Nothing & Everything
On Becoming an American Citizen
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Note: This piece was originally published in my old blog in July 2020.
I applied to become a citizen of the United States of America in 2019. But, the meaning of that didn’t really sink in until I received the notice for the citizenship interview early in 2020. The notice destabilized me, made my head spin and my heart sink, I wanted nothing more than to sit down and write what I was feeling, so here we are.
To me, becoming a United States citizen means nothing… and it also means everything.
It means nothing because it’s too late, because more than any other feeling what I feel is anger. I have been living in this country for 12 years — how could it possibly take this long to recognize that I in fact have made a life here? that I am an asset to this society? that diversity should be desired and promoted? It means nothing because the more I read about the past history - and live in the present history - of this country the more I feel far away, removed from what it represents, what it has done and continues to do to its own citizens and others around the world. Because I know I won’t feel American as I feel I am Venezuelan, or even Italian. (Although of course I AM American, since I was born in the American continent, as any Mexican, Argentinian, Peruvian, Guatemalan, Uruguayan, etc, etc. But that is a topic for another day.)
But, becoming a United States citizen also means everything. Because I have been here for incredibly formative years. Because I am who I am because I have lived here for so long. Because I dream, read, write, and think in English as well as Spanish. Because the opportunities I found here I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. Because I feel the struggles of the United States as my struggles. Because I already fight for this country to be what I think it could be. Because I am a United States citizen in every single way except that piece of paper.
Getting to this point hasn’t been an easy journey, it’s been 12 years of living, working, loving, crying, playing, existing on a place that I don’t fully feel as “mine”, a place I have never really belonged to, and in which I am reminded of this often, even in the subtlest of interactions. Being an immigrant means always having a condition dangling on the top of your head, always carrying a “what if?” on your mind.
I am without a doubt one of the luckiest ones of the more than 45million immigrants in this country, a significant mass of people working hard (and in many cases harder than anyone else), striving to do things “right”, pressured by expectations, and minimized by stereotypes… millions of people whose identities are questioned, their lives importance doubted out loud every single day.
The story of immigration is a common one, millions of immigrants all over the world feel the same way: not here, not there, not from the place you come from anymore, not from the place you are in right now. A constant identity struggle, a push and pull of the soul, a never ending search for what it means to belong. But some countries facilitate that discovery, make it easier for immigrants to fit it, make you feel valuable faster. Others make it much harder, make you jump through hoops, make it clear you are not “one of them”, and make the road to becoming one a grueling - sometimes literally impossible - journey. The United States is in that latter camp, of course.
One of the most insulting comments I have received (many times) due to being an immigrant is in response to any critical judgement about this country, which I provide liberally to anyone who asks. It is the “if you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?” remark. It makes my blood boil. If you are not constantly questioning, speaking up, educating yourself, and pushing for the country you live in to be truly great - to be fair, to be moral, to be admirable, to be an example, to be everything that you know it can be - then maybe you should be the one to leave.
The United States is a wonderful country in many respects, but it can also be brutally harsh to immigrants, especially those that need the shelter the most. The immigration laws in this country are fucked up and need a big overhaul… but in the meantime, here are five things you can do in your day to day interactions with immigrants to make it easier:
Don’t compare countries. Specifically, don’t tell us the United States is the best country in the world and leave it at that. Countries are too complex to discuss in such general terms. It is absolutely fine to be critical of other countries and love your own, but learn to also be critical of what surrounds you, detach yourself from what you have always been told to feel or believe about other countries and your own. Accept that the U.S. is by no means perfect.
Know that we are not that different from each other. Many more things unite us than divide us, regardless of where you come from and what you believe in. This becomes even more clearer the more you travel, the more you get out there and talk to people that you *think* are totally different from you. We all live, work, play, love, and die, and that is bigger than most people realize.
TRAVEL MORE. I know, I know, this is hard to do right now. But, there are ways to travel from the comfort of your home for now, listen to travel podcasts, read books from around the world , watch global documentaries.
Don’t assume anything about us or our country. Instead, ASK about us and our countries, share your experiences and what you have read or been told about, be curious instead of judgmental.
Don’t be condescending. Don’t treat us like children, don’t say “3rd world country”, don’t talk about our countries dismissively, like there is nothing to learn from them. Know that not speaking English perfectly doesn’t mean we are stupid. Immigrants speak another totally different language perfectly (and in many cases multiple ones!), one you probably don’t even know a word of.
This might sound like basic advice to you, but you’d be surprised how much of this immigrants have to endure on a daily basis.
That citizenship interview didn’t end up happening, and it’s still pending a reschedule given covid. But hopefully, at some point in the near future, I will be one of the more than 750,000 people that get naturalized and become United States citizens every year. But, that piece of paper will not take away my accent, my natural rhythm and love for salsa music, my desire to fight against the injustices I see in this country, my love for sun and warm weather, my determination to criticize without fear (or as we say in Venezuela: ‘sin pelos en la lengua’), or my latina curves (thankfully!). People will always know I wasn’t born here, I will always get that question asked, “where are you from?”, and I will say: I am Venezuelan, and I am also Italian… and hopefully soon: I am American, and I will continue to do what is in my power to make those societies, and others I live in and visit, better places for everyone.
What does being an American mean to you?