A More Equal Society
Regina Jennings’s 1959 Emigration from San Isidro, Peru to America in Search of Opportunity
essay written by Samantha Jennings
Gary Hauben left Argentina with the hopes of finding a better life. In the United States he would find a life better than he could have ever imagined. From growing up a lower middle class boy in Buenos Aires, to immigrating to Los Angles, to becoming an American citizen, to gaining wealth through his own perseverance, this is a true story of achieving the “American Dream.”
In the yard of the second house to the right on the street Peach Lot Place in the quiet town of Westport, Connecticut, there is a maple tree beneath which 66-year-old Regina Jennings enjoys sitting. Neither she nor her friends and family know exactly why she is so drawn to that tree. Perhaps it is because the tree reminds her of the place that she once called home: San Isidro, Peru. The maple could resemble the pine trees that filled the garden behind her old house. The vast, lush yard in which the maple tree rests may bring back memories of the beauty of San Isidro.
San Isidro is a wealthy, upper-class suburb of Lima, Peru. Jennings grew up on a quiet street in San Isidro, across the road from the vice president of the country. She lived with her mother, father, older sister, and the large staff employed to do the family’s housework. Jennings’s father, Eugen Egyedi, was the best known eye surgeon in the area. Egyedi was born in Hungary and later moved to Germany. He immigrated to Peru from Germany in 1918. Jennings’s mother, Emelia Larco de Egyedi, came from a wealthy family that at one point owned a large portion of northern Peru. Larco de Egyedi’s family had moved from Italy to Peru some time before Jennings was born. To Jennings, San Isidro seemed like “spring all year round.”1 San Isidro is a beautiful town filled with elegant houses occupied by wealthy families. However, for Jennings, memories of San Isidro are not all so beautiful.
Currently she is a psychotherapist and lives in a New York City apartment on Central Park West. She travels to Westport, Connecticut, (to the house next to the maple tree), most weekends to visit her former husband and close friend, Richard Jennings. Jennings left Peru 49 years ago, without a single friend or family member to rely on. She was 17 years old. When asked what would have happened had she not left Peru, she responded, “I would have died intellectually and spiritually.”2 By the time Jennings was a teenager, she knew that she had to leave Peru, and that is exactly what she did.
At the time when Jennings lived in San Isidro, money was of the utmost importance. Status and class went hand in hand with success and money. Jennings commented that “Everyone saw the poor, but I think emotionally they were invisible.”3 In Peru, there seemed to be a pyramid of wealth and servitude. During the early to mid twentieth century, European immigrants went to South America and found wealth and success, forcing natives into servitude. Education was also a key to success. In San Isidro, most children attended strict Catholic or German schools. There were no public schools; thus, there was no free education, and private schools were expensive. Jennings recalled, “You either had the money to go to school, or you didn’t. That’s why there was a large illiterate population that remained in servitude.”4
Although they lived together in a large, three-story house, the members of the Egyedi family lived separate lives. “For some years, the early years, you know, we came together for dinner at night. We ate dinner together but eventually everybody had their own schedule,” she recalled.5 Jennings’s father worked long hours as an eye surgeon. Her sister, Isolde, was a teacher. Isolde was eight years older than she was; thus, they did not have a strong relationship. Jennings’s mother spent most of her time socializing with friends or seeing movies as did most of the women in the area. At the time, the idea of an upper-class woman having a job was preposterous, and it was not considered lady-like to do housework or any type of cleaning. Consequently, women spent the majority of their time out of the house with other members of the upper-class.
Jennings never felt like she belonged in San Isidro. “I think that [my wanting to leave Peru] made me the rebel,” remarked Jennings. “I think people were mostly conformists in that time.”6 She did not fit into the “snobbish” circle of people in San Isidro.7 Jennings remembers a young boy whom she met when she was a teenager. The boy’s parents were servants who worked for a family that owned a piece of land in the Andes where Jennings would go to ride a grey horse. The boy was no more than five or six years old. Since he was the son of two servants and could not go to school, Jennings taught the boy how to read, write, and speak English. Jennings was not preoccupied with wealth like the rest of San Isidro. She cared more about helping those who needed help. In San Isidro, it was hard for Jennings to be around people who valued power and wealth, because those were not qualities that she had ever deemed important.8
Because in Peru women were not socially equal to men, Jennings had to leave Peru in order to create opportunities for herself. Jennings could not stay in a place where she could not live to her full potential. Jennings stated, “I think a woman should be able to make her own decisions and decide where and how she’s going to go without having to yield to another person.”9 Jennings thrived in America without ever having to be subjugated by another person. She paved the way for her personal success.
