Becoming an American Citizen: A Latina’s Story

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To begin a new life in a new country involves compromise and can be both a blessing and a burden. I’ve experienced both in the same day. It was one of the hardest days of my life.The lump in my throat stopped me from saying goodbye to my family verbally. They were all gathered at the airport but the words of gratitude and good wishes never came. The day had finally arrived. The embassy had given my little sister and I the blessing to come to the U.S. legally.

At the time, I didn’t understand how important it was to have that little stamp on my passport with the seal “green card” on it. I was only 17 years old and I didn’t care.  I wanted to stay in Honduras. It was bittersweet. My older sister had to stay in the country with her son – my beautiful nephew. We didn’t realize it then but we wouldn’t see each other again for another thirteen years.

With that vision of her crying while holding her baby boy, I waved goodbye to my former life in Honduras. Long gone were the days when I’d spend entire summers at my aunt’s house or days enjoying having long conversations with my grandma. I would miss all of the recitals I attended to support my friends in their musical endeavors. I had spent my life building relationships with people I would no longer know. I had very good friends and coincidentally, all of them were boys. For some reason, I have never been able to maintain friendships with females for very long. I must be drawn to the down-to-earth practical nature of boys. People say every ending is a new beginning. But is it?

My friends were all musicians and we shared a special bond through music, writing and performing. We would spend afternoons just listening to records and analyzing them, especially the classical ones. If you knew a certain number of operas, symphonies, and the lives of the musicians, then you were hailed as leaders in our eyes. I didn’t know it then, but in a matter of months, this little world of mine would crumble in front of me. I rebelled against the idea of leaving my country, but deep down I knew the U.S. would offer me a better life, I just didn’t realize it would be so taxing, both literally and spiritually. The emotional turmoil of turning your back on your sense of place is devastating. The first six months after I arrived I cried endlessly wishing to go back to the familiar faces of those who were no longer near but remained very dear to me.

The emotional impact that remains is overwhelming and a feeling of emptiness lurks in the mind, making the whole experience a nightmare. Yet, everyone would say,

“You have no idea how lucky you are, living in this country – it’s a golden opportunity.”

Now I do understand and value my place here, no longer with a green card but as an American citizen.

Back then, I fought hard against the idea of being somewhere else, being ‘someone’ else.  Ah, how precious youth is! I didn’t care for the smell of new clothing or the big malls, the fast food or the grand houses. In actual fact, I was heavily drawn to Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution so American consumerism didn’t appeal to me at all. I wanted a simple but satisfying way of life.

Neither my sister or I felt comfortable in our accommodations in the U.S. so we fled from my father’s house in New Orleans and relocated to Baton Rouge with a Christian family. To be fair, I was deeply involved in the church at that time. I traveled throughout the country attending conferences and meeting new people. Even though our hosts were sweet and caring, the absence of family tenderness was consuming me. I had no idea how to communicate with other people other than using my hands and I tried to learn the language by translating songs and reading the Bible, but the desperation of not seeing my mother and my sister left me utterly depressed.

After some time, we went back to New Orleans where things were less than pleasant. Looking back, I wish someone would have offered to really help us instead of telling us how awesome things were about to turn out. My sister and I finally managed to take free English classes at a Catholic church and we earned $40 a week cleaning houses with my stepmother. We were living with my father, his new wife and two stepdaughters and while they tried to remain hospitable, you could cut the tension with a knife.

I became more anxious and withdrawn and my faith was becoming more debilitated by the minute.

Day after day I saved the little money I earned, hoping for a miracle. Once I knew my mom was making her way to California for a conference, I packed my bags, bought a ticket and headed to California. My mother says she panicked when she saw me with my bags.

“Oh shit, she really means it, she is staying here.”

We stayed in California for 6 months until we made our way to Virginia, where I have lived ever since. Once I arrived in Virginia, I made myself a promise to make up for all the time lost in Louisiana and to start a new life. I sat for hours in a restaurant every single day asking for a job until the manager got tired and gave me a job. I got a second job and  went to college to finally learn proper English.

I take my hat off to those who managed to cross this country with absolutely nothing in their pockets, but who were still full of dreams and hopes.

While my views on immigration might differ from others, I respect those hard workers who have helped to shape this country and who have left an authentic impression on how valuable we Latinos are in this world.  While distance may be between us, we never truly ‘leave ‘our family.  Our soul and memories will always yearn to return to our land.

We will always remember that this ‘new beginning’ began with an ending.

Stephanie Ortez

Stephanie is a highly caffeinated mother of two wonderful boys. She is hopelessly addicted to non-fiction books and literature that moves her to tears. She is an admissions advisor for George Washington University online where she assists homeschooled students internationally. Stephanie lives with Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. She is a passionate mental health advocate, member of Stigma Fighters. Her writing has been featured on The Elephant Journal, The Mighty, The Organic Coffee Haphazardly and Feminine Collective.

3 thoughts on “Becoming an American Citizen: A Latina’s Story

  1. Mary Rowen

    Stephanie, you’re amazing. This is an incredible journey, and you found the good in places where others may have seen only negative. I’m so sorry for the pain you experienced, but am so also glad you’re here in the US!

  2. Nicole LyonsNicole Lyons

    What a journey, Stephanie. I am so happy that you have found a home away from home and have brought all of you there. I can’t imagine how hard leaving was, and how confusing it all must have been, but I feel that when I read this piece. Well done, it’s brilliant.
    You are an inspiring woman, and I am absolutely awed by you.

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