Are You a 1.5? A Conversation about the American Immigrant Experience

Audio available at

The 1.5 generation – comprising immigrants who arrive in the US as children and younger teens – holds a unique place within the immigrant diaspora experience. What roles do they play at home or outside it? What languages do they speak in given situations? Does 1.5-ness affect who gets their votes – or their hands in love or marriage?

On Tuesday, March 27, The Crawford Family Forum hosted a lively, audience-inclusive discussion of such questions and the nuances of the “immigrant experience/generation spectrum” with moderator Leslie Berestein Rojas (KPCC’s “Multi-American” blogger/reporter) and guests Mary Yu Danico (The 1.5 Generation: Becoming Korean American in Hawaii, UH Press and the incoming president of the Association for Asian American Studies; Cal Poly Pomona, Sociology), Leisy Abrego (author of “Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos: Fear and Stigma as Barriers to Claims Making for First and 1.5 Generation Immigrants.” Law & Society Review. 45(2): 337-369; UCLA, Chicano/a Studies) and Dennis Arguelles (Director of Program Development, Search To Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA); former president/executive director of Asia Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), assistant director of UCLA Asian American Studies Center, co-author editor of first in-depth studies of poverty in L.A.’s API communities)

Panel Details Lives Lived Out in One and a Half Portions

Between the immigrant and the assimilated is the one and a halfer, the ones caught between their parent’s homeland dreams and the stronger and stronger pull to leave that behind.

There’s growing talk and research about this 1.5 immigrant generation. My colleague Leslie Berestein Rojas recently moderated an intense talk about the topic at KPCC.

She opened the event by talking about her perceptions of home country as a young child. She believed the Southern California she grew up in was Cuba. Everyone around her spoke Cuban accented Spanish, the talk was usually about the home country’s politics, she ate Cuban food, and listened culture and music that surrounded her was Cuban. Then at some point the film turned from color to black and white, or the other way around, I’ll have to ask her. She realized she didn’t live in Cuba.

The three people on the panel talked of the Korean, Salvadoran, and Filipino versions of this experience.

A 1.5 immigrant is one who comes to this country roughly between the ages of five and eight years old. By that age many of the formative experiences, such as language acquisition and first years of school and making friends, have taken place in the home country. Panelist Leisy Abrego, a UCLA researcher, is a 1.5 generation poster child even though her experience is a bit different. She was born in the U.S. to Salvadoran immigrants and was sent to El Salvador so her mother could work several jobs in L.A. Abrego returned to the U.S. years later a strong Salvadoran on her way to find her American identity.

For Cal Poly Pomona professor Mary Yu Danico language is what keeps her connected as a one and a halfer to her parents’ Korean culture. Danico was told she spoke Korean with a Japanese accent and found out it was because her mother, while ethnically Korean, was born in Japan. Her father preferred speaking English to Danico. So the lines between Korean language, culture, and Danico’s mother overlapped in many ways. So when Danico’s mother died about a year ago Danico worried what would happen to her Koreaness. Would it die on the vine now that her mother was gone?

During the question and answer portion I told the panel that I really disliked translating real estate documents for my parents when I was nine years old. Abrego responded that many 1.5 generation kids are put into unusual positions of responsibility. On the one hand, she said, it builds a child’s communications skills. On the other hand, being put in these positions of adult responsibility robs a bit of the childhood.

Abrego and other researchers are delving deeper into the world of one and a halfers, worlds lived out in multiple languages, in multiple nations, on U.S. soil.

Poet and KPCC Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET’s SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA’s physical and psychic borders.


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