Sparks resident Adriana Marin-Herrera was born in Cali, Colombia and moved to the United States when she was 16. It was not an easy transition, but support from her high school science teacher helped. She shares the details for our series called “First Days In America.”
Adriana Marin-Herrera, 36, feeds her chickens in a large backyard coop she made herself, while her husband plays paddle ball with two of their daughters on their lawn and her mother helps their three-year-old after her nap inside their colorful and spotless home.
Leaving Colombia and Her Mother Behind
She spent her early childhood attending an American school, where her father worked as an accountant. This enabled his children to attend the school on a scholarship. Adriana excelled there, finding it a place of safety and peace.
In 1993, the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was murdered in Colombia. This caused civil unrest and daily skirmishes that left Adriana's family feeling deeply unsettled. Eventually, her father and his then fiancé moved to the United States. In 1998, when Adriana was 16, she chose to leave Colombia and move to the US with her father, sister and new stepmother.
This meant leaving her mother behind, which was a wrenching, extremely difficult decision for Adriana. For the first several months after arriving in the US, she literally cried every day for her mother. Tearfully she recalled that her father wrote to her mother and said, "You need to come fast--Adriana's crying every night." Her mother was an attorney and, therefore, was able to pass her background check fairly quickly. She moved to Reno when Adriana was about 18.
Excelling in Her New School and Finding Love
Adriana continued to excel in school after moving to Reno. She enrolled in Sparks High School, and chemistry teacher, Mr. Guyer, quickly spotted her talent. She wanted to attend college and major in marine biology, but the tuition was more than her family could afford. Guyer knew about the Gates Millennium Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and he encouraged Adriana to apply.
Adriana, Guyer, and other teachers all collaborated and completed the scholarship application. Adriana was awarded a scholarship that covered undergraduate, all the way to a doctorate. She attended the University of Nevada, Reno, and majored in biology. Thereafter, she obtained her Master's in Education. At age 27, she started a PhD program in environmental science.
Around this time she met her second husband, Serj Johal. When she met Serj, who is from India, she knew it was different. He understood her feelings and experiences about coming to the United States from another country. On their wedding day, Adriana dressed in a beautiful Sari and Serj wore his Sikh turban.
Serj is an entrepreneur and owns a small restaurant in downtown Reno named Thali. He serves vegetarian Indian food that represents the meals his parents served him during his childhood. Adriana strives to be strictly vegetarian but is not quite there yet.
Writing about Her Cross-Cultural Family
Serj and Adriana have three daughters, ages 3, 5 and 9. About ten years into their relationship, Adriana noticed she was struggling with the cultural differences between South America and India. She was able to adapt to some, but not all, of the expectations her Indian in-laws had for her.
There was tension around this, which led Adriana to write a book called, The Blessings and Challenges of a Mixed Race Family in the United States: A Memoir. She self-published the book, and it is available online.
"I wrote it more like as a memoir for myself and the kids and [it's good] if it helps the children or the parents who are mixed race to raise their kids in a way where they include the culture and the religion and the languages," she said. Her husband speaks to the children in Punjabi, and Adriana reads to them in Spanish. She does this so her children can be trilingual. Additionally, she borrows between 20-30 books from the library every month, many in languages like Chinese and Arabic, and she and the girls read them all together.
Reuniting with Her Mother at Home
Adriana's mother, Amparo, lives with the family. "My mother helps me a lot," Adriana said. "She cooks a lot of our food." She also helps with Adriana's three-year-old daughter, Salma. Amparo has not practiced law since being in the United States. Adriana emphasized that her mom backs her up when the children get out of hand. She tells them, "Yeah, you better listen to your mother." Adriana said her husband will tell the kids, "It's okay."
The children have an idyllic life with Adriana, her husband and their grandmother. They recently moved into a five-bedroom, six-bathroom home where everyone has plenty of space and their cat chases birds around the backyard. The large kitchen pantry has been converted to a children's area, with rows of toys and shelves of books.
"If I had the chance to stay in Colombia or stay in the US, I would choose for my children," she said. "I am choosing to stay in the US, but we have the chance to live in other countries for at least two months at a time, so that's the plan that at some point. The kids will go to India one school year and I will go with them and learn Punjabi completely and adapt. At some point we'll go to Colombia for six months to a year and get to know my culture completely and live with it, with them through my culture."
This story was produced by Leah Wigren, a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism who participated in NPR’s Next Generation Radio program, which mentors student reporters.