Author of best-selling books such as The House of Spirits, Isabel Allende recounts the circumstances that led to her unexpected settlement in northern California and her eventual U.S. citizenship. Sprinkled liberally with amusing observations, Allende’s discussion with journalist William Wong also delves into the tragic circumstances of her daughter Paula’s illness and death. Allende honors her daughter’s memory through a foundation dedicated to needy immigrants.
Photo by Lori Bara
By 1987, when she was 45 years old and a divorced mother of two, Isabel Allende had established herself as a prominent novelist based in Venezuela, writing in Spanish stories that exemplified the magical realism genre. She gave no thought to immigrating to the United States.
Yet, in October of 1987, she found herself in San Jose, California, on a book tour initiated by a San Jose professor of literature who was teaching her books.
In the audience was William Gordon, a San Francisco Bay Area attorney literate in Spanish and who had read Isabel’s books. He was a fan.
After her presentation, he met Isabel, and something sparked between them. Isabel, laughing, said she “fell in lust.” They spent the night together.
“I thought, ‘Well, I can have a fling, why not? I have nothing to lose,’” she said in an exclusive interview with aiisf.org.
She resumed her book tour in Puerto Rico and returned to Venezuela, where she had been living even though she was a citizen of Chile. Back home, she couldn’t forget William Gordon.
“I decided to come back and spend a week with him and get him out of my system,” she continued, punctuating her recollection with a lot of laughter.
“I came with the idea that I would stay in a very nice hotel, or whatever. But he took me to his house. His life was a complete mess. I think he wanted to scare me off, but I am not easy to scare.
“So I stayed that week, another week, then another week. And then eventually he had to marry me. I don’t think he regretted it, though.”
That is how Isabel Allende came to the United States for good, settling in San Rafael, California, with her new husband and, over the past 22 years, continuing her successful career as a writer and becoming a philanthropist as well.
Her tale of immigration illustrates one of countless ways that people from all over the world make their way to America to change their fortunes, find new opportunities, and, in some cases such as Isabel’s, add to an already well-established life.
Isabel’s immigration story is especially noteworthy because of its almost accidental nature, while at the same time it embodies a potent mixture of identities and an intentional blending of the old and the new. Indeed, her story could very well be a model for some contemporary immigrants in that she has not felt the need to shed much of her previous identity in order to create a new one.
Some 22 years after her life changed abruptly – again – Isabel feels very much at home in the United States. At the same time, she retains her identity as a Chilean and as an immigrant. Early Life
She says she’s felt like a “foreigner” for most of her life. She was born in 1942 in Lima, Peru. Her father, Tomas Allende, was the Chilean diplomat to Peru and the first cousin to Salvador Allende, president of Chile from 1970 to 1973.
In one sense, that makes Isabel a second cousin to Salvador Allende, but in Spanish culture, which factors in generational status, she is a niece of the Chilean socialist president, who was assassinated in a right-wing military coup on September 11, 1973.
Her parents divorced when she was three, and her mother moved with her and her two brothers from Peru to Chile. Her mother married another Chilean diplomat, which meant Isabel moved with her family to Bolivia and Lebanon. Her education came in a variety of settings -- home, public and private; in Chile and Lebanon.
Isabel returned to Chile when she was 15, got married in 1962 at 20, to a Chilean, Miguel Frias, and had two children – Paula, born in 1963, and Nicolas, 1966. She worked for a United Nations organization in Chile and Belgium. She also translated Romance novels from English to Spanish, and later became a journalist, editor, magazine advice columnist, and television personality.
Her uncle Salvador Allende’s assassination in 1973 upended her life profoundly. She and her family moved to Venezuela, where she lived until she immigrated to the United States in 1987.
She wrote her first book, The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los Espiritus) in 1982, followed by Of Love and Shadows; both books won critical acclaim. It was a book tour of Of Love and Shadows that brought Isabel together with William Gordon. In all, Isabel has authored 19 books, most of them novels and has won literary awards in Chile, several European and Latin American countries, and critical praise and fans in the U.S. as well.
Coming to the U.S.
Love was the motivating force for Isabel’s immigration to the United States. “I didn’t come for the American Dream. I had no interest in being in the United States,” she said.
She had visited the United States before as a tourist (Miami, New York City) and didn’t like it. “I couldn’t relate to a society that was all about buying, all about being in a hurry, and working.”
