Andreina Malki

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Andreina Malki immigrated to the United States from the rural town of Paysandú, Uruguay in 2001 when she was thirteen years old. Her family moved after her father lost work due to the economic recession that impacted Uruguay, Argentina, and other countries in the region during that time. They moved to Greenville, South Carolina, where a community of Uruguayans had already settled, and her father found work in the construction industry. She and her two younger siblings attended school in the Greenville public school system. Andreina later went to Furman University, where she studied psychology and Chinese, and then to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she graduated with a Master’s Degree in Global Studies in 2016. In this interview, Andreina discusses her family’s migration history, starting with the journeys of her great-grandparents to Uruguay from many parts of Europe including Turkey (the origin of the name Malki) and Italy. She discusses the European and indigenous origins of the population of Uruguay and notes that one of her great-grandparents—a native Uruguayan—identified as part of the Charrúa indigenous community. She speaks in detail about her first impressions of the U.S. as a teenager as well as the challenging experiences attending ESL classes in Greenville, S.C. in the one school that offered this program. She talks about making friends from other Latin American countries while in school, as well as the traditions and holidays that the Uruguayan community in Greenville, South Carolina continues to observe.



Hannah Gill: This is Hannah Gill and it is May 12, 2016. I’m here with Andreina Malki to do an interview. Andreina Malki can you tell me a little about yourself? Please introduce yourself and tell me where you are from?

Andreina Malki: Sure. My name is Andreina Malki and I am originally from Uruguay, South America. I just recently graduated from the Global Studies master’s program at UNC. Before that, I lived in South Carolina where my family went to when we first came to the US.

HG: Can you tell me a little about why your family came to South Carolina?

AM: My family has a bit of a weird story about immigrating to the US. My parents came to the US in the 1980s after the dictatorship in Uruguay and I was actually born in New Jersey. But, I’ve never been there because when I was six months old, my family moved back to Uruguay and I lived there until I was 13 years old. That was when the 2001-2003 big economic crisis in Uruguay happened so my family, including my brother and sister, moved to South Carolina. My dad came a while before us and then my mom, sister, brother, and I came later.

HG: Why New Jersey originally? Why South Carolina? Why those two locations to come to?

AM: I ask myself that question all the time, especially when I first got here, because New Jersey was so close to New York and that’s where I wanted to be (laughs). I don’t really know why, but there is a big community of Uruguayans in Queens New York and in the suburbs of New Jersey. I guess my parents were just following where that community was. Actually, one person that my parents knew in New Jersey had moved to South Carolina because there was a lot of construction work, especially in the Greenville area. My dad worked in construction and it was an up and coming area with lots of construction work so that’s why my dad originally chose Greenville. Also, Greenville, SC is very suburban and has lots of trees and mountains. If you’re from Uruguay, you’ve probably never seen a mountain before so it’s very pretty and green.

HG: Okay. I’m wondering if maybe you could back up a little bit and talk about your family’s migration history to Uruguay because your parents or maybe grandparents were not originally born there?

AM: Actually, my grandparents were. Their parents were not. From my dad’s side, my last name is Malki which is a mix of Arabic and Turkish. I’m very light skinned and I speak Spanish. And my first name could be French or Russian. Furthermore, people have no clue of where I’m from and it always surprises them when I start speaking in Spanish. But, Uruguay is really a nation of immigrants and very recent immigrants. So on my dad’s side, his grandpa came from Turkey when he was 15 years old. He was a Turkish-Jewish young man and he came during the Greco-Turkish War. And his wife, my dad’s grandma, came from Italy when she was in her earlier teens, skipping some sort of armed conflict during World War I. On his other grandparent’s side, one of them is indigenous from Uruguay, descendent of Charrua. His other grandma is Spanish and she can trace her roots back to the first Spaniards that came to Uruguay. On my mother’s side, one of her grandparents was from Italy and the other was the son of Spanish or Italian immigrants. There is a big mix. Actually a lot of Uruguayans have that kind of story of recent immigration. Also, lots of Uruguayans are immigrants somewhere else. It’s just a really complex certain tangle web of immigrant stories. A lot of people here think before I say anything or tell them I speak Spanish that I’m Russian or European but actually a lot of people in Uruguay are descendants of Europeans. Now I’m going to go into the history a little bit here. Uruguay is considered to be the only Latin American country that doesn’t have an indigenous population because there was a horrible genocide of the indigenous population. That’s why I think a lot of us people in Uruguay can trace our roots to recent European immigrants because the Charrua and Guarani population was pretty much wiped out. However, that is not entirely true because my grandpa claimed to be an indigenous Charrua person. And his job, I don’t really know how to say this English, throughout his life was to find water with a two pronged wooden stick and that’s what he got paid for doing. So there was a genocide, but there was also this institutional genocide where people basically said, “Yes there are no more indigenous Charrua.” Actually my grandpa changed his indigenous name from Gabino which is more associated to Augustin because there was a lot of racism. So that’s my super weird, “how I got to the world” story.

