Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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IMMIGRANT VOICES

From Tehran to California

by Emily T Harris

I’ve known Marcie Monsef, or rather she has known me, since my birth. In fact, we share a name: Marzieh, her legal name, is my middle name. Marcie is my stepfather’s mother and has always been an important part of my life.


In contrast to the majority of Iranian immigrants who relocated to the US after the Revolution in 1979 (Bakalian and Bozorgmehr), Marcie Monsef moved from Tehran, Iran to Los Angeles, California on December 17, 1967. Marcie, only twenty-one years old at the time, spoke no English and had never lived away from her family. The reason for this drastic change was love and the desire to live with her husband, Johnny, who was in the United States as a student studying at California Polytechnic State University at Pomona. The couple had been married several years earlier, and Johnny had already lived in Texas between 1962 and 1964 when he worked for the Iranian Air Force. However, the move was decidedly temporary, and Marcie and Johnny planned to return to Iran after Johnny received his degree.

Johnny was worried about Marcie, who grew up in a lively household with two siblings and extended family nearby. He told her upon her arrival, that if in three months, she was unhappy with life in the US, she could go home to be with her family and he would join her once he graduated. However, Marcie was excited to be a wife and enjoyed this period of her life with her husband. In January of 1969, Marcie and Johnny had their first son, Jason. When asked about learning English, Marcie says when she first arrived television was her primary exposure to the new language, but perfected her English after the birth of her first child. She explains, “When I had my first baby, I don’t know why, but I started speaking English to him. Everybody, I guess they speak the mother language, but I didn’t. We learned together.” According to Census data from 2000, it was estimated that only about 18% of immigrants from Iran spoke English not well or not at all, this figure has remained constant for the most part as new immigrants arrive and those who have been here acquire new language skills.

As planned, Johnny graduated from Cal Poly in 1970 and the Monsefs returned to Iran shortly after in 1974. Their return to Iran lasted only one year. Although they had missed their family deeply, things were not the same in their home country and they had become accustomed to life in the US. Another factor in the decision to return to the US was the fact that Marcie was pregnant with her second son, Cyrus. Like many immigrants to the US, the Monsefs never planned on settling and went back and forth before deciding on making the US their permanent home. So in September of 1975, Marcie, Johnny and Jason all returned to the US and settled in San Jose. California is attractive to many immigrants, but it is a destination for many Middle Eastern immigrants, and currently the state has the largest Middle Eastern population in the country (Center for Immigration Studies).

Similar to other immigrant groups, Johnny and Marcie started their own business in July of 1976. They opened 17 West, an elegant restaurant that served continental cuisine. Marcie, who had never worked before, was in charge of all the bookkeeping for the restaurant, while her husband managed the storefront. The restaurant became a central aspect of Marcie’s life in America, she explains, “The restaurant business helped me a lot. I was very shy before then, even in my home country.” The family made many close friends through the restaurant business, and Marcie feels that it brought more American culture into her life. Immigrant groups are often highly entrepreneurial, and about 24.6% of Iranian immigrants open their own business, a much higher number than about 11.1% of the US native-born population (Portes and Rumbaut). Marcie says that she never faced any discrimination while running the restaurant; this may be a benefit of self-employment or one of the luxuries of living in the Bay Area.

Marcie and Johnny were already integrated to life in the Bay Area when they became US citizens in 1985. While living in San Jose, Marcie acquired a diverse group of friends, many of whom also immigrated to the US, that she hikes and visits with frequently. One of Johnny’s siblings had moved to the country around the same time as he did, and now that they were citizens, Johnny’s other brother was able to move to the country. He came to the U.S. with a visa and then applied for his green card. However, Marcie’s own sister and mother only visited the country once and decided to return home to Iran. While Marcie missed her family in Iran very much, she felt completely at home in the United States. She says that she definitely considers herself an American as she has lived over half of her life in the United States.

Being a Persian-American did have its difficulties, and Marcie sometimes struggled to reconcile her two cultures and distance from family. Now she says she enjoys being part of two cultures and still maintains her home culture through cooking Persian food for her family. She says other Iranian-Americans sometimes have problems with her for being “too Americanized.” Marcie defines her identity through the lens of her family, and she maintains strong relationships with her family in Iran by talking to them over the phone at least once a week and going on trips to Iran every three year. She enjoys that her son Jason keeps in touch with some of her family members in Iran and likes that she can see updated photos of them when she visits with her son. When asked about the biggest challenge the distance has posed, Marcie talks about her parents: “I lost both of my parents when I wasn’t there. At the time I couldn’t go- I had two young kids and the Revolution was going on. That part will always bother me.”

Another big challenge that Marcie has faced in the US is life without her husband of 46 years who passed away in 2008 from two massive heart attacks. Although this was a big obstacle in her life, she has persevered. Marcie says that she most enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren. She also takes yoga and hiking classes at community college and goes on walks with friends every morning.

Place of Origin
Tehran, Iran

Place of Settlement
San Jose, CA

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