Patricio Navia is a Professor of Liberal Studies and teaches courses on Latin American Cultures, as well as a Sophomore Approaches course on Reforms and Revolutions. He moved to the United States with his family from Chile when he was 17 years old.
After high school, Navia did undergraduate work at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and then completed his masters at the University of Chicago. He worked a few years before coming to New York to obtain a doctorate in politics at NYU.
I sat down with Navia to talk about the experience of moving — the trials, the tribulations and everything in between.
Yasmin Gulec: What was it like living in the U.S. after living in Chile?
Patricio Navia: Well, it was different. It was 30 years ago, so I think the differences between the U.S. and Chile or differences between countries in the world today are less pronounced than they were at that time. So it was a drastic change, but then I was 17 years old so lots of things change in people’s lives.
YG: Do you think if you moved later or after the political environment changed a bit, you would have a harder time adjusting and also having permission to work?
PN: There are differences within the United States in terms of how immigrants are treated, right? So there are some places that are friendlier to immigrants than others, there are also differences to what immigrants do. When you have a higher degree and you have an education that makes you competitive, it is much easier to get jobs than when you don’t have that education, so the higher levels of education is always easier to get jobs for nationals and foreigners. I am an academic, so I look at data. When my family came to the U.S., Latinos were 10 percent of the U.S. population. Now Latinos are 20 percent of the U.S. population so being a Latino is far more common now than it was when I arrived.
YG: Do you think that there is a negative connotation to the word immigrant and do you think it is a label or just a concept in the U.S.?
PN: Well, I think it varies depending on the environment you are in, the field you are in, the region of the country you are in. So in many regards the answer is yes, in some areas, in some dimensions, in some jobs. But in a city like New York, being an immigrant is kind of common, right? And obviously the political environment in the U.S. at this point has contributed to the portrait of immigration as negative. Fortunately, that is not the case at NYU or in the city of New York, but it does happen elsewhere. I heard it happens, but I have not experienced it myself.
YG: And do you think if we look at the word immigrant as a label, even though you lived here for 30 years — do you think it is still something you have to live with as a label?
PN: Well, yes and no. I mean, when I go back home to my country, people tell me, my country of origin, they tell me that I am American, that I no longer am Chilean. And here many people say, “You have an accent, where are you from?” But being an immigrant means that you are not sort of fully a part of the country you come into but you are not a part of the country you left. So in that sense you are sort of in transition your entire life. On the other hand you are also a part of the U.S. and a part of your original country. Some people might see that as a negative. I see it as positive. I can be an American and a Chilean. And then I understand both countries, but yes, there is a label. There are always labels to everything. Although some people try to live without labels, it is just impossible.
YG: Do you think as an immigrant, you had a harder time finding a job at first, or was that not a problem?
PN: Well, not in my discipline. So I did my Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, and then got my masters at the University of Chicago and I think with those credentials, it wasn’t difficult for me to find a job. I know it is more difficult for some immigrants to find jobs. Fortunately in my case, I always could find employment and I have a great job. I mean I teach at NYU. So in my particular case, I can’t say that I live the American dream, but I don’t want to generalize. There are difficult situations in particular right now. For many people situations are very difficult. I feel particularly concerned with Dreamers [and] DACA students because I was just fortunate enough to have a visa when I came to the U.S., but there are some people who have been here for 20 years, 25 years — they came as children, and they sort of did everything. They played by the rules, and now they are being punished for what their parents did when they were young. I mean it’s not what they did, but what their parents did. I was fortunate so I cannot complain for what I went through. But I know that many immigrants have a much more difficult time making it in this country.
YG: And at NYU, I mean it is a very diverse school, but do you feel represented and respected?
PN: I would say so. I mean I never felt any kind of discrimination at NYU. But I do know that there aren’t that many Latino faculty members at this university. You are much more likely to see Latinos as university police officers and people who work in services at NYU than faculty members at NYU. I am not going to deny a political factor. There aren’t many Latino professors. And I think NYU needs to do a lot more to have a diverse faculty. On the other hand, I have seen some of those efforts, so I know that NYU is trying.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 10 print edition. Email Yasmin Gulec at [email protected]