HG: So what is the town that you were from in Uruguay?

AM: The town is called Paísandú. It is on the border with Argentina. I always tell people that I went to Argentina every day because all you have to do is just bike and cross this bridge. It’s on the west and center part of the country. It’s the third biggest town/city in Uruguay but it’s very small. There are maybe 100,000 people in the actual city and in the surroundings there’s a bit more. Uruguay is a very small country and it has 3-3.5 million people and 1.2 million people live in the capital city, Montevideo. You can imagine that the rest of the country is pretty open and there’s low population densities because there are not that many people and lot of them are concentrated in urban areas. A lot of industries that we have there are leather, trading for export, wool for export, and other sorts of industries that derive from some of the agricultural focus of that region.

HG: So when your family came for the second time and moved to Greenville, South Carolina, that was what part of the result of the recession? What year was that?

AM: It started in 2001. That is when my dad came. Around the same period, Argentina had been experiencing different presidents within a really short-term span, there were a lot of protests, and the dollar had crashed. It affected Uruguay, to some extent, just because the economies of Uruguay, Argentina, & Brazil were so closely tied together. So it really affected my family. My dad had an egg farm, but not a big egg farm, where he would produce eggs and sell them to others. But that later died down in 2001 and that was why he came here.

HG: How did your life change under the recession? What was that like? How did your family experience that? Beyond your father being out of work and having to seek other employment, what were some of the ways that it impacted you?

AM: You know when you’re 12, you don’t really understand the situation. I mean you kind of know and there are things that affect you, like “Oh my dad had to move to the US,” so clearly something happened. But, you don’t understand as much. For me the thing that was different was that I knew that we were leaving and that we weren’t going to live in Uruguay anymore. Even before I came, those couple of years were kind of impending, like something was going to change. At the same time, when you’re 12 or 13, you’re old enough to understand that this is what my parents have decided we’re going to do and not complain whereas my siblings were a bit younger and were like “No why are we doing this?” I guess the biggest thing was coming here but also leaving our house with all our possessions in it. You can’t just pack your house and move. So we came with essentially the amount of things a tourist would carry. I had to leave my toys, clothes, furniture, and rock collection. I remember I had a really cool rock collection. I think that was the biggest thing. Not only moving, but also not being able to bring anything with you. Additionally, of course the language and starting school in a different language.

HG: So tell me about what was the first thing you thought of South Carolina when you arrived? What struck you? What was your first impression of South Carolina?

AM: I thought it was beautiful. There is a joke in Uruguay that if you stand in Montevideo you can see the tip of another country just because it is super flat. I mean that’s not entirely true, there are some elevations, but for the most part it is very flat. So I had never seen mountains before. The first time I saw mountains in my life was when I was flying over the Andes in the plane. Once I got to South Carolina, I thought “Oh my god these are mountains that I can walk on, touch, and see in real life.” I thought it was absolutely beautiful. Also, there were a lot of Dollar Trees and buffets. I just thought this is the American Dream. This is what people talk about because you could buy all kinds of things for a dollar. I think my parents were very good and they were sort of enticing us to come here saying things like “here is $10, you can get ten things.” And as a 13 year old, I thought it was the coolest thing. I actually liked it a lot when I first got there.

HG: Tell me about school and learning English. Tell me about the process of going to school in Greenville, SC.

AM: That was not nearly as exciting as my Dollar Tree and buffet experiences. When I first got to Greenville, SC, I had taken two years of English. It was British English and I didn’t really speak any American English. I used to spell things very differently. While I did have some foundation of the grammar and some understanding of how the language worked, I didn’t truly speak the language. The only school that had an ESL (English as a Second Language) program in Greenville County at that point was Parker Middle School. Since then, the school has been knocked down and a charter school has been built in its place. It was not a great school by all of the normal markets of great schools. The school was old and literally falling apart. It was in a very poor area and it was also very far from where I and other ESL students lived. The bus picked me up at 6:15 am and the only elementary school that had ESL was right next to it. That one was nicer and was a newer school. The same bus would pick up me and my siblings, even though they were in elementary school and I was in middle school. The winters were dark.

HG: So you were bused to these schools because it was the only program that had ESL in the county?

