Johanna Rojas Vann is a professional writer whose work can be found online and within numerous publications. She is a second-generation Colombian-American, with dual citizenship, and lives with her husband and children in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has appeared in Good Grit Magazine, Grit and Grace Life, and on her own blog, where you can read about her personal experience as “An Immigrant’s Daughter.”

In this interview, Johanna talks with us about her new book, An American Immigrant.

FF: Johanna, how did you first discover your mom’s stories? What was the most surprising story you heard?
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but I remember I was a freshman in college—crazy, right? I knew my parents were born and raised in Colombia, of course, and I even knew that my mother had crossed the border illegally…but I never knew any of the details (and didn’t know my father had also crossed illegally…for some reason I thought he’d come as a citizen because his father had immigrated years before. I think we were talking on the phone and the topic of her crossing the border came up for some reason. All I can hear in my head is me saying, “What? No way you did that…” This conversation led me down a rabbit hole that ultimately helped me realize how cool (and courageous) my mom is.

I remember being shocked at the story of the search they did on her (and other Colombians) at the airport in Mexico City. That story was the first one I wrote when I started the manuscript for this book. I couldn’t believe she’d been treated this way.

FF: Janeth, how did you feel when Johanna started asking more and more questions? How about when she transformed them into An American Immigrant?
I was so excited when she told me she wanted to write a book about the stories she was asking me about. In fact, I was proud that she would choose to write her first book about my country, my people, and my life. I’ve told all my friends about it because I’m so excited.

FF: Johanna, you’ve written about the difficulties of having a language barrier with your parents. Tell us a little bit about that. And I’d love to hear how it impacted you as well, Janeth.
Yes, I would say the language barrier is one of the hardest things about growing up in a country that is different from the country your parents grew up in. Your home life is typically (or should be) the safest place in the world for a young person, but because my native tongue is English and my parent’s native tongue is Spanish, I often felt like there was a disconnect that didn’t allow us to be as close as we could have been. Sometimes it was humor they didn’t understand, cultural norms they thought were weird, or even schoolwork they couldn’t help with because they’d never read the books we read in American schools, for example. To be honest, this is still often a challenge in our relationship—I find myself having to explain everything. And I often look forward with excitement about being able to connect with my kids more easily because we speak the same language and both grew up in the U.S. But, I wouldn’t trade my growing up years for anything. Despite the difficulties, my parents have taught me so much by virtue of their life experience that I will hopefully be able to impart of my own kid’s lives.

For me (mom), it was very difficult because, as a parent, you want to be as involved as possible in your kids’ lives. I’ve always loved school, reading, etc. and I would have loved nothing more than to sit at the kitchen table with my kids and work through their school projects with them. But the language barrier (which is very frustrating) coupled with sheer exhaustion from working multiple jobs makes that feel impossible. Thankfully, I feel like my kids have always been very independent, especially my girls. I don’t know if it was because of the language barrier, but they were always independent and didn’t seem to need too much support.

FF: How has the book changed your relationship?
It’s made me incredibly grateful for my mother’s sacrifices. Sometimes I wonder how different our relationship could have been growing up if I’d heard, and really listened, to these stories (but teenagers are not always good at that!). It’s also given me new purpose in my own family. As a mother of two, I’m extremely dedicated to raising my kids with a deep understanding of our family’s history and culture.

Writing this book gave me something else: so much quality time with my mom. I live almost 700 miles away from my mom, but when I started writing this book, she flew down to my home and stayed with me for a whole month. That month, we spent most mornings sitting at my dining room table rocking my infant and talking about her life—the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s definitely one of my favorite memories I now have with her.

For me (mom), I feel very proud to know my daughter, at this point in her life when she could have written about anything, that she would chose to share our story and also share about my mother. The poems in the book (my mother wrote them) have always been a treasure to me and to know they’re going to be a book makes me very emotional. For me, it’s like exalting my mother. After all she’s lived, she deserves that—to be honored. She was the best mother and in the middle of all we lived, she was the only positive thing in our lives many days. She brought so much light to our darkness—she added color to our lives. My mother also passed down her faith to us—an invaluable gift. I’m so proud that my daughter would choose to share all of that!

FF: Why do you both believe second-generation immigrants should ask their ancestors about their stories? How did it bring you closer?
I think everyone should ask their ancestors about their stories no matter where they come from! My husband has deep Southern roots and I’m excited to not only guide my young children in learning about their Colombian roots, but their Southern roots as well. This is so important because I believe God created each of us with purpose and intention and a lot of that purpose can be unearthed through the uncovering of our ancestor’s stories. Their stories teach us about tradition (what has always been an important part of my family’s history and why?), culture (what makes my ancestor’s land unique?), and legacy (what about my family’s history do I need to carry into future generations?). Since learning these stories from my mom, I’ve only grown more motivated to keep these stories and tokens of our culture alive in my family.

For me (mom), there are good and bad things about it. It’s hard to relive and/or learn about difficult experiences your family endured, but when you do it, it helps you understand so much about your ancestors—their pain, their decisions, etc. For example, my mother and my siblings experienced a lot of abuse at the hands of my father, but when I learned about his extremely difficult upbringing, I was able to understand some of the brokenness. It doesn’t excuse the abuse but it allows for some compassion and for wisdom on how to do better. It also helped me forgive my father after he passed. Our ancestors are often a product of different cultures, and I think it’s important for us to understand that.

FF: What are your hopes for this book?
My hope is that readers will dig into their own family origin stories and explore how they can keep their own family stories alive—no matter how messy they are.

For me (mom), I hope this book leaves a message to readers that although the bad things you live and the difficulties you endure can be incredibly hard, you should always try to keep moving forward. Don’t hang on to the bad, and try to be better each day. I hope it encourages people to persevere, learn to forgive, and find joy no matter your path.

An American Immigrant
Johanna Rojas Vann
Genres: Women’s Fiction
Release Date: August 15, 2023

ISBN-10: ‎0593445554
ISBN-13: ‎978-0593445556

Book Summary:
A Colombian-American journalist tries to save her career by taking an assignment somewhere she never thought she’d go—Colombia—in this heartwarming debut novel about rediscovering our family stories.

Melanie Carvajal is a twenty-five-year-old Colombian American, but if anyone were to ask where she’s from, she’d answer Maryland. Her parents are immigrants, but it’s not something she’s ever felt the need to talk about. She had enough of that growing up always feeling like an outsider.

Up until now, she’s done everything possible to overachieve, and it’s worked. She insists her grit and dedication to the study of journalism are what landed her a job at the Miami Herald right out of college. But her first year as a reporter isn’t going as planned. Article after article returns to her marked up in red pen or not published at all.

Desperate to save her career with a piece that will remind her boss why he hired her in the first place, she takes an assignment that sends her to Cali, Colombia. But what starts as a professional opportunity soon becomes a journey of self-discovery. Between finding her mother’s journals that contain stories she’s never heard, reconnecting with her loving abuela whom she hasn’t seen in years, and discovering a love for the heritage she’d long pushed away, Melanie will learn what makes her the writer and person she was created to be.


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About The Author

Johanna Rojas Vann is a professional writer whose work can be found online and within numerous publications. She is a second-generation Colombian American, with dual citizenship, and lives with her husband and children in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has appeared in Good Grit Magazine, Grit and Grace Life, and on her own blog, where you can read about her personal experience as “An Immigrant’s Daughter.”