STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's here one of the many immigrant family stories that, taken together, have transformed America during the last 50 years. It was half a century ago that the U.S. changed its immigration laws. The practical effect was making it easier for people to get here from non-European nations. And our colleague, Tom Gjelten, has explored that change in a new book called "Nation Of Nations." We have gained from his expertise in a series of reports, including this one, tracing the story of a single Bolivian family.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For people who don't have a well-paying job lined up, the move to this country is often a step into the unknown, taken when conditions at home seem no longer tolerable.
VICTOR ALARCON: So we decided to change our lives, change everything, you know, leave everything behind.
GJELTEN: In the 1980s, Bolivia was going through hyperinflation. After too many days lining up to buy bread, Victor Alarcon and his wife, Rena, resolved to go to America, to Northern Virginia, where Rena's sister lived. Victor went first alone, moved in with his sister-in-law and took any job he could find.
V. ALARCON: Working every day, working in restaurants for pennies, sometimes.
GJELTEN: Rena came later, leaving their two boys with her mother. By then, it was time for her and Victor to find a place of their own, a problem partly solved when victor found a childhood friend from Bolivia who offered a corner in his apartment.
V. ALARCON: Maybe 4 feet to 10 feet long, just a little place to put a bed. That's it - nothing else. But we was happy, happy to share with my friend because he opened his house to us when we most needed it.
GJELTEN: Still, Rena was miserable. Victor recalls her constant crying, how she couldn't take being separated from her boys.
V. ALARCON: Every single time, whenever we eat, think about my kids all the time.
GJELTEN: This is one of version of the immigrant life - separated families scraping by, overcrowded apartments. At the time the Alarcon family arrived, a majority of the immigrants in America had no more than a high school education. Most spoke English poorly. About 15 percent lived in poverty. Rena soon went back to Bolivia to get her boys. Over the next few years, she and Victor struggled to get on their feet. Rena made use of advice she'd gotten from her mother, who grew up illiterate in rural Bolivia.
RENA ALARCON: She said, when I was down, I have to get up, and I have to continue. Keep going. Keep going.
GJELTEN: Learning English was a chore, but they managed. They badgered school administrators to make sure their boys got the attention they needed. Rena found work as a housekeeper in a nursing home. Victor set out to learn new skills. He turned to an institution unique to America, the public library.
V. ALARCON: For me, the library was my second house. Everything that I need to learn about anything is go to the library.
GJELTEN: At first, he didn't realize he could check books out and take them home, so he'd go every day and stay for hours.
V. ALARCON: I have learned to fix any cars at all.
GJELTEN: By reading repair manuals at the library, and that wasn't all.
V. ALARCON: I can do anything in the house - electrical...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: AC.
V. ALARCON: AC, plumbing, water heating, I mean, the whole thing. How'd I did it? I learn it in the books.
GJELTEN: And he found jobs - after the restaurant, at a 7-Eleven. With his car repair skills, he opened a garage. He worked at Kinko's. He and Rena bought a house and made sure their boys got an education. They struggled, sacrificed, took advantage of opportunities and persevered. Theirs is not a rags-to-riches story, but they were upwardly mobile. Alvaro, their second-born, says he picked up more than academic skills. In Fairfax County, Va., where he came of age, 3 of 10 residents are foreign-born.
ALVARO ALARCON: From all sorts of places, all over the world - Middle East, Asia, other Central American countries. And I've gotten to experience not only new languages and new cultures, but new foods, new ways of thinking that I probably wouldn't have been exposed to if I had stayed in Bolivia.
GJELTEN: Alvaro was only 5 when he left Bolivia. He thinks of himself now as an American, but a Latino-American. Where he came from matters. In high school, his closest friends were a boy from Pakistan and a boy from South Korea. Between them, they share a new identity, even with their own languages and cultures.
A. ALARCON: Again, it's Latino-American, Pakistani-American, Korean-American. So that's what we have in connection, is the American part. But we have this little thing extra that makes us individuals.
GJELTEN: Trying to define what being American means in this era of multiculturalism might confound someone who tries to approach the task intellectually. For these young immigrants who find common bonds, even as they recognize their own backgrounds, it's an entirely natural exercise. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.