Late last year, my friend Claudia Kolker’s book, The Immigrant Advantage, was published by Free Press. The book takes a positive look at the traditions different immigrant groups have brought with them to the United States. It’s not one of those, “the Italians gave us pizza and the Mexicans gave us tacos” kind of books. It’s much deeper and richer than that, and the knowledge it shares could serve all of us well.
Kolker sets the whole narrative through her own eyes and experience. So it’s as if we are right there with her and her husband, Mike, as they participate in a Vietnamese money club, share rice, or live in a multigenerational household. By the end of the book, we’re left with both a positive view of how immigrants enrich this country, and some ideas of how we can make our own lives happier and healthier.
The book also debunks the traditional thinking of many Americans – that immigrants come to this country only to take advantage of our social services.
One of the chapters that really hit home for me was “How to Mother a Mother,” about the cuarentena. This is an old Mexican custom where a woman who gives birth stays at home, and is taken care of by family and friends through the first 40 days of the child’s life. It is a custom that helps the mother avoid postpartum depression, and gives her and the baby time to recuperate from the birth, without any stress.
Kolker gives us firsthand accounts of new mothers who experienced being taken care of by their loved ones in Chiapas, Mexico and also as migrants in Akron, Ohio.
She also explains in very clear terms the chemical and physiological research that has proven the importance of this custom. In very poor and rural areas of Mexico and other Latin American countries with high infant mortality, the cuarentena allows new mothers and their babies to stay healthy after birth.
The success of the cuarentena, and of taking care of the mother and the baby after birth, has been proven in studies which show that Latino immigrant babies are generally healthier than their Anglo counterparts during their first weeks of life.
Drinking atole, and having soup or tea made with purslane weeds, and being able to get enough sleep during the first few weeks of birth, all help the mother regain her strength so she can better take care of the baby after the 40 days.
Kolker ends the chapter by offering us her own personal experience with the birth of her twins, and how friends and family came to help. She says the entire after-birth experience helped her appreciate being a new mother with two babies.
I can relate because when my son was born I helped take care of everything. I fed, changed diapers, got up in the middle of the night to feed and lull our son back to sleep. But the thing is, no one told me I could stop at 40 days!
In any case, I highly recommend The Immigrant Advantage, both as an enjoyable read and as a reminder of how our culture is enriched by its diverse blend of immigrants.