I am I and my circumstance; and, if I do not save it, I do not save myself.José Ortega y Gasset
The circumstances that lead a family, or a person, to emigrate can be as different as they are unexpected. In my case, the circumstances that led my life to go from being in Bolivia to being in the U.S. didn’t make much sense. It would take me years to unravel that mess and understand why my family decided to emigrate.
At that time the idea I heard, from adults, before traveling; it was that life is better there, that you are going to live with your dad. The only thing I came to understand from those words was that there was an immense expectation, the anticipation was all around me. No one sat down to explain to me what did they mean by ‘life is better there‘? or why would we stop living with Mom?
The first days
When my sisters and I arrived in the U.S. the word “better” came to feel absolete. We went from living with a mother involved in all aspects of our lives, to living with a father who, despite being close, remained absent from our lives. That was the hardest reality to understand; our presence seemed to burden and bother our own father. The same person who had asked us to come and live with him, at the time we needed him most, seemed to regret having brought us. In time I would understand that our father did not have a moral compass; or ideas of his own–the decision to bring us to live in the U.S. was not his idea, everything indicated that he had not really thought about the future that awaited us after having taken us out of Bolivia. I forgave my dad a few years ago and apologized to him, the transition was not easy for anyone. I was an ungrateful teenager, he an adult unaware of where he went wrong.
Leaving a house with a garden and trees, for an apartment where three of us shared a small room, while one of my sisters slept in the living room, was demoralizing. But not as demoralizing as trying to understand why my older sister went from studying at an university to starting work at Macdonals. For what? “I asked myself. Was that “better” life about making the same mistakes of the past? In an environment where expectations were so high, reality came to look absurd.
That transition marked me—forever, I hadn’t just left Bolivia at a time when my schoolmates were like a second family; I had also left my real family. I felt empty for a long, long, long time.
Me pregunté varias veces ¿Cómo le hago para seguir viviendo? si pasé toda una vida en un país en el que ya no vivo, con amigas y amigos que ya no veo, con un lenguaje que ya no uso, con una familia que ya no conoceré. Para sobrevivir resolví olvidar, me metí de lleno a la tarea de aprender y construir todo de nuevo. Lo hice—no por querer olvidar. Si no porque vivir en dos lugares a la misma vez era abrumador.
I asked myself several times: How do I continue living? if I spent a lifetime in a country where I no longer live, with friends I no longer see, with a language I no longer use, with a family I will no longer know. To survive I resolved to forget, I got consummed by the task of learning and building everything again. I did it—not because I wanted to forget. I did it because living in two places at the same time was overwhelming and heartbreaking.
I soon realized that what I was doing, emotionally, to survive was also eating away at me. I apologize to my friends, aunts and uncles, cousins, my grandmother, my mom; I stopped talking to them in those days because that was my way of dealing with my depression, because hearing their voices only made me think about the distance that separated me from Bolivia.
The exile of the mind
Living abroad makes you confront the ideas surrounding your identity like you’ve never faced them before. Distance helps you reflect on your past, which leads you to question who you are, and most of all gives you time to miss your country. You miss it as it is, with all the good and the bad.
During my time in the U.S. I have asked myself what does it mean to be Bolivian?, what effects does having grown up in a country, mostly Catholic, have on me today?, How does it influence a person to have grown up in a sexist society?, what role did the racism of Bolivian society have in my way of thinking?
Little by little I found answers to those questions, reflecting about them with all the immigrant friends I made at school, college, and at work. Those friends are one of the few things that redeemed my days in the U.S. Today I realize that this country is a country of immigrants—like me!-, a country full of people from all over the world.
The cultural shock
In Bolivia I grew up observing the discontent with public institutions, the government, and the lack of jobs—which is understandable—corruption, dictatorships, and economic crises are part of our history. Now if on top of all the dictatorships, crises, and corruption we add the presidential elections, it is obvious that a peaceful transition of power cannot be expected. After all, Bolivians are brave people who know that there is no bigger pendejo/idiot than the one who believes himself to be above the will of an entire people, whether it is a foreigner; with a gringo accent, like Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada or one of ours, like Evo Morales.
When I arrived in the U.S. one of the first things that amazed me was to see how then-President George W. Bush, on a podium in front of the White House, concluded his presidency by giving a welcome speech to the new president, Barack Obama. What I always remember from his speech is the phrase “This peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of a true democracy.” That phrase stayed with me because I had never witnessed anything like it before. I was used to seeing presidents come out of power fleeing, on a plane or a helicopter, no welcome speeches to the new president.
Years later I realized that if Bolivia goes through a conflict with each transition of power the U.S. has a legal suppression of votes, that is, laws that marginalize a sector of the population so that they cannot vote or are not represented in the political system. So it doesn’t matter—in the end. Politics, when used against a group of people, is just another way to normalizing abuses and mistreatment whether that is in Bolivia or here in the U.S.
From the beginning of its history the U.S. has been a nation plagued by racism. Today racism survives embedded in its laws, and its abuses enjoy impunity. A very simple example of this problem can be seen in the way in which the insurrection that occurred on January 6, 2021 in the capitol and the demonstrations that began in May 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. On the one hand, the insurrection began as a series of demonstrations initiated by supporters of Donald Trump, who questioned the results of the 2020 presidential elections, they claimed that the results were not legitimate.
The other demonstrations expressed support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement that seeks, among other things, to curb the violence that African Americans suffer at the hands of the police. At these two events the city of Washington, D.C. feared that the crowd would turn violent. Only in one of the two events did this come to pass, in the insurrection.
In both cases, the police were present on the streets of the city. But only for the Black Lives Matter protests was the national guard called in to protect the city. This may seem trivial, like poor security management in a city as important as the U.S. capital, but the simple fact that some Protestants were African-American and the others were white made all the difference. Then-President Donald Trump incited violence and left the city unprotected as his supporters adanced towards the capitol building, and he sent the National Guard to the Black Lives Matter protests.
Many of us grew up thinking that the U.S. is the country of opportunity, where anything is possible, or we believed in the myth that the American dream can be achieved by anyone willing to work hard.
The reality is that hard work doesn’t assure you of anything in this country; worse, being poor in the U.S. is expensive. It sounds strange but yes, it is expensive to be poor because if the clearest paths to the middle class are education, homeownership, and access to health services. Those are the three most expensive things that exist in the United States. Capitalism has made those things a luxury.
Now that I’m a young adult
My life feels like split in two, one half in Bolivia and the other in the U.S. and despite having gone through a healing transition, I did the best I could with the circumstance I found myself in. I grew up a lot and now, 14 years after I moved, I’m better off—emotionally—and that has nothing to do with the country I live in. It has to do, ironically, with the way I was raised. Today I feel like a survivor grateful to keep breathing, grateful to still be young, and happy to own my own decisions.
Today if someone asks me what is it like to live in the U.S.? my answer would be: it’s a challenge from the moment you arrive to when you get used to it, because wherever you are; if you are not in your country, you will always be made to feel like an outsider.