America’s Reaction to Immigrants is Bogus

I moved to Bolivia 9 months ago to work for a religious non-profit organization and teach at a school. I grew up on the East Coast of the US, a military kid, and spent most of my life in the upper middle class. My father’s father was the son of an Austrian immigrant. My mother’s father was the son of Swedish immigrant. I am the “white” daughter of two “white” Americans. I have brown hair, brown eyes, and no distinctive features. There are a million of me back home.

In Bolivia, I am one of a kind. I get on a bus every morning to go to work where there are no other people of my skin tone, language, heritage, or culture. My Spanish is adequate enough, and I’ve managed to minimize my American accent such that I can pass to some as Argentinian. In the street markets this means I can get good produce deals, except when my husband is with me. My husband is 6'2", with blonde hair and a red beard. When he is with me, our produce automatically doubles in price.

I walk down the street and men whistle. They call out to me. In the States when men call out to me, I am “beautiful” or “honey”. Here, I am “blanca”.

When we applied for our residency visas, it took us twice as long and cost double the amount as it did our Canadian colleagues because we are from the US.

But I will tell you honestly — no one has made fun of my Spanish. No one has demeaned me for not using the correct word. No one has yelled in my face “Bienvenida a Bolivia — aqui hablamos Español” [Welcome to Bolivia — we speak Spanish here]. No one has accused me of being an illegal immigrant. Despite the prejudices that exist here, I have yet to experience the horrors that my hispanic immigrant friends experience on a regular basis in the United States.

People talk about me on the bus, on the street, and in the market. I hear their hushed voices; they assume I don’t speak Spanish. I rarely get a negative remark. It is typically a young girl commenting on how pretty my hair looks, or an older woman commenting on how soft my skin is. Plenty of teenage girls talk about my clothing, and more than one older gentleman has made a comment about my smile.

I don’t hear what my immigrant friends back home hear. I don’t hear “what is she doing here?” or “damn gringos, stealing our jobs”.

When I approach a street vendor to buy some eggplant and for some reason can’t remember the word for eggplant, I point and ask for the “purple vegetable”. The vendor smiles, and tells me how much it costs. I ask him what it is called. He smiles broader and says “berenjena”. I repeat back “berenjena”, attempting to copy his accent. He chuckles slightly, but nods his head, encouraging me to try again.

He does not judge me. He does not speak slowly as if I am stupid.

He helps me, and he does it with a smile.

If arguably the poorest country in South America, where over 40% of the population lives in poverty and over 60% comes from indigenous people groups, can handle living together and doing it somewhat respectfully — I think the self-proclaimed “leader of the free world” could start doing it too. How can a country lead the free world if it is still willingly trapped in the bondage of ethnocentrism?

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