Jennings wanted to get away from the inner-class struggle in Peru. The elites of the upper-class used their properties, homes, and possessions to flaunt their wealth. Jennings recollected, “My memory [is] that there’s a social structure . . . [The wealthy] thought they were a big deal.”10 Unlike the other residents of San Isidro, she did not consider money to be an important part of life. There was also another source of corruption in Peruvian culture: the deprecation of women. After reminiscing about life in Peru, Jennings stated, “It goes beyond sexism, it’s like a woman doesn’t even exist. It’s like a woman is just a sexy picture or something, not a real person at all. When I think about it, it makes me angry.”11
One factor that played a major role in Jennings’s decision to move to America was her schooling. After attending German and Catholic elementary schools, Jennings attended an American high school. The teachers and administrators of the school were American and students were expected to speak only English. American schools allowed for freedom of thought and expression which, in the structured and elitist Peruvian culture, was unheard of. “In other schools, they were taught to be conformists. [In American schools,] you were taught to express yourself. In fact, my father complained that I expressed myself, that I became too free,” explained Jennings.12 When asked what was appealing to her in terms of American life, she answered, “The opportunity to be able to think what I want and to express my thoughts and not suffer from criticism.”13 The sensation of freedom in American culture that Jennings experienced at her high school lured her to the United States. Everything that Jennings learned in her American school presented a new aspect of life. The values of American culture that she saw inspired her, and in her mind they sparked a curiosity for a new way of life. Jennings commented, “I wanted it to be a full pie, not just one slice of the pie. I wanted to taste every piece of the pie, every layer, every piece; and either eat it or spit it out but I wanted to have that choice.”14 Jennings did not want to be restricted by limiting Peruvian culture.
Although Jennings had been planning her journey to America in the back of her mind for years, one day, when she was only 17, she decided to make it happen. She began to sell magazines after school to save money for an airplane ticket. She started to pack a suitcase that she kept hidden under her bed. Jennings had made up her mind that she would go to America to pursue the freedom and opportunity that she as a human being, regardless of her gender, deserved. She made sure that nothing would stop her, not even her family. Jennings said, “I wanted to be sure that I would not develop an attachment that would keep me in Peru.”15 Nothing was going to hold her back from her search for a more equal society.
One day in 1959, the time finally arrived for Jennings to begin her journey to America. “I took it like any other day . . . I wasn’t scared,” Jennings explained.16 The only person who knew that she was leaving was a young woman named Maria who worked in the house. Maria had seen Jennings packing her suitcase a few days prior to Jennings’s departure. Jennings left the house while her parents were elsewhere and boarded an evening flight from Lima, Peru to Miami, Florida with the money that she had made from selling magazines. Her parents came home to find that she was missing. They did not speak with her until she called them several days later. Jennings suspects that by the time she called her parents, Maria had already told them what she had done. “I think I tried to let them know that I was okay,” explained Jennings. “I think my father calmed my mother. I think my father told my mother that if I had the guts to leave I had the ability to take care of myself.”17 After Jennings’s arrival in America, she and her family frequently wrote letters back and forth to each other. She explained her urge to leave as a divergence of paths: “We just choose a different time and a different way and that’s just part of who we are.”18
At first, Jennings had only positive impressions of America. “I thought people were friendly, more accessible because I came from a more formal society,” said Jennings about Americans.19 She enjoyed being able to make friends with everyone whereas previously, in the class-oriented society, she would have been able to make friends with only a select group of people. In Peru, Jennings was limited to social interaction with only the upper-class elitists. In America, being a determined worker herself, Jennings fit in with the hard-working crowd. “I think the U.S. is more business oriented, progress oriented,” said Jennings, “I see people actually working harder here; longer hours, less leisure.”20 However, she soon realized that American culture had its own flaws. “I think people here, their values are based on skin color. If a person is white, they will be accepted as an American and if a person is dark then they have a different route. And it’s the same thing [in Peru],” commented Jennings.21 Despite its imperfections, America gave Jennings what she had been waiting for: equality. With that equality, she became a successful psychotherapist. For Jennings, beginning her career was not just a job; it was a victory. Currently she is proud to still be working at age 66 as a psychotherapist in New York City. Had she not left Peru, she never would have had the opportunity to become anything more than a trophy wife and mother.