Another reason for her dislike of the United States was deeply personal. “The American CIA had intervened in my country, toppled a democratic government (headed by her uncle, Salvador Allende), installed a military dictatorship, and I thought they were my personal enemy,” she said.
Moving to California, she admits to having a stereotype of the United States – “the police, the ugly tourists. I felt I had nothing to do in this country. My English was very poor, almost minimal. I could order food in a restaurant. I couldn’t do much more than that. I couldn’t understand the news on TV or watch a movie.”
But when she came to “get (Willie) out of my system,” she happened to come to northern California, “the best part… Who could not fall in love with this place?
“So I fell in love with him and with California. And stayed and stayed, then we married, and then slowly but surely, I adopted first California, then the United States in my heart. I have never regretted it. It’s been a wonderful time in which I’ve had space, privacy, freedom to write.”
Her decision to relocate to the United States shocked her children, Paula and Nicolas. Paula was actually in the United States herself, studying for a master’s degree in psychology in Virginia. Nicolas was at a university in Venezuela. Both thought their mother would get over what they believed was a temporary fling. “’She’s too old for this,’ they thought,” Isabel said. “I was 45, and I looked pretty good at 45 (laughs).”
She became a U.S. citizen in 1992, and proceeded to work to sponsor her children to immigrate to the U.S. That process took five years.
Tragedy struck at about that time. Paula was scheduled to immigrate to the United States right after Christmas in 1991. On December 6, 1991, she came down with a very bad cold. “She was very sick, and she went to the hospital. They gave her the wrong medication, and she ended up in a vegetative state.” Isabel said.
Paula was in a coma when she came to the United States. Isabel is eternally grateful to U.S. immigration officials and Senator Ted Kennedy, who helped facilitate Paula’s legal entry. “Paula died here in the arms of her family,” Isabel said.
She also sponsored her son Nicolas’ immigration along with his wife and newborn baby, a grandson who was born in Venezuela. Subsequently, two granddaughters were born in the United States. Adjusting to a New Life
Because her immigration was so sudden, she wasn’t prepared for the move. She had book-tour commitments abroad. She had a temporary teaching job in Virginia.
With her daughter Paula’s death, “everything stopped in my life. It was all about her until she died, then it was all about grieving and writing about her after she died.”
She still felt like a foreigner, much as she has felt for most of her life. “I am used to saying goodbye to places and people.”
Understandably, it took some time for her to improve her English and feel comfortable and make some new friends. After Paula died, “it was a very secluded time, very private, and still feeling very foreign.”
The reunification of her immediate family certainly was a positive development in Isabel’s adjustment to her new life in the U.S. Indeed, she has replicated a cultural form prevalent in Latin America and other developing nations – a family-centered life.
Within three blocks in San Rafael, California, in the heart of upscale Marin County, Isabel, her son, son-in-law, their spouses and grandchildren, along with her personal assistant and her significant others, all live and socialize together on a regular basis. “I have created my little tribe here slowly but surely and it’s working very nicely, all within a compound of three blocks (laughs).”
As she began settling into her new American life, something big happened in Chile. “The dictatorship ended in 1989. So by 1990, we had a democratic government and I went back to Chile. Since then I have been going back several times a year,” primarily to visit her parents and other relatives.
As a result, Isabel said she doesn’t have “that paralyzing feeling of nostalgia that I had as a political refugee or that I had at the beginning when I could not return.”
The changed circumstances of her personal life and that of her root country have had curious consequences. “Now that I can go back, I know that I don’t belong there. I belong here. I go there, I have a great time for a week and then I want to come back. I need my tofu, and green tea and my dog (laughs). I don’t want to be an extended family in Chile; it’s awful to have everybody in your face,” she said.
Impact on Her Writing
Isabel’s permanent move to the United States has had an impact on her already distinguished writing career. She appreciates the vastness and diversity in the U.S. “There is all the information you want that’s available if you look for it. Anything can happen here, the best and the worst. There is space for every way of thinking, of living, for everything.
“All that is very enriching and inspiring. You see people in all venues, of all races, all kinds of accents and food.”
By comparison, Chile isn’t very diverse. “In a Latin American country, you live within an extended family. The family is your support network. At the same time you have incredible responsibilities and you have people watching you all the time. You sort of are how they see you.
“When you leave, and I left many years ago, you are cut away from that standard family. You lose the roots.
“That is a terrible thing for most people, but it is also good because it forces you to look at yourself and see who you really are. And it brings out strengths and skills you never thought you had because you never had to use them.
