Towards the end of my senior year in high school, I was dating a foreign exchange student from Colombia, South America. I had been close friends with her cousins for awhile — Colombian immigrants — and came to know her through them. We were all in marching band together.
After graduation, Maria (not her real name) and I stayed together through the summer, until she had to return home. I’d promised to visit her that Christmas, so my freshman year in college (NC State, see awkward dorm selfie above) I sold my original 8-bit Nintendo System, all my games, and emptied my savings account to pay for a plane ticket and a passport.
The year was 1992. Pablo Escobar was still on the loose and Colombia was a country in conflict. I didn’t care. My parents, who had divorced 4 years prior and hadn’t seen or talked to one another since, both came to the airport to see me off. It was damned odd.
My experience in Colombia was anything but. I spent most of my time in a small town called Tunja, got to meet her family, her brother and sisters. I ate food I’d never eaten in my life, I saw beautiful countryside and met a lot of really wonderful people. I was only there for 3 weeks, but much of what happened there changed my life. I even learned to speak a tiny bit of Spanish. ¿Entender?
The biggest realization I came to is how remarkably similar people are. There is kindness and conflict everywhere. There is struggle, there is celebration. There is love.
Once home, I remained close friends with Maria’s cousin Claire (again, not her real name) for years. Twelve years after coming back from Colombia, I got to watch Claire and her father take the oath of citizenship. I felt privileged to be a part of it. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room, as the cheesy scenery video played with Lee Greenwood’s “Proud To Be An American” playing in the background.
It made me realize how jaded and ungrateful I was. How blasé I’d become about my own country. I didn’t know any of their stories, and I didn’t need to. What they felt was real.
Claire and I remain friends. She is my oldest friend, having truly known me longer (and better) than anyone in my life — even my parents. She is an immigration attorney living with her husband in Vail, Colorado, currently helping her clients navigate the Trump administration’s lunacy.
Ironically enough, the town in Colorado that ICE has been most aggressive in is Pueblo — my parents’ hometown. Her words, her observation, not mine.
The only reason I was able to open my mind to other cultures is because I had friends from other cultures. Growing up I had asian friends, and black friends, and Latino friends — as well as gay friends, atheist friends, and differently-abled friends. Each of them taught me in their own way that we are all so much more similar than we are different.
It saddens and angers me to know that there are whole populations of native-born American citizens, who — having never left their hometowns, their communities, their philosophies — are so afraid of “the other” that they voted a bully, a racist, a misogynist and a plutocrat into office to drive our country back into the dark ages. People who are so uneducated that they would vote for a man who is doomed to repeat a history neither he nor they really have a grasp of.
They will never have that person in their lives to show them that all of us are, in fact, “the other.”