Celebrating My 14th U.S. Immigrant Anniversary in the Midst of Resistance

Happy 14th United States anniversary to the Gontaruk family!

This celebration is rather bittersweet. I feel overwhelmed by the realities immigrants and refugees face today. And yet, in the midst of resistance to inhumane executive actions, a rhetoric of hatred, and xenophobic sentiments, I find it important and necessary to celebrate and share my journey as an immigrant and bring to light the opportunities I’ve had living in this country and my contributions.

Like many immigrants, my family and I moved because my country failed us. In 2003 Argentina was gripped by an economic crisis. When an opportunity materialized for my family to move to the United States, we seized it, both with a grudge against our homeland and with excitement for the opportunities that lay ahead. Today, I am incredibly thankful to my parents for making those difficult choices and so grateful for the doors that have opened for me here in the United States.

My reality is defined by an immigrant journey, and today, I’ll choose to honor and celebrate it. I choose to highlight not only the reasons I’m thankful to ring in another year in this country, but also to reflect on the contributions and accomplishments, big or small, that we as a nation may be in danger of losing because countless other immigrants are now being denied entry.

Year 1: I moved to the States and enrolled in 8th grade. I was automatically put in ESL (English as a Second Language) class by default, but my science and math scores put me in honors classes. Less than a year in, I asked the faculty to switch me to a “regular” English class since I did not believe the ESL system was of good quality for immigrant students. For being able to take control over my education, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 2: I started high school. I chose to enroll in French classes on my first day, and so began my journey to fluency. For the opportunity to be immersed in a new language and become trilingual, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 3: I joined varsity sports and high school clubs. I was pushed to balance my education with extracurriculars, and during this year, my interest in service for the Latino population began. For the encouragement to grow in civic areas, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 4: I found my passion for immigration issues. I got involved with various Latino service organizations in my community in Raleigh, North Carolina, and volunteered at the Mexican Consulate. For opening my eyes to the issues that immigrants face and making me realize I had every opportunity in the world to be an agent of positive social change, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 5: I was cast in a musical. I set aside my volleyball shoes and donned tap shoes instead! I had the smallest part and only a few lines, and I felt on top of the world. For the reassurance that “fake it till you make it” is a very real and possible thing, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 6: I began my college career at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I got various academic scholarships, which lessened the financial burden — this is almost unheard of in Argentina. Doing things the “Carolina way” meant that I was encouraged to put as much effort into community service as I did academics. For rewarding my academic record, encouraging me to make the best of a liberal arts education, and allowing me to give back to the community through various passion projects, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 7: I began working at a Mexican restaurant, becoming part of a diverse group of restaurant staff, with people from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Russia, Scotland, and the United States, and among many others. In this restaurant, I learned the value of diverse perspectives and experiences and the unity that the Mexican culture was founded upon. For opening my world to many cultures and the immigrant experiences of many, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 8: I became a journalist for the university newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, and for a Spanish-language newspaper, Que Pasa, in Raleigh. My first story for the DTH was a profile on the “Mythbusters” crew, who gave a talk at Carolina. For Que Pasa, it was a feature on The Day of the Dead 5k, a run organized by popular Mexican restaurant in Raleigh called Centro, which has focused on community engagement and giving back since it opened. For the opportunity to get published, and to learn that my voice mattered and was worth sharing, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 9: I packed my bags and moved to Paris. I got one of 15 spots at Sciences Po’s School of Journalism program and an internship at the New York Times. How on Earth?! Well. Everything I had experienced to date secured me one of those coveted spots. For the foundation needed to get world-class education and incredible work experience, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 10: I was part of the Obama presidential campaign. I passed out American flags at the Democratic National Convention and became part of history. I also graduated college and, shortly after, embarked on a journey to Malawi to produce a documentary about clean drinking water. For valuing my immigrant voice even though I couldn’t vote, and for putting me at the head of a group representing my adopted country and my native one abroad, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 11: My application did not make it through the U.S. work visa lottery, and I had to leave the country. I had to leave my job at Students of the World (now CSpence Group) in San Francisco, where I was producing advertising and experiential campaigns for social good. As the plane was landing in Buenos Aires, I cried. And yet, I knew I’d figure things out — and I did. For instilling resilience and teaching me to always have a plan B and C, to the United States, I am thankful.

Year 12: I enrolled at the Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley. I studied full time, worked on social campaigns full time, and did yoga seven days a week. I was as centered as I’ve ever been. How? Focus. Resilience. Determination. For the opportunity of higher education, developing my business skills greatly, and continuing to do meaningful work in the creative world, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 13: I became a steady volunteer of FWD.us, expanding my knowledge and experience with policy and advocacy. I planned a major Immigrant Heritage Month event, bringing together and celebrating immigrant artists from the Bay Area. For the opportunity to see the direct impact that my leadership can have in highlighting the positives about immigration and sharing it with my community, to the United States, I say thank you.

Year 14: I volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Upon defeat, I started the 617 Forum with Julia, my roommate. The 617 Forum is a community of civic-minded individuals committed to engage and fight for progress. I got friends involved who’d never been engaged in politics. For the opportunity to have an impact in my community even though I cannot vote, to the United States, I say thank you.

And today, as I celebrate my 14th anniversary and begin Year 15, I have the honor of being part of Jehmu Greene’s advisory team on her campaign for Democratic National Committee Chair. And this year promises to keep me busy. And for this — the opportunity and encouragement to stay focused, stay engaged, stay inspired, and keep doing the best I can so that I can give back to others, to the United States, I say thank you.

My reality is defined by a powerful immigrant journey, and I choose to honor and celebrate it.

Argentina was my foundation, but the United States is my home, and everything I do directly benefits this, our nation.

I hope that our nation won’t fail me like Argentina did, because like all progress, mine is incremental. I will continue to pave the way to bigger and better things, here or anywhere.

Finally, for the opportunities and challenges to realize my potential …

To the United States, I say THANK YOU.