Volume 46, No.2 - Summer 2000
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2000 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Loyola University


For immigrants receiving context and social class are the most important factors in immigration and adaptation to a new country (Portes and Rumbaut 1990; Portes and Walton 1981). The receiving context consists of political, economic, and social factors that affect the immigrant's social network, including immigrant associations, neighborhoods, and ethnic communities (Menjivar 1997). Portes and Rumbaut argue that

The most relevant contexts of reception are defined by the policies of the receiving government, the conditions of the host labor market, and the characteristics of their own ethnic communities. The combination of positive and negative features encountered at each of these levels determines the distinct mode of newcomers' incorporation (Portes and Rumbaut 1990, 85).

The receiving context provides immigrants with assistance, opportunities, and resources at the initial stage of settlement and adaptation. The literature on immigration emphasizes how social networks lower the cost of establishment and adaptation for new immigrants (Hagan 1998; Menjivar 1997). New arrivals depend on these social networks for the first several years.

Hagan (1998) discusses how "migrants' networks in the receiving area provide social capital to assist them in adapting to their new environment. " She illustrates how the receiving context and supporting networks are affected by gender: the Maya community's social networks benefit men more than women in getting jobs and legal status. Hagan argues that immigrants who develop weak ties—relationships outside the ethnic community—achieve higher social mobility; those who develop strong tries within the community limit their horizontal links. Menjivar (1997) focuses on supporting vs. non-supporting kinship networks and on the impact of the receiving context. Menjivar's findings suggest that social networks emerge as a process, rather than develop spontaneously.

Social class is another significant factor in immigration and adaptation. Portes and Walton (1981) argue that "class more typically determines the nature of group organization and life chances. " Lower-class people, women, and the less socially established are less able to control their life events and tend to experience greater distress (Portes and Rumbaut 1990).

As recent studies on immigration indicate, social class intermingles with elements of social location (e. g., age, gender, education, marital status, socioeconomic status, immigration status, religion, and English language ability) (Wittner 1998). In my study, I examine social class and argue that immigrants' social locations determine both the intensity and timing of adaptation.

Following the lead of many scholars, the immigrants' social class and receiving context will be the focus of my study. I examine the adaptation of recent Lithuanian immigrants to Chicago. While establishing themselves in their new environment, Lithuanian immigrants experience a difficult transition—leaving their home country, losing their former networks, and forsaking their former social status (Portes and Rumbaut 1990). Regardless of their original social status, the majority of new immigrants start their lives in the host country at the bottom: renting the cheapest apartments, getting low-wage, and long-hour jobs. I explore how the immigrants' social networks assist in finding jobs and building links to the local ethnic community and the broader society. Then, I present how weak and strong ties influence Lithuanian immigrants' socioeconomic mobility. Finally, I examine the role that the immigrants' social locations play in their establishment in the host country.

My study contributes to the research on social class and social networks in relation to immigrants' adaptation and socioeconomic mobility.


In February, 1998, I began actively participating in the Lithuanian community as a researcher. I examined various documents and taped interviews with post-World War II Lithuanian immigrants.1 In addition to participant observation, using snowball sampling, I conducted open-ended formal and informal in-depth interviews. I interviewed 43 recent arrivals: 11 men and 32 women, ages 16 to 70. I also interviewed approximately 20 ethnic Lithuanians; I met with some of the respondents several times. On average, the interviews lasted from one to three hours; group interviews lasted from three to four-and-a-half hours. The names of the respondents have been changed to protect their confidentiality. New Lithuanians started to appear in Chicago in 1989. When Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, the new flow of immigrants was evident and increased significantly every year. Today, about 20, 000 recent Lithuanian immigrants reside in Chicago. (Grigas 1999). These newcomers are treated as brain-drain2 and economic immigrants by their homeland and are not openly welcomed by the local ethnic community. They came to Chicago as artists, athletes, students, patients, visitors or temporary workers. The majority of them, however, ended up living permanently in Chicago. My study is based on these new Lithuanian immigrants' life experiences and their adaptation to the Chicago area.


