The accidental immigrant
As Larissa Skinner drops off her daughters Julia, 8, and Bianca, 11, at volleyball practice in Glenrock,it never ceases to amaze her that this is actually her life. This smalltown Wyoming life was never what her parents had planned for her back in Brazil. Indeed, they
tried hard to ensure it wouldn’t happen. Her dad was an engineer and her mom worked for the government. They wanted to make sure Larissa didn’t squander the abundant opportunities an affluent Brazilian lifestyle afforded her.
Therefore, her parents weren’t necessarily excited when Larissa at age 17 announced her plans to study abroad as an exchange student in the United States, but Larissa was determined to experience a different culture and way of life.
Having grown up in a booming metropolis with 3.5 million people, she was curious to explore what it would be like to live in a small, rural western town. Her experience as an exchange student was anything but typical. After an unfortunate series of events (including the first family in Iowa having to pull out because of the school district, a jealous host sister at the first proper home, an alcoholic host mother at the second and a family of hoarders at the third), the already reluctant Larissa arrived at her fourth and final host home in South Dakota, which made it all worthwhile.
Having taken a crash course in English, Larissa finally settled into the small town of 400 where the residents were friendly and accommodated her broken English as she assimilated. Her host mother introduced her to Ron Skinner, a local farmer. The connection was immediate. After a brief courtship of best friends, Ron proposed to Larissa. It was deep winter, under the stars, by the lake, on the edge of town. Larissa had told herself no dating American boys and certainly no falling in love with
them. It seemed things had gone very terribly right. “I remember it was a really pretty night, December by the lake and all of a sudden he got quiet and then he just put it out there, and asked ‘do you want to be my wife?’ I started laughing but then I started thinking he was actually serious, and so I said ‘sure,’ and it was really weird and then we started smiling and laughing and he gave me this ring. So that was our first kiss, when we got engaged,” recalled Larissa smiling.
Larissa was back in Brazil within three days of announcing the engagement to her parents. Determined to ensure the relationship was true, her parents tested it with a year apart while Larissa finished high school in Brazil. Then she returned to the States, married Ron, began her long paperwork journey with the folks at the INS and embarked on the adventure of living permanently in a foreign land.
It wasn’t long before Larissa got her Social Security card and was working four part time jobs (nursing home, gas station, two restaurants) with no real plan but the niggling thought that it was time for college. After a brief stint working for a travelling blood bank, Larissa became pregnant with Bianca and started working nights at the local hospital, convinced her future path lay in the nursing field. A job in a medical clinic gave her some focus as well as some steady daytime hours. A few years passed and the Skinners had grown to the Skinner family with two Brazilian American daughters (Bianca was born in America and Julia was born in Brazil—both hold dual citizenship until they are 18) to keep the couple busy.
Restless in South Dakota, the Skinners left the farm and moved to California to work with friends in the rental properties game. It was 2008 and the bottom dropped out of real estate, leaving the family searching for new direction. For Larissa, California became a scary place to live very quickly; a down-turned economy spreading a sense of desperation. Crime rates were high. It wasn’t long before Ron was looking for work and he found some, as a military contractor in Iraq. He was gone for eight months.
“He came back and I decided California wasn’t where I wanted to raise my kids,” Larissa said.
A friend got Ron an interview with a Wyoming company. After Ron was offered a job in Casper, the family, glad to leave California and be together and safe once again, decided to set down roots in Wyoming.
“In four days we shingled the whole house, packed the whole house, came here and the company found us a rental in Glenrock,” she recalled.
Immediately, Larissa loved the Glenrock schools and as winter drew close, the family decided to buy a house down by the river and soon settled into Glenrock life.
Finally, it was time for Larissa to go to college. Attending high school in a new country is hard enough; picking a college and choosing a major is a whole other level of challenge. Putting aside notions of being a paramedic, a nurse, lab technician and a psychologist, Larissa decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a social worker. It would allow her to utilize her knack for psychology with her knack for getting along with people. Add a hefty dose of patience and empathy and Larissa had the makings of an American social worker.
She was just missing what she believed to be the magic ingredient: a bad childhood. 32-year-old Larissa recalled sitting in her social work class wondering if she had made a huge mistake.
All around her were tales of loss and trauma or new-found hope and new beginnings. It seemed all the other students in the room had chosen to be social workers in order to pay back the services that saved them when they were children.
But, Larissa’s childhood was a good childhood; how would she be able to relate to clients? How did her narrative fit into the American life she had worked so hard to attain?
Then it began to make sense. Perhaps the bad childhood was missing, but the determination needed to begin a whole new life in another country, adapting time and time again to new circumstances and never knowing what was around the corner, was a whole new set of experiences to bring to the social services table. And as a psych professor at Casper College reminded her, you don’t have to have the disease to treat the disease. Perhaps Larissa had the complete social worker recipe after all.
Larissa came to America as a teenager, learned to speak fluent English from scratch, married, had a family, struggled, moved, worked four jobs at one time, took college classes in her non-native tongue, graduated from Casper College with a degree in social work in 2015, obtained American citizenship, went on to work for CWCC in Casper, Solutions for Life in Douglas and the Glenrock Medical Center before arriving at her current and new position as social services director for Life Care Center of Casper.
“Never once had I thought I would get it,” she said, in reference to her new job as director. “It was a small department but to be the head of it. When they offered me the position I was laughing inside, like giggling. Like, are you kidding me?” Only a few weeks into the position, Larissa remains excited and a little apprehensive, but more
than up for the challenge.
“It’s going to be a huge learning curve but I’m excited,” she said. “It’s the first time I’ve worked in a nursing home where there are just tons of family members. They’re very involved in the care which is awesome.”
EARNING HER RIGHT TO BE HERE
It’s been a journey getting to this point, she realizes, but looking back at her life it all seems to finally make sense.
“It’s kind of like connect the dots. I started kind of rocky here, then it kind of plateaus for a while, then rocky, rocky,” Larissa said smiling. “But, if you don’t have that, things get boring.”
Life as an American immigrant has been a steady stream of hard work for Larissa but she feels she earned her place among the free, and feels that people in general have been nicer and more patient with her because she’s a foreigner. Most importantly, despite the fact that she may have ended up in this country by accident, she’s
never once questioned her desire to be here or the hard work it has taken to have arrived at the point where she is today. She also fervently believes that like her, other immigrants need to take the steps to move to this country legally.
“I choose to be here, but I deserve to be here. I worked for this. I paid money, a lot of money,” Larissa said in reference to the growing divide between legal immigrants and undocumented residents.
“Yes, there are people that can’t seem to get ahead and they are from other countries and they are working awful jobs, getting walked on, but to the ones who try hard they are doing okay,” she said. “As a social worker, I think where do you draw the line? As an immigrant, I did it right. Why should all my hard work be for nothing? There are tons of American people moving to Brazil. Do I think we should be catering to them? No, and we don’t.”
Life in a foreign country is difficult, Larissa added, but it’s a choice and one she doesn’t feel should be taken lightly.
“I really think that if you make the decision to move you are signing a contract to say you know what I’m going to abide by the rules and their belief system from the doorstep out. Whatever you want to do, how you celebrate the holidays, what you cook, what you believe, that’s up to you,” she said. “You lose your identity to a certain point because you’re both, because you feel like you aren’t truly an American and you aren’t truly a Brazilian.”
But, being in stuck in the middle is also pretty awesome, she added, because you get the best of both. Not everyone comes to America planning to make a life here. Sometimes fate just intervenes. That’s how a Brazilian city girl, an accidental immigrant, ends up an American farmer’s wife, has a family and makes a life in Glenrock, Wyoming.