Immigrant. What does it mean to be an immigrant? What does it mean to be an immigrant in the United States of America? You’re a taxpayer first. A number. A green card holder next. A naturalized citizen. An alien-turned-citizen mother of American-born children.
It’s been almost 20 years since I moved to this country. I always wanted to. I had a hard time understanding the corruption, the lack of opportunities and the arcane but prevalent and pervasive system of castes (never, of course, acknowledged by the “castes” themselves) that existed in Venezuela throughout the years of my childhood and adolescence while I lived there – a socio-cultural inheritance of the Spanish colony that started in the late 1400s but continued to keep Venezuelans in captivity until the 1990s. In addition to the castes and the socially privileged, who have been dismantled, humiliated, expropriated and in many instances expelled out of the country by the current regime, the corruption and lack of opportunity have only gotten worse.
I left Venezuela, legally, to go to Harvard to pursue a law degree. And the minute I left, I never wanted to go back. Because I knew that my hard work, my ethics and my meritocracy-focused mind could only be recognized here and not there. I knew that for me, there were no opportunities back home. I didn’t identify with the lack of legal system, the violence on the streets, the increasing poverty rates, the socialist-turned-communist government. And the keyword is “identity.” My psychological, cultural and moral makeup could not live with these surroundings. That was not an environment for me because I didn’t belong there; I was born in Venezuela, but it didn’t own me.
I didn’t go back. I went through all the stages of immigration in the US - I had practical training permits and then work visas for my jobs. I was so fortunate that they had sponsored me. I got married to another immigrant. We bought a house. We built careers and businesses. We had American-born kids. And after all that and following a long permanent residency path, I became an American citizen more than half a decade ago.
What makes people who they are isn’t where they are born. My story, like millions of others, is an example of that. Granted, a place of birth could absolutely be one of the most important determinants for behavioral patterns and cultural responses of the self, but it does not have to define anyone. Because truly, who can claim to be 100% American? Native American tribes arrived in this territory some 15,000 years ago. The first English settlement was in 1607. From then on and with the advent of slaves brought from Africa, the racial and social composition of the inhabitants of this part of the world was forever altered. Anyone who sends a saliva sample to a lab in California and pays a fee can now check their DNA and get scientific breakdowns of their ancestry. I did it myself with 23andMe and was everything I thought to be and more, including 59% European with a majority of that percentage falling in the Iberian Peninsula and Italy; 25% Middle Eastern with most of that percentage falling in Lebanon; 4.5% Sub Saharan and West African (surprise!); 8% Native American Indian (from Venezuela) and the rest unassigned until the algorithms are advanced enough to assign this piece of my origins to where they belong.
Why do I give this information away? Because part of me feels from everywhere while another part of me feels as if I don’t belong anywhere. Recently I got criticized in social media by a Venezuelan because my work favors “Americans” and my videos tackle “American” issues. He tried to make me feel like an impostor. However, he doesn’t know I have lived here most of my adult life and that all I have is because of here. I am forever an immigrant but when I see what I do, what I have and what I have accomplished, I know none of it would be possible without having the extraordinary opportunity to live, develop and grow as a professional and as a human being in the United States. I then understand that by my own identifying values, I am an American too.
As I read the news and see the pictures of small children in Texas crying, being separated from their parents, following Attorney General Jeff Session’s “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy, I ponder to reflect on my luck: my story wasn’t desperate because when I left Venezuela the country wasn’t in the civil war it is in right now. I didn’t flee, I am not a refugee, I didn’t cross the border illegally. But what if I had? Does that make me less of who I am? As these images circulate the world and make the current administration the epitome of an ultra-right hyper-nationalist government, the question I ask myself is: what does it really mean to be an immigrant in this country? I don’t condone illegal immigration, but I understand the feelings of hopelessness of human beings who want a better life. Separating families at the border? Taking kids away from their mothers and sending them to shelters? Where is the humanity of the United States of America toward the less fortunate?
I have lived in New York, a city truly filled with immigrants, for a long time. I don’t look so weird or sound so strange that my accent gives me away at “Hello.” But what about the rest of the country? What is the sentiment whether the immigrant is legal or not, whether that person arrived 20 years or 20 months ago? Whatever happened to education, as in teaching to lower-and-middle-school students History of the United States of America as a subject? And while I can’t and won’t cover American history in detail in this essay, and whether in years past political motivations beyond the need of diversity prompted the Congress to create laws that promoted immigration, the policies that existed up until 9/11 were mostly benign to people who had lots to offer to this country but could not flourish in their own. Yes, there were abuses, yes, there were random lotteries and sham marriages, yes people crossed the border illegally and yes, some also committed crimes. But how did we get to the point where the word “immigrant” is almost equal with “criminal”, “undeserving”, “rapist” or “disenfranchised”? What happened to the land of opportunity? The American Dream?
Because I work with art and artists, I always look for solace in their creations. Their intuition always allows us to see far beyond the circumstances. I think of the richness that these artists have brought to the United States and how they have also been shaped by this incredible place, its people and its culture. I think of the acclaimed Shirin Neshat, who came here from Iran in the 1970s and whose work, which deals with issues of identity with enormous strength, beauty and confidence, has never been allowed to be shown in Iran. I think of Christo, who escaped communist Bulgaria in the late 1950s, moved to Paris and then lived undocumented in New York for three years until 1973, when he became a citizen and went on to create some of the most memorable public art installations around the world. I think of the recent show earlier this year of Nigerian-born, American-raised Toyin Ojih Odutola at the Whitney Museum, where so much surrounding identity and immigration were presented in colorful, poetic and evocative works on paper. I look around at my fellow New Yorkers and all my friends in this country, Americans or not, and I respect them and love them for who they are, not for where they come from. I look at my kids and their innocence, the children of immigrant parents who came here looking for a better life. By looking at them, I have hope. Hope that we as a country can move past these gross and inhumane outlooks on those who wish for a better life. Hope that we can celebrate each other’s success, no matter where we come from.