Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you do?
I am a craftivist, born in Temuco, Chile, and living in the United States for the past 8 years. I’m an artist and de facto a business person in progress. My college education in Chile focused on acting and art education. Recently, I’ve starting offering craftivist workshops, especially for immigrant women, and seling my feminist and Spanish language embroidery art.
What is the story behind your decision to immigrate to America?
I came by myself. I had applied for temporary work in the tourism industry. I took a chance, and luckily my parents were very supportive for me to travel. I had never had the opportunity to leave my country before, so it was very exciting, and there was nothing to lose and more to gain from the experience. But after a few months in the U.S., my perspective changed, and I realized that I had left Chile for other reasons. I needed to embrace my professional path (in art education and theater) and to ask for help to treat my health. I began to spend more time with theater companies and teachers. I’ve been exploring my art and teaching skills, and enjoying the journey. Eight years pass by very quickly.
What was the hardest part about leaving? What was the best part about coming?
I came very happily, thinking only that I would get new opportunities, but knowing that it was going to be temporary. I didn’t plan the best parts, that I would get married here and form a family, or that I would have a dog, or even pursue art.
But I will say that the hardest part of moving here was the period of not having time to think strategically about my next steps. The first four years of living in New York were me trying to survive and quickly make the right decisions. But I felt proud of being able to having the privilege of discovering my artistic path.
It’s been difficult living between two worlds, realizing that you are not from here or from there, or maybe that you belong to different places. I keep connected with my country, but I am also more involved in the social dynamics of the place where I chose to live. Today, I truly enjoy the diversity of NYC and creating my own little community.
If I think more incisively, I discovered that I have more professional and creative opportunities here than Chile, and the comparison in terms of job culture is heartbreaking. My privilege is being able to see different perspectives, to speak different languages, and be immersed in a society that embraces diversity. Or at least that’s what I want to think every day — I always fight against my brain sending negative thoughts and I reframe constantly towards positivism.
Was it difficult to adjust to life in America or did you find the transition to be smooth?
I hated English in high school, so I have had to make peace with this language. I’ve always been a perfectionist. I hate to be wrong, and practicing English in high school and making mistakes or sounding “weird” wasn’t my jam. I had to overcome this or I wouldn’t be able to express myself properly here. At first, I memorized phrases in English and I ended up adding new vocabulary organically over time.
It was also hard to relate what I studied in Chilean university to real experience in New York. I have two university degrees from my country and it was difficult to remember they had value when no one here would acknowledge them. I had to learn how the market works in the theater industry. Thankfully I met other immigrant-artists-women and they helped me see ways forward.
And it’s really hard to be already formed as an adult and then to feel vulnerable again and accept that you are new. I will say that it’s helped me to analyze my past choices and value transitions more deeply, and just now I am finally reforming ideas of how I want to see myself in five years. It takes time to develop and understand the opportunities that are in front of you, then modify and being able to navigate them. As a new foreigner, I couldn’t take anything for granted as “I know how this works.” But as someone who now has now lived in the same city for a while, things are getting more routine and predictable. It takes time. First you encounter the new idea, then you have to understand it, and then you can apply it. But I had to relearn it all: how the health system works here, how a pay check comes, all the rules.
How has immigrating to a new country changed you as a person?
I emigrated only 8 years ago. I was an adult, but maybe still a teenager in my brain. I never thought that emigrating would push me to my limits. I had to become more responsible and tolerant, or at least I know that I am working on it.
I think that being an immigrant makes me value the different character of countries more deeply. I came from country where I figured a job isn’t necessarily something that you are passionate to do, but I see differently here, and now I just go wild about pushing myself and going for what I believe is worthy. I define myself as a craftivist and do what I love. Connecting my values with my professional practice is like a dream come true.
Also, I have become more stubborn than before, too, because now I fight more strongly for what I believe to be true. I am a sort of big bear defending my family, because they are what I love the most, and to be honest, I never thought that I would fall in love and get married and even think about maternity. I thought that I was going to be the single aunt that does arts and has another job to live, and now I don’t see myself at all like that image that I had before.
Where do you find strength in difficult and uncertain times?