AM: Yes, the only program that had ESL even though I had a school a couple blocks away that was really nice. I wanted to go there but my school was the only one that had ESL. There were other problems with the school. I saw people doing drugs in the basement and in hallways. The bus ride was not a great experience. It was just not a good school. There were a lot of fights and a lot of students had just arrived to the US and were just recently put into the school. It was tense in a number of ways because there were a lot of immigrants and then the students that already went there also had their own set of problems. Adding to this was the fact that the school was underfunded and falling apart and then all of the sudden you saw an influx of people that didn’t speak your own language. It was a primarily an African American and Latino immigrant school so there were also some racial tensions and there was a lack of necessary programs that could sort of diffuse these certain situations or make it a better environment. So it was really rough because schools where I went to in Uruguay were great. I loved my teachers and knew them for years. The buildings were safe and fun and I was really happy there so the transition was definitely very difficult. I finished sixth grade in Uruguay so when I got here, I got put into seventh grade. I only went to that school for like four months and when the new school year started my parents put me in an all English and no ESL school. Although the school was nicer, I really missed being able to talk to people and understanding what people were saying. However, I think I learned English faster that way because I was put into this somewhat immersive environment. But it was also highly difficult in other ways because you didn’t really have a clue of what was going on. I was lucky to meet other immigrants or Latino students that spoke Spanish and also spoke some English. Now, I think all schools in Greenville County are required to have ESL. I think it happened soon after I arrived. When I first arrived, that was not the case so I had a difficult experience.

HG: Where were all of the other ESL students from?

AM: In Greenville [SC], there were a lot of immigrants from Mexico. I met a lot from Honduras as well but I would say the majority of people were either Colombian or Mexican. There were maybe five or six Uruguayan students/families when I went to school.

HG: After you moved to a different school and your adjustment was a bit better, how did it go? How was the process of learning English?

AM: You know, it’s a bit of a blur when I think back. It all happened so fast. I feel like at one moment I didn’t really have a clue of what was going on and then fast-forward six years and I’m speaking English. It is actually really hard to think back to how that happened. One, I think it is because I was a teenager and I had other things to worry about. Second, I also had a lot of Latina friends (Colombian, Mexican, and Honduran) so while I had to speak English for school, I could also socialize with them and speak Spanish. Third, it was also really hard because I was a really good student in Uruguay. Then, when you get here and you don’t really know what’s going on, you start to get okay grades. I couldn’t participate in class discussions so I think it made it that much more difficult. Another part of the reason for why I don’t remember is that I actively try to not think about that too much because it was very difficult. When I got to college, five years after being in the States, I could understand pretty much everything but I was terrified of speaking it. In junior year of college, I finally thought “Oh my god I can speak English!” However, I think I need to do some more reflection on how that happened because I remember the spaces of the events but not really the in between.

HG: Did you end up going to school in South Carolina or did you go elsewhere?

AM: For my undergraduate, I did it at Furman University in South Carolina. It was super close to where my parents were living, which I wanted given that I was 17 when I went to college (I got put forward one year when I moved to the US). I felt like I wasn’t ready to move again since I had already moved pretty far so I chose Furman which is close and a private university. However, I got a scholarship to go there and it was the obvious choice for me. I studied psychology and Asian studies (Chinese) at Furman. After Furman, I worked for two years in South Carolina and then came to North Carolina. After working, I wanted to go back to school and I finally felt ready to leave my parents. I was around 22-23 and I was like “Okay now I feel like I can go, but not too far.” That was one of the primary reasons for North Carolina and UNC.

HG: What got you interested in Asian studies (Chinese)?
AM: It’s a really funny story and sort of coincidental. At Furman, they had this program for people, specifically before they went into school their freshman year, which consisted of going to China for free for two weeks and then taking two semesters and a seminar of Chinese after getting back from the trip. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to take German or French and I already knew Spanish. I mean you had to take a language so I said “why not Chinese.” I’ve never been out of the country besides Brazil and Argentina which don’t really count because they are so close. And then I’ve been to the US of course. But, I’ve never been out of the country for vacation purposes. So I thought, “oh my god why wouldn’t I do this,” so I just did it. I took Chinese and I really liked and I kept taking it. It was also just a few extra classes to get a double major so that was why I did that. I also studied a lot in China when I was in college.

HG: Why was the global studies master’s program at UNC a good fit for you?

