PUBLISHED: March 20, 2008, The Los Angeles Daily News
By TONY CASTRO
HOLLY DAGRES MIGHT BE ONE of the few women who can steal some of the thunder from Hillary Clinton at one of the senator’s presidential campaign rallies.
Dagres drew much of the attention at a recent rally at the California State University, Northridge, Grand Salon, distributing souvenir combs engraved with the name and office number of her boss and Clinton backer Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks.
Tall, blond, model-svelte and elegantly dressed in black, Dagres looked more confident than her intern position would suggest, disarming a questioner who wondered whether she had ever used the long silk scarf around her neck as a mantilla at church.
“Actually, when I lived in Iran, I used it to cover my head and shield my face,” Dagres said. “I’m also Iranian. Actually, I’m half Iranian.”
Dagres, an honor student at Pierce College and an aspiring clothing designer, offers a window into an American experience rarely seen: The children of Iranian-American marriages crossing ethnic, religious, cultural and even racial barriers.
It is an issue especially poignant as Iranians in the United States celebrate the Persian New Year – Norooz – that began last night and occurs every year at the spring equinox, the first day of spring.
In the San Fernando Valley, many of the region’s 200,000 Iranians gather annually at Balboa Park to indulge in traditional food, dancing and cultural activities and to shop the booths of vendors.
On March 30, those vendors will include the 22-year-old Dagres and her upstart clothing line, much of it bearing ancient Persian designs.
“I consider myself truly American and Iranian, and I celebrate both cultures and heritages,” Dagres said. “I can’t separate one from the other.”
It is an unusual pedigree, not unlike the children of other mixed marriages that have continued the historic cultural blending in the U.S. – African-American and white, Latino and white, Latino and black, Asian and non-Asian, Jewish and non-Jewish, Muslim and non-Muslim.
There are no exact numbers of offspring of Iranian-American marriages, but Dagres and other Iranian-Americans estimate there are hundreds – if not thousands – in Los Angeles alone.
At Pierce College, Dagres’ entourage of friends includes several from mixed marriages – among them Star Safari, 18, of Granada Hills, the daughter of an Iranian father and an African-American mother.
“I consider myself to be very blessed with my background and the fact that I am able to speak Farsi better than many of my Iranian friends whose parents are both Iranian,” said Safari, whose mother insisted that she immerse herself in the culture by living in Iran from 1999 to 2004.
“It was not the easiest of transitions going there and later coming back to the United States. It was quite hard, in fact. But I would go back there in a heartbeat.”
Today, Safari is a nursing student at Pierce, where she befriended Dagres. Experts say they and others like them are just part of the phenomenon of Iranians as the latest immigrant group becoming Americanized over time.
“We as a community are becoming more assimilated,” said Nahid Pirnazar, professor of Iranian studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“So having an American member in the family is not an inconvenience but a sign of sophistication.”
Those unions, however, have not come without their problems.
Dagres had her childhood in the San Fernando Valley turned topsy-turvy by her parents’ bitter divorce. At one point, she said, her father accused her mother in court of being a terrorist – an inflammatory claim in the charged atmosphere of family court.
By age 13, Dagres found herself in culture shock, living with her Iranian-born mother and her new stepfather in Tehran, Iran, where Dagres attended an international school.
Sense of alienation
A sense of alienation and of not belonging soon became a daily staple. Not only was she a light-skinned, hazel-eyed American girl living in a world that despised Americans, she also wore a back brace to correct a spine condition.
“I was not only too shy to do what the other girls did, but I was also scared, too,” Dagres recalled. “I was an American living in Iran. I wasn’t safe. Everyone told me I wasn’t safe.”
Dagres also had to struggle with religious isolation in Iran – as did Safari, who is Baha’i. Dagres’ father is Christian, her mother Muslim.
“I don’t consider myself Christian or Muslim,” she says. “I consider myself a part of all religions, even Jewish.”
Dagres returned to the United States in 2006 at the age of 20, after trading the traditional American teen experience of malls and cheerleading for exposure to a side of her heritage that she found equally as important.
“It also opened my eyes to the reality of life and everything here that we take for granted,” said Dagres. “It makes you appreciate it all the more.
“But I also came to appreciate being part Iranian. I didn’t look Iranian, and (in Iran) I sometimes had to explain that, especially speaking Farsi with an accent.
“When the kids there would find out that I was also American, they’d say, `Are you crazy? Why aren’t you in America?”‘
A new understanding
Today, Dagres lives in Northridge and hopes to develop her design line – Nekropolis Clothing – as she continues her education. She also is interested in studying international relations, hoping to one day work at the United Nations.
“I know that I can help America reinterpret its understanding of Iran,” Dagres said. “Just as I know that I can help Iran reinterpret its understanding of America.
“Despite their differences, the United States and Iran – and their respective interests – are interwoven historically and economically. And there will be a time in the future when we all come to understand that.”
Last summer, Dagres returned to Iran to re-establish ties with former classmates – many of them also the offspring of mixed marriages.
“I think I offer a unique window to a part of America and a part of the world that is different from the mainstream, but which is becoming part of it,” she said.
“When I left Iran, I left with many hopes and dreams, even if, in a sense, back home I have felt so out of place.
“I am American – but not a typical one.”