“When you live as a foreigner with no money and no help, you have to bring that out. That is how I became a writer. I would not be a writer had I stayed in Chile. The strength and the need to write came from loneliness and isolation and poverty. All that happened in Venezuela at the beginning.”
Then she came to the United States and “this world opened up.”
Switching language environments also has also affected Isabel’s creativity. “When you have to live in another language that is not your own maternal language, you think differently. You have to make an effort to translate first your feelings, your sentences, your experience, everything until the language becomes so internalized that you go from one language to another without even noticing it.
“That is how I feel now. I don’t know if I dream in Spanish or in English, for instance. It goes back and forth. But there’s a process in which your mind jumps from one culture to another, and that opens up an incredible space for a writer. It gives you a new life.”
This “new life” manifests itself in intriguing ways, at least for Isabel. “You also have the fantasy that when you go to another place as an immigrant, you can create a new version of yourself, a better you, a more interesting you, a more successful you. It doesn’t happen that way; you are always within your skin, but you have that fantasy.
“That fantasy gives you a lot of freedom. You don’t have to answer to anybody. Nobody knows you, and that’s sort of good in many ways. So I feel that freedom, and that inspiration. I feel I have access to so much more.
“In this country just by being politically correct, you have more space as a woman, more than in other places.”
The characters in her novels reflect her own outsider status for much of her life. “I am interested in people who have a difficult time, and have to overcome or survive. Therefore there’s a story there, a story of starting at a very low point, working your way through all sorts of obstacles and succeeding in one way or another. I am not interested in easy or sheltered lives,” she said. Feeling of Belonging At Last
The date September 11 plays a central role in Isabel’s life. On that date in 1973, her country Chile underwent a right-wing military coup with help from the U.S. CIA to overthrow the socialist government of her uncle Salvador Allende.
“Our democracy ended, in one day…The country that I knew ended on that day…It was a time that nobody was prepared for. That took us all by surprise. We had no idea what to expect. And the feeling was of terror.”
On that same date in 2001, by then a U.S. citizen and living in California, she finally felt she belonged in the United States.
It was on September 11, 2001, that New York City and Washington D.C. were attacked by 19 men from the Middle East using hijacked airplanes, ultimately killing approximately 3,000 people in the two cities. Another hijacked plane apparently headed for a Washington target crashed in a Pennsylvania field, killing its passengers. That was a coordinated act of terrorism against the U.S.
Isabel remembers an early shock when she came to the United States – her perception that American people felt nothing bad could happen to them within the U.S.
“This is a country that has been at war always. But the wars had always been abroad. The only time we were attacked was at Pearl Harbor, which was of course American territory, but it was far away.
“People (in the U.S.) don’t have any idea what it means when a city is bombed, or when a child is walking home from school and never gets home. People have no idea when a child goes to a park and steps on a mine and gets his leg blown off.
“The idea that you can be expelled, killed, beaten, arrested, raped at any moment, and there is no legal defense against that because it’s a time a crisis, it’s a state a war.
“The United States has never lived that. There is a feeling of innocence, almost arrogance, that nothing can happen. That was shocking to me.”
The 2001 attack on U.S. soil bonded Isabel to her new country. “All of sudden everyone around me was feeling as vulnerable, as I had felt always. And I felt the connection. There is no security for anybody. If you think that life is secure, you are a spoiled idiot. That feeling that we were a community sharing something that was life itself, was important to me. In that moment, I felt in my heart that I belonged.” Philanthropic Work in Marin County
Living in Marin County, the wealthy, largely white area just north of San Francisco, has given Isabel comfort and a cause. The cause is helping economically struggling immigrants.
As wealthy and white as Marin County is, in truth it has a poorer immigrant population “across the canal in San Rafael,” Isabel said. The immigrants are mostly Latino and Asian, many of them legal residents of the U.S.
Isabel started a foundation, www.isabelallendefoundation.org, to help needy immigrants, especially women. She established the foundation to honor her daughter, Paula, who died in 1992 at the age of 28.
On the foundation’s web site, Isabel wrote, “During her short life Paula worked as a volunteer in poor communities in Venezuela and Spain offering her time, her total dedication and her skills as an educator and psychologist. She cared deeply for others. When in doubt, her motto was: What is the most generous thing to do? My foundation, based on her ideals of service and compassion, was created to continue her work.
“Seed funding for the foundation comes from the income I received from Paula, a memoir I wrote after her death and from all my other work. To this day, I get innumerable letters from people touched by Paula's spirit.
