The awakening of my immigrance

PJ Pereira, co-founder and creative chairman, Pereira O'Dell
PJ Pereira, co-founder and creative chairman, Pereira O'Dell

I realized how important it is to claim your identity, so others can see theirs not as a source of weakness, but strength too.

Representation was an idea I always understood intellectually. 

I spent more than 10 years on a book trilogy that helped Brazilians of African heritage see themselves as descendants of gods, queens and kings -- rather than slaves.

It wasn’t until the launch party for the first volume that I got representation at an emotional level. 

A young girl arrived an hour early, and I stopped to talk to her. She had the book pressed hard against her chest and tears streaming down her face. “I wanted to thank you for what you did for me and my people,” she said. 

I will never forget both the pride and the deep sadness that hit me right then. 

I was raised as a white man in Brazil. Representation had never been an issue for me. I was well educated, well nourished and had a natural network and a self-image that projected confidence. 

Then, just like my ancestors from Lebanon emigrated to Brazil, I moved to America.

Suddenly, I wasn’t the white dude set up for success. People had trouble understanding my accent. My manners, “so passionate,” they said, often hurt my credibility. My understanding of the language, combined with a serious hearing problem, made it so hard to follow conversations that I began questioning my intelligence. 

It didn’t matter that the same year I moved to America, I was named president of the global jury at the prestigious Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. All I could think was, maybe I’m smart and talented enough for a Brazilian, but for the most competitive market in the world, I’m barely intelligent enough to keep my job. Maybe not even that.

Years later, I left my job and, leveraging the privileged relationships of my former life, started my own business with Brazilian investors. The company is thriving, with offices in San Francisco and New York, prestigious clients such as Mini and Stella Artois, an international workforce and multiple awards. 

Through the years, however, I dismissed compliments from Latin American friends saying how great it was to see “one of us” doing well in the most important market in the world. I wanted to see myself as a citizen of the world, rather than an unprivileged Latin American. 

It took another shock to understand why.

Last month, witnessing Kamala Harris climb the stage as the Vice President Elect of the United States, I was overwhelmed by pride -- for something I didn’t do. Such a strange feeling. But I was proud for her and every immigrant, every Black person, every woman. 

The feeling contrasted with a stark realization of how my upbringing taught me to ignore both my privileges and my social speedbumps. It’s not proper to talk about those things in my culture. 

But all of the sudden, I saw countless posts from my Brazilian-American friends about how they’ve also been condescendingly complimented about their “passion,” or worse, told they were “the right kind of immigrant” or “the kind of immigrant this country wanted.” And I felt vindicated. 

On Harris’ wide smile, I saw all of us reflected. I realized how important it is to claim your identity, so others can see theirs not as a source of weakness, but strength too.

So, I am here. Claiming mine. Hoping you will claim yours too.

PJ Pereira is an immigrant and Co-Founder & Creative Chairman of Pereira O’Dell. 

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