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Intergenerational Conflict and Reconciliation in Immigrant Families

by Lizette G. Solórzano, Ph.D., Vanguard University

"Gracias a la Vida" by Michelle Angela Ortiz. A public art mural in Highland Park, NJ.

Es que no nos entendemos…

            Growing up, I was not the only one to have a life experience across two countries. I am a U.S.-born descendent of immigrants to the United States as far back as my grandparents’ generation. My father and mother also partook in multiple migration trips in the 1990s – they forged their own migration story. I shared this migration experience with them as their child, living years of my life either in Mexico or various cities in the United States. Even so, I felt I had specific experiences of loss distinct from those of my parents. Loss in my context meant a loss of childhood friendships and family relationships in Mexico, a loss of familiar educational settings, loss of a sense of belonging to either country, and loss of a sense of efficacy in my struggle learning the English language. Years later, I now know I was hardly the only one to experience these things. All immigrants – who upon leaving a country to enter a new destination – must confront the difficult work of starting anew and integrating into a new life. In this article, however, I want to call attention to the subjectivity of immigrant integration; there is something to consider when young people of an immigrant generation express feeling misunderstood or feeling alone in the immigrant integration experience. 

Conflict and Relational Angst Between Immigrant Parents and Children

Integrating into the U.S. is not easy, and it can be a different experience for an immigrant parent than for their child. For example, sociological research finds that first-generation immigrant parents integrate into the fabric of the U.S. via work, whereas immigrant children will integrate via educational institutions (Gleeson and Gonzales 2012).[1] For the immigrant parents, particularly if they lack legal documentation, their labor experiences may include exploitation and fear of apprehension by immigration authorities that instill fear and caution in their daily lives (Abrego 2011).[2] Children’s socialization by contrast occurs in schools which may instill a sense of belonging, bilingualism, and adherence to cultural values sometimes in conflict with immigrant parents’ own values. Misunderstanding and conflict is common for the parent who may not recognize their children’s growing-up experience in the institutions of a foreign country. Misunderstanding and conflict is common for the young people who lack context of their parents’ daily lives in the U.S. Each generation speaks different languages, navigates different cultures, experiences different struggles; it is often hard to see the other side.

In a recent article published by Mygration Christian Conference titled “Life in the Hyphen,” Harold Gutierrez [3] delineates the consequences in the lives of those who live between two cultures: 1st-generation immigrant parents and the 2nd-generation/1.5 generation children of immigrants. He reflects on “angst,” as he so insightfully describes. The children of immigrants experience cultural and spiritual limbo - not quite belonging to yet navigating their parent’s culture and the American cultures of their settings. Such experiences can have resounding effects in the development of identity and overall wellbeing.

I elaborate on Gutierrez’s idea with a focused consideration of the relational aspects of “angst,” particularly within immigrant parent-child relationships. I add that relational angst emerges from generational misunderstandings and tensions resulting from integrating in different social settings that inevitably produce distinct life experiences. Can sharing “life experience” or contextualizing another’s “life experience” make a difference?


The Power of Context for Immigrant Parent-Child Reconciliation

What can these migration theological and sociological insights mean for us people of faith who experience or witness struggles in immigrant parent-child relationships? I suggest that these insights can inform bridges for intergenerational reconciliation. The reconciliatory bridges vary in form, but all share one element in common: creating a shared context. For example, one bridge is that of religion as a set of shared values, norms, expectations, and traditions that can act as the bridge between the generations who can dialogue using the same language of their denomination. Another bridge is spiritual practice. In my own research, I have found that children of immigrants (specifically DACA recipients) who experienced shock and stress contemplating the loss of their DACA during the federal DACA cancellation in 2017 relied on spiritual practices like fasting, Scripture-reading, and praying (Solórzano 2022).[4] I found these practices were sometimes done alongside parents, as parents carried the burden of youths’ emotions in prayer. These instances of generational solidarity stand on shared practices. Whether shared religious tradition or shared spiritual practice, the key lies in generations coming together in a shared context of mutual understanding and care.

Yet other times for the children of immigrants the reconciliatory bridge may involve contextualizing a parent’s world through traveling or service to immigrants. A recent research study found that DACA recipient immigrant youth who traveled to their parents’ (and their own) country of origin led the youth towards greater understanding of their parents’ migration sacrifices (Ruth and Estrada 2019).[5] DACA youth even called such return trips “healing” in that they improved their relationship with their parents whom they felt they now better understood; the authors call the youths’ new perspective a “dual frame of reference” (Emir and Ruth 2021).[6] It appears that contextualization brings sensitization and a level of reconciliation.

In my own experience, it was service to immigrants that contextualized my parents for me. I volunteered with a group of friends to serve migrants at a Catholic shelter along the U.S.-Mexico border during the last of my college years. This experience gave me the perspective I needed. While I knew I had my own story of migration and loss, I had failed to contextualize my own parents’ migration stories until I saw them reflected in the hermanos whose plate I was preparing and serving. Theirs were stories of pioneering, sacrifice, and faith in God’s capacity to provide in this land of dreams that is the United States. This was my parents’ story too, as I came to see. My parents carry their own loss and wounds, and not just in their migration, but the continued struggle of their incorporation in a new country for which they hold so much faith. I stand in gratitude and awe of my parents and by extension my grandparents’ generation.


Encouraging You Towards Reconciliation

As a Sociologist, I use sociological knowledge, including theory and research in my field to contextualize migration journeys and incorporation struggles to my students, some of whom are children of immigrants themselves. As a Sociologist of faith, I believe that Sociology can also provide important context to real cultural and relational struggles in immigrant communities. In turn, such knowledge can inform targeted approaches to ministry with immigrant communities, particularly with immigrant parents and their children who may be experiencing discord or conflict as they journey together through life in a new country. With great care and grace, as children of immigrants, we can attempt to contextualize our immigrant parents’ migration losses and integration struggles. With great care and grace, parents of children growing up in the U.S. can also attempt to contextualize the loss, cultural limbo, and spiritual angst of their children.

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Lizette G. Solórzano is an Assistant Professor at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, CA. She is a second-generation Mexican-American. Having lived and migrated across Mexico and U.S. during her formative years, she carries a biography and a testimony in the service of God for students and immigrant communities.


[1] Gleeson, Shannon, and Roberto G. Gonzales. "When do papers matter? An institutional analysis of undocumented life in the United States." International Migration 50, no. 4 (2012): 1-19.

[2] Abrego, Leisy J. "Legal consciousness of undocumented Latinos: Fear and stigma as barriers to claims‐making for first‐and 1.5‐generation immigrants." Law & society review 45, no. 2 (2011): 337-370.

[3] Gutierrez, Harold. “Life in the Hyphen/ La Vida en el Guion.” Mygration Christian Conference (2023).

[4] Solórzano, Lizette G. “Navigating DACA precarity: the lived experiences of Latina(o) DACA recipients in Los Angeles before and during the Trump era.” Doctoral Dissertation, University of Southern California. (2022).

[5] Ruth, Alissa, and Emir Estrada. "DACAmented homecomings: A brief return to Mexico and the reshaping of bounded solidarity among mixed-status Latinx families." Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 41, no. 2 (2019): 145-165.

[6] Estrada, Emir, and Alissa Ruth. "Experiential Dual Frame of Reference: Family Consequences after DACA Youth Travel to Mexico through Advanced Parole." Qualitative Sociology 44, no. 2 (2021): 231-251.


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