Professor Aims to Dispel Myths About Immigrants in P.G. Co.


COLLEGE PARK, Md. (November 11, 2010)—During a recent lecture at the Embassy of Argentina in the District, Professor Judith Freidenberg took participants on a journey that began with her grandparents in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century and continues today in Prince George's County.

The journey is one that has shaped her career and continues to influence her research and public appearances.

On Nov. 11, Freidenberg will discuss an exhibit she curated, "The Immigrant Experience in Prince George's County," at the Driskell Center at the University of Maryland. Her hope, she said, is to change the dialogue about immigration in Prince George's County, just as she worked to change it in other communities.

Freidenberg's grandparents immigrated from Russia, Romania and Lithuania to Argentina to escape anti-Semitism in Europe. Her parents moved from northeast Argentina to the country's capital city of Buenos Aires for better education opportunities.

Slumped comfortably in a chair in her College Park office, Freidenberg explained her own contribution to the family's immigration equation.

"I came to this country in the '70s. I was 25 or 26. The motive for my coming was professional advancement," she said.

Both she and her husband at the time wanted to undertake graduate studies, she said. Their plan was to go back to Argentina in three years.

More than three decades later, Freidenberg is still in the U.S.

A professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, Freidenberg studies the life cycles of immigrants in the United States and abroad. And while her family story contributes to this interest, she said she is ultimately driven by larger ambitions: to debunk commonly held myths about immigrants and to disseminate the truth.

She hopes her exhibit this week will help.

"I want to dispel this stereotype that every immigrant in Prince George's County is a drunk Hispanic," Freidenberg said.

"What I find is that there is a great diversity of immigration origins. The majority are Latinos, but almost every country in the world is represented here. A lot of them are middle-class, hard-working people."

The exhibit features a 20-minute video, in which immigrants from Guatemala, Trinidad, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Uruguay discuss their motivations for leaving their home countries and the challenges they faced while building a new a life in the U.S.

Despite the burdens of learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture, most of the immigrants featured in the video felt positive about their decision to immigrate.

"I consider America truly the land of opportunity," said one Trinidadian immigrant who came to the U.S. in the '80s. "If you cannot make it here, you cannot make it anywhere else in the world."

Freidenberg's own process of American acculturation came with some hardship.

"In terms of adapting to the culture, it was very hard, because I didn't know anybody. I had to start from scratch making friends and establishing my own level of comfort," she said.

Political upheaval in Argentina wrought by a violent military dictatorship delayed the Freidenbergs' return to Argentina.

With three U.S.-born children and a doctorate from the City University of New York, Freidenberg resolved to stay in New York City.

"We used to live very close to Fifth Avenue, and the kids very much enjoyed seeing the parades. One was hosted by Puerto Ricans—the Puerto Rican Day Parade. One thing led to another and that (became) the focus of my doctoral dissertation research," Freidenberg said.

"I started interviewing the organizers of the event and through their eyes tried to figure out why it was important to stage a parade, why on Fifth Avenue, (and) the history of their immigration to the United States," she added.

The crux of Freidenberg's doctoral presentation would be the politicization of Puerto Rican identity. Her understanding of Puerto Rican acculturation in the U.S. would later help her to better understand Jewish acculturation in Argentina.

Freidenberg, always curious, had considered a career in journalism until an art history class in college changed her mind. Intrigued by the way earlier humans represented themselves in cave paintings, she enrolled in an anthropology course. "After that, there was no turning back," she said.

Her first faculty appointment was as an assistant professor of community medicine at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

"It's not usual to have an anthropologist in a medical setting," said Freidenberg. "Usually anthropologists go to departments of anthropology."

But the process by which immigrants adapt to the social patterns of a larger group can be viewed from a mental health perspective, Freidenberg said. New York's Spanish Harlem became the laboratory for her research, and its residents her subjects.

Studying elderly Latino immigrants led her to several findings, including how isolated they can become.

"Most of us know that it is hard to age. It is hard for economic and social reasons. Medicare and Medicaid have become too complicated to navigate. Having worked with the elderly, I realized how isolated and irrelevant you are made to feel," she said.

Combining dozens of oral histories with population data, Freidenberg's book, "Growing Old in El Barrio," tells the stories of Spanish Harlem's aging Latino immigrants struggling to survive on low incomes. "When I worked with elderly in Harlem, I discovered that they rely on neighbors and each other more than they rely on their families, which might be thousands of miles away."

In 1995, after 25 years of living and teaching in New York, Freidenberg joined the faculty at the University of Maryland to help train applied anthropologists. She embedded herself in Langley Park and began studying aging immigrant populations there.

"One of her major contributions to the department has been working the communities around College Park," said Paul Shackel, chairman of the Anthropology Department at Maryland. "She has a major presence in Langley Park, working with and interviewing new immigrants."

In 2001, Freidenberg, in collaboration with the Smithsonian's Center for Latino Initiatives, constructed an online exhibit designed to introduce the public to her research. The exhibit, "Inside Out: Growing Old in the United States," highlights personal stories of elderly Latinos living in New York's East Harlem and in Prince George's County's Langley Park, through photos, video clips, data and statistics.

Nine years after its launch, the site remains one of the Smithsonian Latino Center's most popular sites, said Melissa Carrillo, creative director of the Latino Virtual Museums.

"We can tell by the number of downloads that the site receives that it is still relevant to our visitors," Carrillo said.

Freidenberg's relationship with the communities she studies is intentional, she said. "I'm interested in the production of knowledge only to the extent that it is disseminated widely," she said. "If the masses don't have access to the research, it's irrelevant."

At the exhibit this week in College Park, in addition to discussing immigrants in Prince George's County, Freidenberg will touch on the concept of human mobility.

"It's not surprising that humans move. They've been moving since the beginning of time," she said. What's new is that nations have begun imposing legislation to stop people from moving, she said. "What's new is that there are borders being created."

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