Losing former networks and social status

The displacement of people through space has accompanied every major transformation of the social order (Portes and Walton 1981).

As they settle in the United States, recent Lithuanian immigrants experience stress while losing their former networks and social status in Lithuania. To put closure on their lives in one country and to start all over is a risky undertaking. It requires energy, resolution, and courage. As Portes and Rumbaut (1990, 144) argue: "long-distance journeys entail a set of engulfing life events (losses, changes, conflicts, and demands) that... severely test the immigrant's emotional resilience. " They state that educated middle-class immigrants and those coming from urban areas cope more easily with distress and "social distance traveled from place of origin to place of destination" than those of the lower social classes (Portes and Rumbaut 1990).

For newcomers, immigration meant losing their former social status. Lithuanians coming to Chicago within the last decade believed they had no other choice—a life of poverty and uncertainty at home or the chance for a better economic life in exile. The majority of recent arrivals were a part of the upper-middle or middle-class in Lithuania during the Soviet era or post-Soviet years. After Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, people were uncertain about their futures. This uncertainty was one of the most important factors that led them to leave their home country.

Although these Lithuanians lost their former social status by moving to the United States, it also meant escaping from the shame of no job or a low-paying job. In their relatives' and friends' perception, immigrants were the ones who made it: the ones who were brave enough to abandon their difficult lives in Lithuania.

One of the most difficult experiences reported by recent Lithuanian immigrants is the loss of friends and close relationships in the homeland. During their first years in Chicago, new immigrants feel homesick. The intensity of their yearning depends on the arrivals' marital status (arriving alone or with their family), immigration status, and contact with the homeland.

Although leaving relatives in Lithuania seems a disadvantage for newcomers, former kin networks are important in the immigrants' adaptation. The majority of legal immigrants send children back to Lithuania to spend summers with grandparents, cousins, and former friends. Grandparents insist that their offspring call them often and speak to them in Lithuanian. Constant contact and family reunions (if they can afford them) help immigrants recreate their identities and stabilize their new lives.

Dream vs. Reality of America

Preconceptions of life in America play a crucial role in the choice of travel to Chicago. New immigrants say the dreams they brought with them to the United States from Lithuania ("thanks to the friends who lied about the American paradise in their letters") [Vida, 41]) made their lives much more difficult. Instead of "money growing on trees, " they face a daily struggle for survival.

Consequently, tension, depression, and feelings of alienation in their new environment mark the immigrants' first days in Chicago. Expectations created through correspondence with recently settled immigrants are usually far from reality. It is a shocking experience when immigrants find life in Chicago so different from Lithuania.

Marginalized immigrants—"Feeling worthless"

Newcomers feel marginalized and alien to the host country (Stonequist cited in Portes and Rumbaut 1990; Park 1928). This marginalization is intensified by the immigrants' lack of cultural resources to participate in the new environment and because society creates obstacles to their participation (Portes and Walton 1981, 125).

The transition from home to the host country not only externally changes immigrants' lives, but also creates changes in their identities. The immigrants' time of adaptation and acculturation to the new country is marked by a new significant peculiarity, which they define as "feeling worthless. " This consists of several interrelated features: not knowing English, hostility from Americans and ethnic or recently arrived Lithuanians, and alienation from the host country and the local ethnic community. These factors limit the participation of new immigrants in the host society and the local ethnic community.

During their first months, crowded apartments without privacy are the norm for newcomers. Those who come to Chicago alone or in response to a friend's (other recent arrival's) invitation, often experience tension and insecurity over their housing. The promised apartment does not materialize, nor is the one they find in a poor neighborhood satisfactory.

