The Illusion of Meritocracy: An Immigrant’s Reflection on Privilege

The oversimplified view that success is solely earned through hard work ignores the intricate web of privilege and systemic barriers that shape individual trajectories

Silvia Solorzano-meritocracy

Credit: Silvia Solorzano | Courtesy

It was the year 1980 near the U.S.-Mexico border when Roger Solorzano sat in a car headed toward Texas. The plan was to enter the United States as a visitor, but he had no immigration documents or visa. The Nicaraguan revolution resulted in many, including Roger, immigrating to the United States. In Tijuana, two uncles picked up young Roger, who was not yet my Abuelo but only a father leaving behind his children in search of a better future. The three men forged their path towards la frontera, bracing to pass sin papeles. As the three men neared the border control booth in the chaos of a storm, U.S. immigration officers, seeking shelter from the heavy raindrops and harsh wind, waved the men through without checking their documents. In that fateful moment, Roger crossed the invisible threshold to the land some call free. Over a decade later, on a Saturday morning in Managua, Nicaragua, I was born, inheriting the privilege of grandfather Roger, who had by then acquired U.S. citizenship, a privilege bestowed upon me with no effort or merit of my own.

I only spent five years of my childhood living in Managua because my mother and father soon decided they wanted me and my brothers to be educated in the U.S. to ensure college degrees that would be accepted almost anywhere in the world. He called my grandfather and asked if he and his American wife, Grandma Linda, could sponsor us and submit a petition for our legal immigration. My grandfather Roger promptly submitted the paperwork. Three months later, my father was boarding a flight to San Francisco, and six months later, my mother bundled me, my older brother, and my six-month-old baby brother up, packed as much as she could into our suitcases, said goodbye to her family and land, and boarded a flight to San Francisco. Yet again, the stars had aligned for me, and instead of crossing the border by car like my grandfather had, or battling the rough waters of El Rio Grande, I flew above the landscape on an airplane, ready to meet my new home. 

Years later, before I was 18, my mother took a citizenship test and passed. Suddenly, and with no effort of my own, I became a U.S. citizen. Then, I started my first job when I was 15 years old to help my family. My father had gotten very sick and my mother’s income was not enough to pay the medical bills and support three children. When I was filling out the application, I checked the box that states “no” to the question, “Do you require sponsorship now or in the future?”, and without much thought, I checked “yes” on the question, “Are you legally allowed to work in the United States”. Soon, I was working my way up. Applying to college was difficult because I was a first-generation college applicant in the U.S., but it was easier than it would be if I hadn’t been a citizen. Financial aid paid for my undergraduate degree, and my job paid for my graduate degree. Through really hard work and privileges given to me sometimes over a decade before I was born, I have been able to break through generational poverty. I am very proud of my hard work, and I am also filled with gratitude for all the fateful moments that have brought me here. 

Courtesy of Silvia Solorzano

As I’ve continued to grow professionally and academically, I’ve made an effort to connect with other people of color and immigrants, knowing we can support each other in spaces in which we are scarce. It was during a conversation with a friend who is also an immigrant that I faced the strange and alarming idea that immigrants who have great achievements do so solely because they have worked hard, and that those who are not high achievers simply have not worked hard enough.

“I don’t get why people from my country are poor in the United States”, my friend said. “I came here as an immigrant and now I am a Director. People are just lazy”, he continued. I was uncomfortable and not sure how to respond. “I think there are many reasons why other immigrants aren’t as financially successful as you”, I responded. He continued talking about how individual effort and merit are what make exceptional people, saying that other people would be “like us” if they had “a good head on their shoulders”. I quickly left the conversation.

In the coming days, his comment stuck with me and bothered me. My friend had undoubtedly worked hard to get to where he was in his career. Though his hard work should not be overlooked, it’s important to note that he also came from a very wealthy family in his home country and wasn’t undocumented. Despite this knowledge, he seemed to have no understanding of the various and diverse immigrant struggles and a lack of empathy toward others who are very much like us. My friend’s mindset, I realized, overlooked the various and imperfect factors influencing immigrant success, from legal standing to socioeconomic background.

I had heard this type of defense for meritocracy before, and I had studied this idea especially as it relates to people of color, but the defenders of meritocracy in my studies were not immigrants. I had grown to expect non-bipoc folks and non-immigrants to have a hard time understanding the various intersectional oppressive structures and social norms that hold immigrants back, but I did not expect this type of rhetoric from another bipoc immigrant. 

In a quest to understand the various perspectives on the idea of meritocracy within immigrant communities, I delved into research, finding that many immigrants who have become successful in the United States find themselves buying into the illusion of meritocracy. They conclude that if they have achieved success, it’s only because they earned it. And if others haven’t, it’s because they haven’t earned it. 

When I apply this idea to my experience, I realize that though it is tempting for me to take full credit for my success and liberation from generational poverty, especially when I think of the intersectional oppression I have faced, it would be misleading to do so. The truth is, there have been many moments along the way that have changed the course of my life for the better, moments that I did not influence. That is the case for everyone, but it affects immigrants differently. Considering we often start so far below an equal playing field, these moments merely give us a chance. I have achieved some things I am proud of because of many reasons, including my hard work and chance.

Many people similar to me, many women who are immigrants and who grew up low-income, who worked hard and had difficult moments like sick parents, many hard-working, brilliant immigrant women, do not get to taste success, not because they didn’t work hard enough, but because they didn’t have the same opportune moments. It’s not fair. I wish it was so that if one worked very hard and smart it would mean they would immediately have financial stability, a safe home, or enough money to comfortably feed their families, but that is not the case, especially not for immigrants. 

As an immigrant from Nicaragua who has overcome poverty, I’ve navigated societal expectations and overcome structural barriers. Yet, my journey began years before my birth resulting in legal immigration status – a privilege often overlooked in discussions of success. Instead of focusing on perpetuating harmful ideas about how “immigrants just ought to work harder”, I have chosen to focus on ways to uplift my community, to help others achieve their goals when I can,  and to admire the intellect and creativity in my community regardless of what they have achieved. 

In the immigrant narrative, the myth of meritocracy still looms over us. The oversimplified view that success is solely earned through hard work ignores the intricate web of privilege and systemic barriers that shape individual trajectories. Through personal reflection and dialogue with fellow immigrants, I’ve confronted the uncomfortable truth that success isn’t solely a product of effort, but also of circumstance and opportunity. By sharing my story, I seek to highlight the complexities of immigrant experiences and encourage others to reflect on their privilege and the intersecting oppressions faced by varied immigrant groups.

Thank you Abuelo Roger for having once dared to cross the U.S. border without papers after our home country was destabilized by a U.S.-funded civil war, and thank you to the rain for pouring down on immigration officers that fateful day.

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