Too often in the Latinx community, we think of ourselves as the only modern immigrants. I’ve certainly been guilty of hearing “immigrant” and thinking “Latinxs.” But there’s a whole world out there and it’s worth remembering that we’re not alone, particularly under the Trump administration, which would vilify our “shithole countries” and detain our Iranian brothers and sisters for no reason other than their ancestry.
Luckily, we have media like Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s Little America to remind us of the beauty, differences, and commonalities between immigrant communities. This anthology series premieres Friday, January 17 on Apple TV and dramatizes the true stories of people who’ve immigrated to the United States. Along with transplants from Uganda, France, China, Iran, and other countries, the show features “Marisol,” an undocumented teenager from Mexico who improbably ends up representing the U.S. as a squash player. Spoilers ahead.
Watching all eight episodes, I was struck by how similar Marisol’s story was to the others even as each protagonist hailed from a different corner of the globe. There’s a loneliness to being an immigrant that Little America captures perfectly, thanks to thoughtful direction, like having Chicana filmmaker Aurora Guerrera direct Marisol’s episode. Our heroine experiences this loneliness as alienation, living in a garage and acting out at school (she needs her mom to sign a “behavior report,” attesting to her misconduct). For others, it’s a dislike of pizza, disbelief that anyone would be impressed by being able to hold a basket on your head, and an inability to have your voice heard.
These differences go to the heart of who we are and of what we value. The United States is one of the most individualistic societies on Earth. This is the land of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, the rugged individual, the self-made man. We Latinxs are more family-oriented, but frankly, so is pretty much everyone else. As you’d expect, Marisol has a supportive family who has sacrificed for her: her brother’s dropped out of school to help support the family and allow Marisol to keep going. Her mother cleans houses, working day in and day out for her children. You know the story.
In other episodes, we see the same, familiar family orientation: a Chinese-American mom struggling to understand the independence of her second-generation children. The Indian American boy giving up his childhood to manage his family’s motel. Even the story of a gay Sirian fleeing persecution is all about family. Rafiq’s father does him serious harm, burning his arm while his brother threatens worse. But it’s his separation from them that hurts the most.
It’s bordering on sadistic that those of us with a more collective orientation have to give up our communities to come to the United States. But the “land of opportunity” beckons and we follow. Of course, once we get here, that opportunity isn’t equal. Marisol discovers squash because they’re giving away free sneakers at the tryout. Her old ones are held together with duct tape. As she learns the sport, she competes with the Lululemon crowd, tall blondes given every opportunity. At a reception, she meets one of her mother’s clients, this time as an equal. The awkwardness is palpable.
Most of the immigrants on Little America overcome great odds, whether it’s winning a sweepstake, making it to the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee, or earning a Ph.D. in economics. The exception is the white woman from France who attends a silent retreat and falls in love — meeting a man is hardly an accomplishment. The rest are all extraordinary like Marisol and her ability to play squash. It’s the old adage — that we have to be twice as good to get half as far — and it rings as true as ever.
What I particularly liked about Little America is how it made each of these immigrant stories equal. Each person gets their own episode, a complete universe of textures, jokes, and supporting characters. Some are documented, some are not. Some are financially secure, some are not. All are fully human, trying to figure out their way in an environment that is often hostile to their skin tone, culture, or ambition. It’s worth remembering that we Latinx are one immigrant community among many. And these other communities are our natural allies and friends, even if we disagree about the merits of pizza.