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Complex identity

Second generation Australians, from teens to late 50s, explore their cultural identity. Video: Ash Ramos.

There has been a spike in uncovering ancestry as many people question their lives and identity following the upheaval caused by COVID-19.

Perth-based genealogist Lorraine Clarke says the pandemic was the ultimate reality check, one which she says older Australians haven’t seen since the end of World War II.

“It was like, a real home is special, family is special … we need to tighten our loved ones around us and keep them safe,” she says.

For some Australians, learning more about their ancestry is considered a choice, but for people born to migrant parents, identity is often a complex experience which some say they struggle with throughout their life.

Many second-generation Australians are faced with the challenge of choosing to carry on their family’s legacy through traditions, culture, and language, or to embrace the Australian identity as their own.

For teenagers Sofia and Matias Morillo, their Argentinian culture has been instilled from birth, speaking Spanish fluently and honouring their roots through traditions.

The siblings admitted there wasn’t much of a choice about carrying on their South American culture or adopting Australian culture, as their parents were determined to pass down their traditions to their children.

Both teens, who grew up in Perth, agree they identify as Argentinian.

Matias, 13, and Sofia, 16, secretly speak English between each other at home despite being encouraged to communicate in Spanish. Photo: Ash Ramos.

“Your parents are telling you about culture and things you have and the things that they’ve grown up with … they push into you,” Sofia says.

Sofia says her Argentinian side is diluted around her Australian friends but when surrounded by other Latinas she’s able to be her true self.

The siblings say they feel a real sense of belonging in the Latino community. Matias says it almost feels as if they’re all family because of shared, rich traditions passed down through generations.

“Australians are more free flowing, their parents let them do [anything] which is sometimes bad but good at the same time,” he says.

“With Argentinian parents they’re stricter but it’s better.”

Many people born in Australia to migrant parents, whether early teens or later in life, find themselves questioning their identity with cultural roots playing a significant role.

Clinical psychologist and director at Cygnet Clinic Dr Brendon Della Bosca says identity is critical to how we function as adults.

Dr Della Bosca defines identity as “a collection of values, attitudes, and behaviours that we learn when we’re growing up.”

Dr Della Bosca says a lack of identity can affect self-esteem, sense of belonging and relationships. Photo: Ash Ramos.

He says for children, identity is formed from a young age, with key developments occurring in the first ten years.

“As social creatures we need to have a sense of belonging and connectedness, so whether that be in a cultural group, or a particular religious belief, there’s all these sorts of social elements of connectedness that we share and we form our identity,” he says.

“So, a lot of the values we share with that group become our own.”

Dr Della Bosca says one element of forming identity is through growing up in an environment where the daily practices remain consistent and constant.

He says people who have fled worn torn countries tend to trade off some of their own culture to gain some freedoms.

Author Ilona Nunis says her parents fled during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. When they fled to Australia, they cut ties with their Hungarian heritage.

Ilona Nunis, 57, says she’s noticed more acceptance of migrant families in Australia. Photo: Ash Ramos.

The disconnect with Mrs Nunis’ roots caused her to question her cultural identity for most of her life.

Mrs Nunis says in her teenage years she asked people to call her Caroline as she says growing up in the ’80s her native name was “very ethnic”.

“It wasn’t until I moved out of home and began cooking for myself I started instantly cooking Hungarian food,” she says.

“I’m not even sure how I knew how to do it as the internet wasn’t around back then –– it just came so naturally to me; I swear it’s in my blood.”

Ilona Nunis

This year, to honour her heritage and love for Hungarian food, Mrs Nunis published a Hungarian cookbook.

Mrs Nunis says it wasn’t a difficult decision to reconnect with her Hungarian culture despite the trauma her parents endured after fleeing the war.

While on a holiday in 2013, Mrs Nunis returned to Hungary. She says the moment she stepped off the train platform in Budapest she instantly “became Hungarian”.

“It just snapped, I finally had time in my life to identify with my Hungarian heritage,” she says.