targeted at high school, college students, and young adults who may  not be interested in issues of immigration and immigrant identities in America given a lack of knowledge and exposure. We want to make it an accessible topic, so students are equipped with the skills and tools to make change. I think about the people from white communities who, although they are children of immigrants from the past century, have never interacted with recent immigrants; we want to highlight and share the experiences of immigrants with those individuals.

How does Hyphenated America keep in touch with the lived immigrant experiences?

We have a series via Instagram Live where we welcome immigrants and children of immigrants from different backgrounds and fields to discuss their experiences growing up in immigrant households and how it affected them. We have had Hudson Yang from Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Maytha Alhassen, a writer from Hulu’s “Ramy” amongst others. This accessible programming allows viewers to hear from individuals whose work they enjoy to hear about how their experiences and background influenced who they are and what they are passionate about.

Who has been your favorite guest(s) on the podcast?

 Our last guest, Julio Ricardo Varela. He is the founder of Latino Rebels and co-host of “In The Thick.” We talked about how anti-immigrant sentiment is not new, and past Presidential administrations paved the way for President Trump’s immigration policies. Additionally, our episode with Professor Nara Milanich is definitely one of my favorites (who is also one of my favorite professors at Barnard).

How do you manage the Hyphenated America team?

We primarily have a team of hyphenated Americans. We try to ensure that our researchers develop a language and voice that is accessible to viewers, so that a 14 year old could read and comprehend the same material as a 55 year old immigrant dad. We’re really about developing Hyphenated America beyond Barnard and Columbia and reaching out to the public. We currently have 10 researchers and individuals on our video and media teams. 

How do you see Hyphenated America growing after you graduate?

I hope to continue growing Hyphenated America and find more opportunities for sponsorships and collaborations with immigration advocacy organizations. I’m very excited about Hyphenated America’s future. Personally, I hope to pursue a career in public policy and be a driving force in the future of our immigration system and act as an advocate for immigrants. Hopefully, I’ll attend law school and continue exploring the intersection between law and media with Hyphenated America.

What would you like Barnard/Columbia students to know about the hyphenated identity and immigrant experiences?

The proximity we have to different communities and closing that proximity. I grew up in a neighborhood full of immigrants from Tunisia, El Salvador, and more. My empathy was born from that and I am often frustrated at people who don’t understand because they lack the proximity to these communities. So, they lack an idea of what immigrant experiences are like and why people will go through crazy pathways to get here. People often talk about how they should come here the legal way but have little idea about how few options people have! We’re piloting Hyphenated America education programs at a couple of  high-schools. Hopefully, we will be able to get this conversation to a college-level in the future.

What can we expect for immigration policies after COVID-19 and during Biden’s administration? Who does the research for Hyphenated America?

In terms of research, we have 10 to 15 individuals on the team. I’m very hopeful that Biden’s administration will be different and bring about positive change. However, executive orders can only get you so far and we have to rely on the Senate vote.

Often immigrant groups are pitted against one another. Different immigrant policies apply to different groups. How does Hyphenated America intend to cover all of that ground?

We stress that the immigrant community is not a monolith! We are not diminishing those unique experiences, but rather, we are speaking about each one so that we can see commonalities and empathize with different groups. Certain communities are impacted in different manners by immigration policy – look at how Haitian immigrants are negatively impacted by current immigration policy and deportation laws. Maria, my co-founder, and I have talked about the Southern border and how the whole world is actually at our border. Once they come through these documented or undocumented channels, we have to understand that people are always operating with different levels of privilege. What is most important is practicing empathy.

Now that we are graduating, what will you miss most about Barnard?

I love the history department and will miss it. Everyone who has the opportunity must take a class in the department. I will also miss the theatre community at Barnard and Columbia – I’ll specifically miss the Varsity Show and Columbia Musical Theatre Society. But I will possibly miss Butler 209 most.

Maria Castillo, born and raised in the borderlands of South Texas, is of Mexican descent and “has grown up around immigration enforcement,” which has only increased in the last two decades. Her passion for unpacking immigration policies stems from a personal and traumatic experience of seeing the violence in the Latina communities in the borderlands. She has often felt as if these immigrant communities, and consequently ethnic enclaves, are forgotten in American history books, memory, and consciousness. Hyphenated Americans tend to be invisible yet often pressured to prove their Americanness. For Maria, Hyphenated America is her way of relearning and sharing her family’s history.
Her long-time friend from Columbia Political Review, Sophia Houdaigui, the daughter of a Moroccan immigrant, similarly draws from a personal standpoint in regard to immigration policies. She recalls a post-9/11 political landscape and how that impacted the Moroccan community as a key spur of her interest. Sophia insists that these expansive red-tape policies affect “large swaths of people” without differentiation or understanding and thus runs the risk of pigeonholing. Ultimately, Hyphenated America hopes to shine light on the “faces lost in the numbers.”

Hyphenated America unites an entire marginalized umbrella community such that they have strength in power and now, in knowledge too. Experiences may vary depending on immigrant motherland, but these are all communities that are and have been affected by immigration policies. The coming together of Sophia, a Moroccan-American, and Maria, a Mexican-American, to bring attention and empathize with each individual community’s experience with immigration policies is necessary to shine light on the “faces lost in the numbers.”

For more information on Hyphenated America:

Twitter: @HyphenUSA
Website: Hyphenated America
Facebook: Hyphenated America
Instagram: @HyphenatedAmerica

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