Colombian American Johanna Rojas Vann’s deepest hope in writing this novel for adults, based on true events, is to honor her mother and grandmother. She also wants “to inspire people to dig into their own roots and find all they can to love about where they came from. Why? Because, speaking from experience, these kinds of discoveries have the power to change the trajectory of your life,” she said in an author note in the book.
That’s exactly what happens to 25-year-old Melanie Carvajal, the stubborn, industrious protagonist of An American Immigrant. Born in the United States to Colombian parents, throughout her childhood and teens Melanie felt acute embarrassment and resentment toward her parents’ heritage. In fact, she often fantasized “about what it would be like to have American parents and not constantly feel so different from both her parents and her peers.”
In 2018, Melanie is working as a journalist for The Herald in Miami, Fla. Her mother, Anita, who lives in Maryland, calls her almost every day, wanting to keep in touch with the daughter for whom she feels so much pride. Melanie usually ignores her mother’s calls or handles them with impatience because she feels her career needs are paramount. Besides, her mother’s broken English and other perceived weaknesses annoy Melanie.
Melanie has a “perfectly polished ten-year plan” in which she assumes her career will reach great heights, but for some reason – she’s not sure why – the editor of The Herald refuses to publish her latest article. When Melanie is given an opportunity to win back her editor’s favor by covering an assignment in Bogota, Colombia, she agrees to go, but does so under false pretenses.
In Cali, Colombia, Melanie has the opportunity, with Anita, to visit her grandmother and extended family for a few days before her assignment begins. When Melanie discovers an old journal in a bedside cupboard, her world is turned upside down as she encounters her mother as a younger woman living in a violent domestic setting and preparing to make the risky journey as an undocumented person to the United States.
What Melanie learns from the journal and her few days in Cali convince her that she can’t fulfill the assignment her editor expects. As she discovers her voice as a writer – so different from the stereotypical media voice she’d been trying to emulate – Melanie finds the courage to forge a new path for herself and honor her heritage like never before.