Words by Kleo Cruse Art by Joelle Thomas
First and second generation Melburnians from around the globe have a lot in common.
They try to keep their language alive, like to frequent specialty grocery stores, and scream down terrible phone lines at relatives on the other side of the world. And on the darker side, they’re questioned about where they’re really from, or worse yet, they experience unadulterated racism. Their children are demonised as gang members, and suddenly everyone from their country is violent and not conducive with the Australian lifestyle.
I’ve spoken to three powerful Melbornian women from different continents to see what their unique experiences are, but also to see what beautiful things they have in common.
Alejandra – Chile
“One can’t untie one’s experience as a child immigrant without talking about one’s parents 80% of the time,” Alejandra says, and she’s right. The weight of their sacrifice informs everything.
Alejandra arrived in Australia in 1989 from Chile, which was under the dictatorship of Pinochet. Her father was imprisoned in a concentration camp, and upon somehow surviving, he sought asylum in Australia, coming over first then sending for his wife and daughter.
Alejandra has vivid memories of getting bullied and taunted in primary school for not understanding or speaking English. Just another common thread that binds non-English speaking immigrants. Another poignant point that Alejandra raises is that she knew early on she would also not entirely fit in with Melbourne’s Latino community–not Latin enough for them and not Australian enough to be Australian. Coming from a single mum household wasn’t easy either. She describes her upbringing as violent and uneasy at times, when there wasn’t much of a support system for survivors of domestic violence. The thread of intergenerational trauma runs deep. Alejandra used her words to escape and knew she wanted to be a writer from a young age–10 years old, she says. Her mother eventually divorced her father. The violence ended but the memories remain.
Alejandra discovered photography at 16, saying it was the only connection she had with her stepfather, a photographer himself, as they tinkered in a homemade darkroom together. Photography and writing helped her cope with her the banality of suburban life—now, she is an accomplished and extremely talented photographer.
Brigitte – Mauritius
“To be Mauritian was to be treated with contempt. Racism was strong in the ‘70s and ‘80s.” It is one of the first things that Brigitte mentions.
Brigitte was born here in Australia to Mauritian parents and has never been to see her “homeland”. Her relationship with assimilation has been complicated. Having dark skin in those days meant constant taunts and heavy-handed bullying. The N word for one, as well as “black bitch”, which came out of the mouth of kids her own age. Australia’s complicated history of xenophobia is prevalent here. Children do not formulate those thoughts for themselves—this is the parroting of their parents’ sentiments.
Brigitte says that this shame about skin colour has informed her feelings about herself and her heritage. She tried very hard to assimilate, even now rarely speaking French or Creole. The foods she eats are no longer the spicy curries synonymous with Mauritian cuisine.
Brigitte says she has been fortunate that her employers at Victoria University, where Brigitte is currently completing her PhD, are progressive people. Her shame has shifted into acceptance. At a recent staff meeting, the President of all colleges warmly shook her hand and for Brigitte it was a moment of personal triumph, and made her feel “seen”.
Helen – Greece
Helen arrived in Australia in 1965, having left behind a post-war Greece with little job prospects and no future.
She arrived in Port Melbourne on a ship full of other Southern Europeans with no English, no money and a domineering husband. She worked from 5am to 5pm every day in factories. Helen sometimes worked a late shift as a dish-hand at pubs for extra money. Between shifts, she cooked extraordinary meals for her family and cleaned their humble home. The family lived in a dilapidated house in South Melbourne, when it was merely a working-class suburb. Exposed wires and holes in the floor dotted the interior, and paint peeled off the walls in huge sheets.
Helen’s husband was violent beyond comprehension. Her four children and herself all bear the brunt of this trauma to this day. Because of a severe language barrier, marginalisation because of their poverty and immigrant status, and a society that largely saw domestic violence as a private matter, there was never really an end to the abuse.
Helen never went to university, she didn’t even finish primary school. Her story isn’t extraordinary. She is just one of many thousands of ‘wogs’ who came to here in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the thousands who were racially vilified but built Melbourne to what it is today for a pittance. They brought with them beautiful cuisines, rich languages and histories, and culture not yet seen in Australia. Helen never had a career, and continues to live her life for her family and not for herself.
Helen is my grandmother, and she is the most awe-inspiring immigrant in all of Melbourne.