Adapting to American culture was no challenge for Jennings. “I never really had a Peruvian identity . . . Because of the American schools, I was kind of programmed to live in the U.S. It was easier for me to adapt in a large society,” said Jennings.22 Jennings’s childhood also contributed to her lack of Peruvian identity. With her father being from Hungary and having spent part of his life in Germany, and her mother being from Italy, the Egyedi family was a mix of many different cultures.
There were some facets of life in Peru that Jennings missed. “There’s the beauty of the environment. Having the coast, the Andes, and the Amazon Jungle. Just to know that its there,” commented Jennings.23
According to Jennings, Peruvian culture did not play a role in her family’s life in America. “With my husband being a New Yorker we more or less adapted to his ways. And I may have influenced him somewhat in his ways of thinking and cooking maybe different dishes, music, and styles . . . But pretty much we adapted to the New York way of life,” said Jennings.24 Although Jennings’s Peruvian background did not impact the lives of her children when they were young, her own childhood was impacted greatly by her father’s Hungarian background. “I felt like [my father] had more to contribute,” said Jennings.25 Interestingly enough, her father’s Hungarian background impacted her most significantly after he had died.
“My father never told me that he was Jewish, so I found that out from other people after he died,” stated Jennings. “I’m sure that he was just, in many ways, protecting me because at the time anti-Semitism was rampaging.”26 Just recently, this news helped Jennings to settle some inner-guilt that she had felt for leaving home so abruptly, and for only going back to visit two times after she left. “I think I made peace with myself for all of that when I was walking on 82nd Street the other day,” said Jennings, “I was walking by a temple and I thought about my father’s Jewish history, and how he had left Hungary and Germany before Hitler, and he had gone as far as he could get; to South America. And I bring myself here and I live in New York and Connecticut maybe as a safe place for Jews to thrive, and that is how I have made peace. I thought, maybe one of us had to come here.”27
For the most part, Jennings enjoys being an immigrant, and being able to interact with other immigrants as well. “It’s like a natural understanding that I’m going to know what it’s like to come from another place and never quite fit 100 percent,” explained Jennings, “All we have to do, us Latinos, is just look at each other to understand the suffering growing up; the limitations, the classism.”28 Some times she wonders if she may hold the slightest bit of regret for leaving Peru. “I think it’d be fair to say that most immigrants carry some level of depression, depression that encapsulates having left home,” said Jennings.29 Some day, Jennings would like to go visit Peru, but for now, she is happy living in New York and Connecticut, the places that she now calls home. She is happy to spend her weekends sitting beneath the maple tree that reminds her of the home that she left behind long ago. Perhaps the memories of Peru are just enough to keep her from regretting her journey to America. Perhaps she loves that maple tree so much because of the memories that the tree brings back to her. “In a way,” described Jennings, “it felt like there was some part of me that felt that I had to run away from something, and run to something . . . It makes me feel like a little kid who has a piggy bank, who puts all the coins in the piggy bank, then leaves it behind. So somewhere, there’s a piggy bank with my name scratched on its belly.”30 Although she took a risk by leaving behind a safe, comfortable life in Peru, for Regina Jennings, the loss of one home was not nearly as great as the gain of another.
1. Regina Jennings. Personal Interview. 24 May 2009. 9.
2. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 19.
3. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 8.
4. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 4.
5. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 3.
6. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 23.
7. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 19.
8. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 16.
9. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 1.
10. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 19.
11. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 22..
12. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 23.
13. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 23.
14. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 14.
15. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 13.
16. Hauben, 24 May 2009, 8.
17. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 6.
18. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 20..
19. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 7.
20. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 10.
21. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 8.
22. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 21
23. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 21.
24. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 22.
25. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 2.
26. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 10.
27. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 8.
28. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 12.
29. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 22.
30. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 22.
31. Jennings. 24 May 2009. 13.