identities

25 Famous Women on Their Immigrant Roots

President Donald Trump’s tumultuous travel ban generated an outpouring of support for immigrants and refugees. As masses of protesters gathered at airports across the country to give a voice to the detained and demand a change to the executive order, the message was clear: “We are all immigrants.”

Read on for stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ali Wong, Toni Morrison, Madeleine Albright, and more women on how their status as refugees, immigrants, or descendants of immigrants influenced their identities (and roads to success) in the U.S.

Salma Hayek
“I was an illegal immigrant in the United States. It was for a small period of time, but I still did it … I had to endure the worst time of all in terms of racial discrimination in Hollywood when I first started out. It was inconceivable to American directors and producers that a Mexican woman could have a lead role.” —V Spain Magazine, December 2010“I was an illegal immigrant in the United States. It was for a small period of time, but I still did it … I had to endure the worst time of all in terms of racial discrimination in Hollywood when I first started out. It was inconceivable to American directors and producers that a Mexican woman could have a lead role.” —V Spain Magazine, December 2010

Eva Longoria
“I’m from a small town in South Texas, and if you know your history, Texas used to be part of Mexico. I’m ninth-generation American. My family never crossed the border, the border crossed us. So when Donald Trump calls us criminals and rapists, he is insulting American families. My father is not a criminal or rapist. In fact, he is a United States veteran.” —Democratic National Convention, July 2016

Phillipa Soo
“In terms of my own experience, my dad is first-generation, so his parents were from China, and my mom was born and raised in southern Illinois, and she was involved in the arts. My dad’s a doctor. I was very much always encouraged, but the mentality of ‘get your education’ was still there. But of course, from his experience, he was like, ‘I kind of want you to do what you want to do, but remember, there’s a legacy here, and you have a lot to live up to. Don’t forget that.’ I think he just wanted me to do the best at whatever I wanted to do, so whether it was in the arts or the sciences, to be well-rounded and to have an amazing time doing it, but also to just educate yourself and if you’re going to be a performer, be the best performer that you can be. I think that still lives on in me and will be something I pass onto my own children. I think there’s something beautiful about that.” —The Hollywood Reporter, November 2015

Madeleine Albright
“There have been many significant days in my life, but the most important of all was Nov. 11, 1948. That was the day my family and I arrived in the United States, beginning a new life in exile from our native Czechoslovakia. In contrast to countless Americans who came before and after us, we were not a hardship case. My father was at the United Nations and we had diplomatic passports. We did not escape through barbed wire, or cross stormy seas by raft. But we were fleeing a brutal communist government, and found a welcoming home in the most generous nation on earth. Today, there are millions of people across the Middle East and Africa facing far more dire circumstances, and for them America remains a beacon of hope.” —The Boston Globe, September 2015

Amy Tan
“I wanted to write [The Joy Luck Club] for very personal reasons … If I thought at all that it was going to be a story about the immigrant experience, it was the immigrant experience according to my mother and father. This influenced the way I took their immigrant story—the things that I rejected, the things that I thought were American. The basic notion of this country is that with self-determination, you can create who you are. You have that freedom. It’s not a complete freedom, because we have certain limitations that have to do with the economy or prejudice. That, in turn, then allows an amazing freedom to a writer, because freedom is also creativity. You are creating your identity. As a writer, you can create anything you want.” – The American Interest, May 2007

Zadie Smith
“I live here … and I am American in all purposes except I have a green card so I can’t vote. I don’t know if I’ll become a citizen. I was talking to another writer this weekend, Hari Kunzru. He’s like me. I think we both always thought of England as home. We’ll go home and be very nostalgic about home. When the country you come from changes so radically as it has recently, it’s just a strange immigrant experience. Not that I will ever move home, but you feel like now I have no two homes. I’m not at home in two places. It’s a weird feeling. Maybe it’ll change again, but yeah it’s strange.” —Slate, November 2016

Ali Wong
“I think it’s tough with immigrant parents because they’re from a different time. They were from, like, a time where things were built to last. And, you know, [my mom’s] worst nightmare is having to buy something again or needing something and then having had it and thrown it away and it going to waste … My dad grew up with straight up no running water. He slept in a twin bed with his two sisters and his mom like ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’–style, like feet at the head, feet at the head alternating. And then I think his dad slept on, like, a bed of newspapers on a floor in their apartment. All the investment was in him. My aunts, his two sisters, didn’t get to go to college ‘cause my grandparents could only afford for one kid to go to college, and that was my dad. And I’m so amazed still at how he had all that pressure on him and just took it in stride and just, like, killed it, you know? He became a doctor, and I’m so proud of him still for doing that. It’s really hard for people to understand, like, what a quirky person my dad was. And also he could have cared less about what other people thought about him. I mean, if he had to fart, he would do it at the library, at the opera, like the quieter the better.” —NPR, August 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri
“When you grow up the child of an immigrant you are always — or at least I was — very conscious of what it means or might mean to be uprooted or to uproot yourself. One is conscious of that without even having ever done it. I knew what my parents had gone through — not feeling rooted.” —The Atlantic, April 2008“When you grow up the child of an immigrant you are always — or at least I was — very conscious of what it means or might mean to be uprooted or to uproot yourself. One is conscious of that without even having ever done it. I knew what my parents had gone through — not feeling rooted.” —The Atlantic, April 2008