In my family, my husband and my dog are constant sources of joy, cuddles, and good communication. Maybe I should say that because I live in New York, the most peaceful and cozy place is my couch, and scratching the belly of our dog while my husband and I read and touch each other with our toes.
Besides them, I have to admit that I have a list of things to do or ways to cope with sadness or anxiety; a playlist that reminds me of home, going to the gym, I write, keep in touch with good friends that cheer me up, going on alone dates to eat, teas, reading, listening to podcasts, and, when my body needs it, I will do extensive hours of creation and making artwork – that always works.
I like to think that I reverse trigger my anxiety and depression spirits. It’s kind of like they say: Oh no! Montse is going to the gym today! Argh! She’s going to create more endorphins! We are screwed!
I also enjoy my solitude a lot . As an introvert, I recharge by going to quiet places; a library, the park or café and get a cozy tea while I embroider (ideally with my dog, Lucy).
All these coping strategies have been accumulating thanks to years and years of therapy. I am indebted to therapy because I had the chance to receive counseling during hard times in NYC. I have also had therapy in Chile since I was seventeen. I get to know my brightest and darkest sides. I highly recommend talk therapy to everyone, but sadly in our latinoamerican culture, going to therapy is cosa de locos so we have to fight against that stigma.
How has your experience changed as time has passed and you have gotten older?
I am more relaxed, more concrete also. If there’s a plan that needs to be accomplished, I accommodate as much as I can in advance to give myself time from stressing at the last minute. As a teacher, I learned the value of transition time between classes, projects, and moments. I must say that in personal matters, if the change is something external to me, it’s a little bit hard to manage. I am very black and white and I have to remember to be more tolerant when I disagree.
But hey! This is me now. Before, I didn’t have anything planned or understood. I had thousands of intense emotions per day. Now I am aware of what’s difficult for me and I have strategies to cope with that. And I have very strong support lead by my husband and close friends.
How has being an immigrant made you a stronger person?
I truly believe that being vulnerable makes you stronger. I came to live in a country that has a completely different language and I didn’t have any family members here. I didn’t have a plan, like many other immigrants.
We don’t realize how incredible we are to risk our lives and start everything again. We’re out of our comfort zone on a daily basis.
Because I work through art, embracing and legitimizing women’s narrative against machismo through embroidery, I’ve realized that women are strong from the beginning. There are different circumstances that make you or force you to show your potency, but we have that vigor within ourselves and we have moments that we have to choose to believe in that energy and use it.
Has being an immigrant made it easier for you to pursue your dreams or has it made it harder?
We all know that depending on your identity politics, you have to fight different battles and constraints, but there are certain battles that are harder to fight right now and being an immigrant requires its own armor that you have to carry around.
I’ve had incidents where my accent was a detonator to certain reactions. I’ve been attacked (screamed at) on the street. I’ve wondered: should I stay silent? Don’t answer? Afterwards, I cried, spoke with family members, and kept moving. I often think of the times when my compensation was very different from my American colleagues, or how writing or answering an email takes me more time than expected because I don’t have the mental energy to face my vulnerability of writing in another language… it can be hard. I try to use my dignity to help me shut down negatives thoughts or choose a different path when I am confronting difficult people. We (as an immigrant family) make daily decisions to try to be best in this capacity.
What is one piece of advice or encouragement you would share to other immigrants?
This is from parts of a speech that I gave at the Queens Museum for New Women, New Yorkers:
I’m so proud of our strength born from vulnerability! Being so strong and yet still being afraid of little things is a strange way of living, but we do our best.
When we’re introduced to strangers, we need to keep embracing the hug and kisses on the cheek, even if is awkward. It is extremely necessary in times when hate thrives. Let’s keep feeling proud for not smiling if we just don’t want to. Let’s embrace our fears together, such as starting our careers far away from home, and/or learning everything again and try to make a family without our moms or families around.
We can’t move forward without carrying our memories. There’s no doubt that we need each other to protect and to grow with a sense of pride in our heritage, and we have to spread the love of our culture far away from our grandparent’s sight.
Montserrat Vargas is a craftivist, born in Temuco, Chile, and living in the United States for the past 8 years. Recently, she’s started offering craftivist workshops, especially for immigrant women, and seling her feminist and Spanish language embroidery art.