AM: So I studied psychology because I thought I wanted to be a psychologist. My mom wanted to be a psychologist and she didn’t get to finish and moved to the US and then had me. Since I was little, I loved that stuff. I did a lot of neuroscience clubs and I really liked it. But, I decided that it was not what I wanted to do. Global studies was flexible in the sense that you can take classes in different departments and you don’t really have to take a very specific concentration. It allows you to explore a little bit. I also had a lot of international experience from studying abroad and also from a job I had in between college and coming to UNC. So I thought, “well this is a great fit,” since it had the global focus that I’ve always had in my life and also in my academic experience. I could also explore without having to commit to one thing. I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow so I think it was a good fit in that way as well.

HG: You had mentioned before that there was this community of people from Uruguay living in South Carolina. That is very interesting. Do you know anything about the history of that connection between South Carolina and Uruguay?

AM: Yes and no. One thing that’s really curious is that Hilton Head, SC had tons of people from my city in Uruguay. I don’t know why or when that started but it kind of makes sense because it’s a beautiful place. If you’re going to move to a different country, why not go to a beautiful place? As far as Greenville, SC, my dad had this one random friend he knew from NJ who had moved there for construction so that’s how he got there. Another family was in a similar situation and knew one person in the 80s that had also come to South Carolina for construction work. So I think that kind of network, really just word of mouth like “hey, I’m moving to the US, where are you,” happened. I also know that some of the families in Uruguay are related. So one person would come and then the other would follow. Specifically, I think that Greenville, SC besides from my school experience has really good schools. It’s also pretty, suburban, and there are trees everywhere. I think that it is why it has attracted so many people. I know a lot of people that moved from places in the North like Massachusetts because they couldn’t handle the cold anymore. Once that word of mouth started and mention of work in South Carolina, a lot of people began coming from MA and Rhode Island. But that’s about all I know.

HG: You mentioned that you hung out with folks from all parts of South and Latin America. Was there a community of Uruguayans there that you could also do things with?

AM: Yea. The first people that I met here were Uruguayan. I have a weird immigrant story. My parents got divorced and you know that always splits friends. Well they got separated. They have great relationships and I love them but when that happens friends get separated and split as well. So that kind of tinkered my Uruguayan community experience.

HG: They both stayed in Greenville?

AM: Yea, they are both in Greenville. I think that those tensions within my own family played a role. All of my other friends had strong family units and their parents were together and not divorced. However, I still have friends that are Uruguayan. Another factor for why I didn’t have as much of a Uruguayan community as I would’ve liked is that I lived in my college. I think that at that point a lot of my friends had either not started college or went to community college and stayed at home. I also don’t think I navigated this really well. If I could be 18 again, I would do it differently. I think I felt that I had to choose between the friends that I had at Greenville or making new friends and fully immersing myself in the college living experience. Maybe I lost some of what I considered my Uruguayan community once I went to college.

HG: What are some of the ways that people living in your Uruguayan community stayed connected with their home country? Or did they? Did they attend festivals or were there certain holidays? Was it important to continue that connection for your family or yourself?

AM: Yes it was. One thing that is really sort of iconic in Uruguay is grilled meat. We always grill lots of meat and there are these really elaborate grills outside. I would say that most Uruguayan families have built one of those in their backyards.

HG: What are they called?

AM: Churrasquería. They are basically these cement houses that have this metal grill and then you make fire with the wood. Then you use the coals of the wood to grill the meat. We used to do a lot of those. For Christmas, people would get together and do one of those. I remember it’d be really cold. As you know, Christmas is hot in Uruguay since its summer but people still did that here. For the Uruguayan Independence Day, there’s this thing called the Night of Nostalgia, where clubs in Uruguay would play old music like from when my parents were young. I don’t really know why they did it. There were also some clubs that started doing that in Greenville so it was fun. But the community wasn’t big enough. The Colombian community had the Colombian Independence Day Festival which was giant but there were enough of us (Uruguayans) to sort of make more public events.

HG: To what extent did you feel things in common with people from other parts of Latin America? Were you ready to embrace your Latino and Hispanic identity? Or did you really still feel that you’re Uruguayan and that’s where you’re from?

AM: I think it’s a little bit less of a choice sometimes then it sounds like it would. Most of my friends and the people I went to school with were Colombian. Clearly I wasn’t Colombian and they knew that. But amongst us, we’d say things like “oh haha, your accent” or comment on the words that we’d use. Also, two people from my school weren’t Latin American but Latino and there wasn’t a difference. I think if it was just Latin American people those traditions are clearer. But when you’re with a group of Latin Americans and also other groups that are from here, it’s a bit different but I still embraced it. I also think that in Greenville most of the Latinos were first generation immigrants so there wasn’t really this “Latino vs Latin American” thing going on. It was always just one of the other because most people had come very recently.

HG: Andreina, thank you so much for sharing your story!

AM: Thank you. This was really fun!