Amy Chua
“I was raised, myself, by extremely strict but also extremely loving Chinese immigrant parents. To this day, I believe that their having high expectations for me, coupled with love, was the greatest gift that anyone’s ever given me. And so that’s why, even though my husband is not Chinese, I try to raise my own two daughters the same way … [Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother] is about many of the strengths that I see, and that kind of tough immigrant parenting, but also about my mistakes. It’s about making fun of myself — a lot of people miss this — and ultimately, about my decision to sort of pull back when really confronted in a moment of crisis. So the book is absolutely not a how-to book. I do not think the Chinese way is superior. It’s a memoir. It’s really a sort of – a story of my own journey and transformation as a mother, and it does explore these issues. You know, what’s the right balance?” —NPR, January 2011

Gloria Estefan
“It doesn’t matter where you come from. Unless you’re a Native American Indian, you’re not from here. Somewhere down the road, you came from somewhere else. It’s always the last person in that gets bashed.” —The Washington Times, October 2015

Iman
“I was under 18, and to leave Kenya to come to the United States, to get a passport, you had to be 18. So I lied and said I was 19 to get the passport, because [otherwise] I had to have permission from my parents, and my parents would never have let me come … I didn’t tell anybody, but I thought I’d see it, feel it. You know how [my parents] found out? I was in Newsweek a week later. It’s the only magazine my father reads, and the next thing, he’s reading, and there’s a picture of me in New York, [saying,] ‘She’s the hottest model now.’ I broke the law! But nobody can touch me now, I’m 60 years old, it’s too late. The time has passed.” —The Cut, April 2015

Lea Salonga
“Stop seeing us as exotic and oriental and far-removed from the experience of what this country actually is. Don’t see us as foreigners, see us as part of the country. Then, maybe there will be more really great stuff written on film for people that look like us, because theater people are writing things for us! Kei was written for me — I can actually say that!” – The Hollywood Reporter, November 2015“Stop seeing us as exotic and oriental and far-removed from the experience of what this country actually is. Don’t see us as foreigners, see us as part of the country. Then, maybe there will be more really great stuff written on film for people that look like us, because theater people are writing things for us! Kei was written for me — I can actually say that!” —The Hollywood Reporter, November 2015

Aparna Nancherla
“My parents have actually been very supportive [of my comedy career]. … They’re first-generation immigrants, so there’s still a disconnect for them between mainstream pop culture and what they’re tuned into, so sometimes I’ll still have to explain something I did after the fact, or one of their friends will pass something along. It’s kind of nice that they don’t know as much about what’s important because it keeps things more grounded for me.” —Bitch, July 2016

Padma Lakshmi
“I’m an immigrant kid who came to America from India when I was very young and grew up in New York City with a single mom and really was influenced by all of those immigrant cultures bumping up against each other…I was always hanging out in the kitchen with my grandmother, my aunts, my mother, all the women in my family. That’s sort of where all of the action was in my house, the kitchen.” —ABC News, June 2010

Constance Wu
“I think the reason people have been quick to throw the stereotype criticism on us is because there will always be people who are laughing at the wrong thing. Some people are like, ‘Oh, stereotypical accent!’ An accent is an accent. If there were jokes written about the accent, then that would certainly be harmful. But there aren’t jokes written about it. It’s not even talked about. It’s just a fact of life: immigrants have accents. Making the choice to have that is a way of not watering down the character and making it politically correct. It’s choosing authenticity over safety, and I think that’s bold. The people who are going to laugh at the alleged stereotypes are the same people who are going to laugh at their Chinese waiter in the restaurant next door for very coarse, uneducated reasons. Time, February 2015

Mila Kunis
“My parents went through hell and back. They came to America with suitcases and a family of seven and $250, and that’s it. My parents, for years, worked full-time and went to college full-time. They would go to night school to learn English. My mom started working at Thrifty in Culver City as a box lady. That’s what she did until she learned English; then she became a cashier. My dad worked — f–k if I know — seven jobs? He painted a house. He would deliver toilets. He drove a cab, delivered pizzas. Whatever he could do, he did. Ultimately, my dad owned cabs, and my mom worked her way up to manager of a Rite-Aid; they bought a car and a condo. But growing up poor, I never missed out on anything. My parents did a beautiful job of not making me feel like I was lesser than any other kids.” Glamour, July 2016

