An American Immigrant

An American Immigrant


Words by Johanna Rojas Vann
Photos by Jess Harris Photography

“Wow, you really captured how I felt . . .”

I took a deep breath when my mother spoke those words to me over the phone one fall afternoon. She’d finally finished reading the very first draft of my novel, An American Immigrant. She called as soon as she read the last page—she must have known I was holding my breath. What would she think? After all, the novel was largely about her—her life as a young woman who left Cali, Colombia for America in search of something more. If she didn’t like the book, there was no way I could continue.  

Five months before that call, I’d embarked on a journey of writing down the stories she’d shared with me. I turned them into a mostly fictional story about a daughter raised by immigrant parents who discovers the truth about her mother’s emigration. While much of the story was also inspired by my own experience as a second-generation Colombian-American, I knew I’d taken on a big job when I decided I would write my mother’s story too. 

I wanted to honor not only her story, but also the experiences of many immigrants—and children of immigrants—today. It didn’t matter to me that I was writing fiction. I wanted the stories to come across as authentic as I heard them. So, when my mother told me I’d done it, that I’d successfully captured her roller coaster of emotions in such a tumultuous time of her life, I knew I could confidently move forward. I could keep writing, editing, and even pursue publishing.

While those days of writing, editing, and publishing are behind me now, the lessons I learned from the journey will stick with me forever—the most important of which is keeping family legacies alive. 

It doesn’t matter that I’d have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to meet with my Colombian ancestors or that my parents live a ten-hour drive away, I can still pass on our heritage to my children. I can raise kids who are deeply passionate about their roots and who join me in keeping our family legacies alive. 

Whether you’ve been keeping an organized archive of your ancestry or you can count your blood relatives on one hand, it’s worthwhile to spend time thinking about what your past has to teach you about your present. It doesn’t have to be complicated. You can keep your family legacies alive when you:

  • Ask 

  • When I first heard the detailed story of my mother’s border crossing, I was a freshman in college. It’s hard to believe I waited that long to ask questions. That’s why my new favorite thing to do is to ask. Ask questions, ask for stories, and ask about people who have passed on. 

    One story from my mom led me to an endless array of questions that taught me things such as: My grandmother wrote beautiful poems to her children in her spare time, my mother has unbelievable integrity even in the face of fear and poverty, my great-grandmother had a fiery spirit that is alive in every single woman in my family, and I even learned things about my own siblings. If you don’t know where to start, complete the question, “Why did you [insert verb such as move, stay, separate, marry, etc.],” and keep asking why until you can’t ask it anymore. 

  • Listen

  • When you’re asking, you can’t forget to listen. Don’t interrupt, even if the people you speak to get off course. Just keep listening. Let them take the story wherever they want to take it. You just might stumble upon gold. 

    Don’t even bother writing things down while you’re listening. Put away all distractions and just be in the moment. You can always go back later and ask them to retell the most interesting stories you find. 

    I also encourage you to sit with the stories for some time. Think about them while you stroll your neighborhood. Journal about what you learned, or find other ways to process what you heard from your family members. The stories you uncover are important, so give yourself plenty of time to process what they might mean in your own life.

  • Share 

  • My family doesn’t have very many heirlooms that have been passed down. My ancestors didn’t have the kind of wealth that buys expensive china, jewelry, or porcelain dolls. But what I did discover were handwritten poems—many of them written by my grandmother to my mom, the third of her five children. 

    I also found pictures—lots of beautiful pictures. These items might not be worth any money, but they’re the kind of things I’d run and grab if my home were burning down. These kinds of heirlooms deserve to be framed and on display somewhere in our homes where they can spark conversation with our children and guests. 

    You might not write novels about the stories you uncover, but you can pass on your journal to your children one day. You can jot down recipes and teach your kids how to make family staples, and you can even keep languages alive. Don’t allow perfectionism to discourage you. You don’t have to pass down fluency. Encouraging an appreciation for music and books from your culture and teaching them popular phrases (such as Que rico! for us) goes a long way. 

  • Visit 

  • Yes, stories can be shared through FaceTime or Zoom, but there’s something about sitting close to family members while they tell you about their life that elevates your connection to them. 

    When I started writing my novel, I asked my mother to come stay with me for a few weeks. I was five months postpartum with my first baby, so the help was very much welcome too. She ended up staying for a month, and I’ll never forget the endless mornings we spent rocking my infant while I ate her arepas and listened to another story about her early years in America. These days, it’s hard to get away, but there will never be a replacement for being with those we love—live and in person. 

    Whether you live on a cul-de-sac with family or a flight away, my hope is that reading my book will encourage you to keep your family legacies alive. It’s certainly a worthwhile endeavor! 

    In honor of my mother and grandmother, I also want to share a simple recipe for arepas—the most versatile and treasured food item in my family:


    Makes approximately 20 arepas, depending on the size.

    1. Two cups of pan pre-cooked white corn meal 
    2. Two cups of shredded mozzarella cheese 
    3. One cup of warm water 
    4. Butter for pan frying 


    1. Combine the cornmeal and cheese. 
    2. Add water and combine thoroughly with your hands, slowly adding more water until it’s the right consistency (sticky but still holds together). 
    3. Form small balls with your hands and then flatten them with your palms until you have 1-inch-thick patties. (If the dough is sticking to your hands, splash a little water on your hands between every arepa.)
    4. Add enough butter to coat a hot nonstick or cast-iron pan. 
    5. Pan fry each arepa until golden brown spots appear on each side (approximately 5 minutes each side).
    6. Serve hot, either alone or topped with thin slices of queso campesino.