"Working all the time, as never before"

Immigrants face new realities in Chicago: they "work all the time, as never before, " depend on public transportation, and travel long distances. The constant battle for everyday survival is the norm for their lives. Long hours and physically debilitating jobs correlate with other negative aspects of immigrants' lives, such as a lack of family time and leisure. Working all the time "as never before" limits the recent arrivals' opportunities to interact with the outside world as well as with their own partners and children.

Long distances and dependence on public transportation force Lithuanians, who work far from home (especially women, who rarely drove in Lithuania), to purchase a car and obtain a driver's license. To obtain a driver's license requires energy and effort from working family members: but at the same time, knowing how to drive opens opportunities to the wider world. A car as a means of social mobility is important in immigrants' lives. It offers opportunities for better jobs, wider social contacts, and saves time and energy.

New Social Networks

The local ethnic community and the host society, as receiving contexts, are resources for support and assistance for immigrants' settlement and adaptation. Aid is often the final factor in an immigrant's decision to stay permanently or temporarily in the United States. Those who do not get help usually experience deep financial, psychological, or social crises (Menjivar 1997).

The local Lithuanian community as a receptive context was not prepared to embrace a huge mass of new immigrants from their homeland. As a "golden exile" or model community, with its high cultural and moral standards, consisting of professionals working in the host society, it provides few job niches for new immigrants. Most job openings are for domestics, waitresses, cooks, teachers, musicians and Lithuanian radio, TV, or press reporters. Local Lithuanian agencies also help recent arrivals find apartments and supply them with needed domestic goods.

Strong ties developed in the local ethnic community provide support and assistance during the first days in a variety of ways and ease adaptation. On the other hand, as the literature indicates (Hagan 1998; Menjivar 1997), in the long run, strong ties can become an obstacle for the immigrants' socioeconomic mobility. An illustration of this is the situation of new Lithuanian women employed by the local ethnic community. Ethnic Lithuanians primarily hire Lithuanian immigrants who do domestic work and speak Lithuanian. Domestic work is often the only employment available in immigrant communities (Rollins 1985, 151). Domestic workers are usually women invited by relatives or acquaintances. They come for a limited time and are trapped in their positions. Bound by strong kinship or friendship ties, Lithuanian women are isolated and limited in finding better jobs. Immigrants who do not know English and develop strong ties are constrained within the local ethnic community's structures, thus earning less money and building limited social networks.

Although strong ties limit the new immigrants' socioeconomic mobility, the local ethnic community also provides information about job possibilities in the broader society. At least in Chicago immigrants receive this information through Lithuanian churches, social agencies such as "Seklyčia", the local paper Draugas, English classes offered by the local ethnic community, and new immigrants' social gatherings. The majority of new Lithuanian immigrants are not satisfied with the assistance, support, and jobs provided by the ethnic Lithuanians. Newcomer men tend to draw on horizontal (weak) ties outside the local ethnic community. Besides Lithuanian men making contacts outside the local ethnic community, Lithuanian women also look for jobs at the Ukrainian or Russian agencies.

Variation of strong ties inside the local ethnic community

Strong ties among friends, acquaintances, or relatives are crucial in receiving assistance during adaptation to the local ethnic community. Immigrants seek help for a variety of things: a ride from the airport, shelter, and information about housing, transportation, and jobs.

Their own elaborated social organizations (such as the family club, "Krantas, " the basketball club, and various artists' or musicians' organizations) fulfill immigrants' needs for social and emotional support and help recreate their identities. Such symbolic sharing of immigrant ethnicity happens on personal-psychological and social levels: "It provides a sense of belonging to some recognizable and manageable collectivity—an affiliation that has meaning" (Rubin 1994: 170).

Recent Lithuanian immigrants make use of intergenerational networks. Relatives, who came to Chicago earlier, develop a support network that makes life easier for later arrivals. The relatives' success encourages newcomers. If first arrivals adapt successfully, they provide help for relatives who come later. Transatlantic intergenerational networks also exist among recent arrivals and their relatives—from an earlier wave of Lithuanians.

