“Why do you want to go to the United States?”
The government official asked as he glared into my coal colored eyes. My eyes instantly watered, and his stare softened. “My mommy and daddy are there,” I regrettably murmured the familiar phrase. Nearly a year after my parents had migrated to Houston, my brother and I underwent the same process; one I will never forget.
When I lived in Ecuador my world was modest, simple, and secure. Becoming an American was never my choice, but it became a part of my identity. At a young age, I witnessed how much the United States was admired by the eyes of the rest of the world. “The American Dream” is an international obsession.
My immediate family and I went through a three-year process to receive our Permanent Resident cards. We qualified under the third preference of the Family Based Eligibility, “Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizen, their spouses and their minor children”. It was not until days prior to my departure from Ecuador that my curiosity of this foreign land increased as I was repeatedly told how fortunate we were. Our eligibility seemed to be more valuable than winning the lottery. It would be another seven years before I would become a U.S. citizen.
In January 1999, I stood in Guayaquil’s international airport in my Winnie The Pooh jean overalls and sparkly pink sneakers ready to embark on a journey to an unfamiliar place, which I was now to call home. I arrived at George Bush Intercontinental Airport early the following morning. I distinctly remember the air feeling damp. My body had never felt such a sensation. The cold breeze felt peculiar, as did the years to follow.
It wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I realized I was Latina. It could have been my age that made me so oblivious, but before then, I never saw color, race, or ethnicity as a factor to society. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie perfectly describes in Americanah,
“In America, you don’t get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you.”
I still often struggle with identifying myself as Caucasian when filling out paperwork because I do not feel connected to it. My golden brown skin, dark hair, and eyes illustrate otherwise. During grade school my broken English, choice of clothes, and even the condiments I chose to pair my food with were constant reminders of how different I was. I had to repeatedly explain aspects of my culture even when I wasn’t entirely sure of the reasoning behind everything I did. I never questioned why Vick’s Vapor Rub and herbal teas were remedies for everything or why we ate rice with every meal of the day.
When I got older, I embraced my newfound culture, from learning the steps to the cha-cha slide (and figuring out what “Charlie Brown” actually meant) to perfecting my “Stanky Legg”. Yet, I never felt more American than when I spent nine months of deployment in the Horn of Africa as a 19-year-old American soldier during Operation Enduring Freedom. During those days, there was nowhere else I would have rather been.
As a first generation immigrant, I cannot help but be emotionally affected by the backlash many immigrants have received in the recent months. Those individuals attacking immigrants have to acknowledge that a single geographical location does not make a place home; the loved ones residing there do. The “right” way isn’t always an option when you are at risk of survival. As Wasan Shire described in one of her poems regarding refugees,
“You have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
I was born Ecuadorian and raised American. No single person or political border will make me feel otherwise.