“Since 1996, I have contributed to the foundation annually with income from my other books.”
The foundation’s mission is to empower women and girls who are victims of social and economic injustice. Being a small foundation, it supports a select group of nonprofit organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area and Chile, “whose missions are to provide women and girls with reproductive self-determination, health care, education, and protection from violence, exploitation, and/or discrimination.”
In San Rafael, Isabel’s foundation has supported programs to help immigrant families with money, microloans, scholarships, and legal services.
Isabel contrasts her life circumstances with those of immigrants across the canal in San Rafael. “I feel very privileged, because I came to this country legally, to Marin County. I didn’t have to look for a job because I had a job as a writer. I had saved some money. I had never been on the street looking for a job. But I know what that experience is like.”
She was referring to her exile to Venezuela after her uncle Salvador Allende’s assassination in 1973. “It wasn’t that bad when I went to Venezuela, but it was pretty stressful. I arrived in Venezuela, first alone then my family met me there. I had a tourist visa for three month. I didn’t have a work permit.
“I had $300 and when I went to bank to exchange it, I found out it was counterfeit money, so I had nothing. I had no connections. I knew nobody. Everything I had done before in life was of no use at all, so I had to start from scratch.
“I know what it is to fear the police, to fear the migra (immigration authorities), to fear that you will not be able to feed your kids that month, to live in a room with the whole family. So I know how it is.”
Because her husband William Gordon speaks fluent Spanish, 90 percent of his law firm’s clients are Latino workers. “We see horrible cases,” Isabel said.
“My husband always says this is a nation within a nation. White Americans want the immigrants, illegal immigrants especially, to do the menial work that nobody else will do for that kind of money, no matter what race they are.
“They want them to do the job in terrible conditions, and then they want them to disappear at 6 o’clock like ghosts. They don’t want to know where they live, how they live, what they eat, where their children are, how many years they haven’t seen their families. We don’t want to know. Just leave them in the shadow like a ghost town, a ghost nation.”
Likes and Dislikes
For an immigrant like Isabel, whose life has been largely spent outside of the U.S. and whose observational and intellectual skills are razor-sharp, one would expect a vast store of impressions, both good and bad.
Among her dislikes about the United States is hypocrisy in its foreign-policy discourse. “The fact that people can be kidnapped and taken to prisons, and tortured, and put in Guantanamo is shocking.”
The ignorance of many Americans about how their tax dollars are being spent annoys Isabel as well. So does the ease with which the public opinion of Americans can be manipulated, but she recognizes that this phenomenon occurs elsewhere as well, including Chile.
“I don’t like the violence. We are the country with more people in prison per capita in the world, worse than any of the worst dictatorships in history,” she said. It also bothers her greatly that a significant percent of African American men end up either in prison or probation.
“The fact that we are so appalled at crime, yet that is what all our movies and all of our entertainment are all about. It’s about violent sports, violent movies, explosions and war and torture. Even pornography is about torture. Can you believe it? I don’t think this is uniquely American. I think our world is going berserk.”
On the other side of the ledger are things she likes about the United States and her people. She likes that Americans, as a whole, “are direct, open, polite, usually politically correct unless you go to some place on the border where you have these crazy guys with guns, or you stumble upon a lunatic fringe of fanatics.”
She also likes the fact that, despite the economic crisis of 2008-2009, “you have opportunities you won’t have anywhere else -- the openness, the diversity. This country was made with immigrants who came from all over the world. You can see that.” Addition, Not Subtraction
Through her own life and immigration experiences, Isabel has some advice for how other immigrants can make a new life in the United States while not obliterating what they were before.
“People who come or go to another place feel, that in order to belong, they have to leave behind and forget everything they had before.”
To recent Latino immigrants she meets, Isabel said she tells they do not have shed their past ways. She tells them, “You can be bicultural. You can have the best of both cultures. You have both languages, all the traditions you brought with you, plus all the wonderful things that an individual can obtain in this country.
“You don’t have to give up anything. You can keep adding, adding, more and more. You make your tortillas, but you can also make a hamburger.
“The idea of being bicultural is what brings to this country new richness, new flavors, new sounds and ideas, and also gives to that individual many more possibilities.”
William Wong is author of Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America, Images of America: Oakland’s Chinatown, and co-author of Images of America: Angel Island.
Photos from Isabel Allende private album (top to bottom): top - Isabel Allende photographed by Lori Bara, middle - photo of Isabel's 2 children, Nicolás and Paula, bottom - photo of Paula