Sandra Cisneros
“When you’re an immigrant writer or an immigrant, you’re not always welcome to this country unless you’re the right immigrant. If you have a Mexican accent, people look at you like, you know, where do you come from and why don’t you go back to where you came from. So even [though] I was born in the United States, I never felt at home in the United States. I never felt at home until I moved the southwest, where you know there’s a mix of my culture with the US culture. That was why I lived in Texas for 25 years…It was only when I arrived at a landscape in the southwest with the big skies like in the old black and white Mexican movies that I felt, yeah this feels like home. When I heard Spanish alongside English, that I said this feels like home. And even now, I live in a town where you hear English as much as you hear Spanish. I live in San Miguel de Allende.” PBS Newshour, October 2015

Samina Ali
“When you’re more comfortable with McDonald’s and Starbucks, it’s more of a struggle with the older generation and how the older generation might be keeping you back and trying to root you in a country that you don’t identify with as much as you might identify with the United States. As a second-generation immigrant, I already see how much I’m losing as I pass it along to my son. I don’t speak to him in Urdu as my parents spoke to me, and it’s sort of being weaned out … My daughter’s only 3 weeks old, but my son is 9 and a half and I see it in him. I see him sort of struggling to figure out what it means to be Indian. The funny thing about him is when he was smaller, when he was younger, I would take him back to Minneapolis to my parents’ house — and my parents are part of a very large Indian-Muslim community back there. And whenever we went home they would throw parties for us, and it was usually people from the Muslim-Indian community who came. Everyone spoke Urdu, everyone was Muslim, everyone ate Indian food, and for a long time my son thought that that was India. He would tell people all the time, ‘I’ve been to India! We’ve gone to India; I just was there last weekend!’ And I would tell him, ‘No, that was actually Minnesota!’ And you can tell from his perspective how insular it is.” —NPR, April 2009

Maxine Hong Kingston
“I was about 15 years old when I wrote an essay for The American Girl magazine, and the name of my essay was ‘I Am An American.’ And I worked out the idea that you don’t have to be white to be an American. But all the time I was aware that both my parents were illegals and I had to be very careful to write in such a way that I can insist on our being American without giving away their illegal status…I wanted to assert myself as an American, and it was a matter of existentially growing myself as an American person. And it was also in reaction to the prejudice and racism that was all around me. And the only way that I could defend myself was to positively set out the really good American values.” – NPR, July 2007

Toni Morrison
“All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness. Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of ‘Americanness’ is color.” The New Yorker, November 2016

Diane von Furstenberg
“They love me in Belgium. But when I was young, all I wanted was to run away. Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Do people perceive you as European or American?’ I think people identify me with New York, but I’m clearly European. My father emigrated from Russia, and my mother was from Greece. I was born in Belgium. I went to school in England and in Switzerland, then I came to America, so I really feel like I am a citizen of the world.” —Interview, August 2012

Isabel Allende
“I have been a foreigner all my life, first as a daughter of diplomats, then as a political refugee and now as an immigrant in the US. I have had to leave everything behind and start anew several times, and I have lost most of my extended family. Here in California, I have tried to recreate a sense of extended family with a few chosen loyal friends. I call them ‘my tribe.’ It works better than a real family because we are together by choice not obligation. My grandchildren have grown up in this little tribe and I don’t think they are aware that we are not even blood-related.” The Guardian, September 2013

Rita Moreno
“I was always the darling, please-like-me kid. It’s the immigrant syndrome; it comes from being Puerto Rican, being on the outside. ‘Don’t make waves, don’t make noise’ — my mother was very conscious of that. I was brought up trying to please the world. The greatest lesson I ever learned is that you don’t die from not being liked. I wanted to world to like me.” —The Huffington Post, March 2012

Marjane Satrapi
On moving from Iran to France: “I’m in exile. I would rather live in my own country. People have different reasons for emigrating, but most of the time it has to do with economics. I had everything in Iran and left to live in a studio.” —The Wall Street Journal, August 2005

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“For 3 years, my parents were refugees. And they owed a lot, not only to Emmanuel, but also to many humanitarian workers. Those women and men, magnificent in their bravery and their vulnerability and their commitment. But my parents were not just refugees. Nobody is ever just a refugee. Nobody is ever just a single thing. And yet, in the public discourse today, we often speak of people as single things. Refugee, immigrant. We dehumanize people when we reduce them to a single thing. And this dehumanization is insidious and unconscious.” —World Humanitarian Day 2016, August 2016

25 Famous Women on Their Immigrant Roots