I found that the local ethnic community more readily accepted Lithuanians who established themselves primarily by developing weak ties with the host society and only later made contacts within the local ethnic community. If strong ties are important for the immigrants' social and emotional support, weak ties are significant in their social mobility.

Success Of The Adaptation

My findings suggest that Lithuanian immigrants go through an arduous transformation in adapting to the new country. Hostility, marginalization, and the loss of self-esteem often characterize the first days of the new immigrants. Abandoning their social status and social context (social relationships) in the home country, the newcomers start their lives in Chicago at the bottom: renting cheap apartments and getting long-hour, low-wage jobs. Immigrants' social characteristics and receiving contexts are pivotal in their successful establishment and adaptation to the new country.

Age, gender, education, socioeconomic status, marital status, immigration status, religion, and ability to speak English are constituent parts of immigrants' social class of origin. Immigration literature indicates how some of these locations influence the adaptation process. For example, Portes and Rumbaut (1990, 154) argue that women suffer more stress than men; single people more than families; and undesirable life events cause the greatest stress. Lithuanian immigrants who are educated, married, attend church, and participate in the local ethnic community, receive more social and economic support from the ethnic Lithuanians.

The majority of recent Lithuanian immigrants come from urban areas, possess higher educational backgrounds, and are of the upper-middle or middle-class. Young educated adults and those possessing English skills find better jobs and earn more money. Experiencing less stress at the initial stage, professionals usually do not participate in the local ethnic community and do not seek other Lithuanians' support.

Immigrants with children find the first years in Chicago more stressful than single or childless immigrants: they have greater difficulty finding a place to live, schools for their children, and a balance between parenting and working hours. Although family worries add to their stress, immigrants' commitment to family leads to later achievements. In the new environment, the family provides them with consistency and continuity of cultural values and identities brought from their homeland.

Gender differences also emerge in the receiving context. At their initial stage of immigration, women tend to take jobs in the local ethnic community as domestic workers. Men see immigration as the rebirth or regaining of their masculinity in the patriarchal American society because they earn more money than women and thereby gain more power and control at home.

Immigration status is very important in Lithuanian immigrants' lives. Illegal immigrants lead more limited and tense lives. Uncertainty and the fear of deportation mark their days.

Religion is an important factor in immigrants' lives.3 However, it is not applicable for the majority of recent Lithuanians, since they come from a former communistic society where religion was forbidden and, as a consequence, not practiced. Many of the recently arrived Lithuanians do not have a need for religion in the new country. They attend church gradually in later years after getting jobs and finding a place to live.

The majority of new Lithuanian immigrants have wage-jobs and struggle to establish themselves. Those, who overcome their difficulties, finally find success in the new country: They get satisfying jobs, acquire transportation and housing, develop new social networks, and find a place in the local ethnic community. Although numerous Lithuanians achieve their socioeconomic adaptation quite readily, acquiring emotional stability is a longer and an unfinished process.

This empirical case study of recent Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago indicates that social networks developed among new Lithuanian immigrants are significant in finding jobs, housing, and social support. Although the local Lithuanian community is well organized, newcomers tend to develop horizontal (weak) ties with other ethnic communities, especially with those from the former Soviet block. After successful establishment in a broader society, immigrants elaborate local ties in the ethnic community. If strong ties are important for social-emotional support, weak ties are significant in social mobility.

My findings suggest that immigrants' social class in relation to social locations and receiving contexts are the most crucial factors in determining the direction in which their social networks will develop and how long their adaptation will take.


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1 Lithuanian Immigration History project proposed and conducted by the Lithuanian Institute of Education in 1981.
Brain-drain immigrants are professional workers (Portes and Walton 1981, 36).
Religion plays a significant role in immigrants' lives. As Warner (1998, 16) argues/disputes, "religion is the social category with clearest meaning and acceptance in the host society, as the emphasis on religious affiliation and identity is one of the strategies that allows the immigrant to maintain self-identity while simultaneously acquiring community acceptance. "