Being an immigrant: fighting against xenophobia, fear and nostalgia
By Alexander Zapata
“(…) Exile and loneliness accompany the one who leaves and the one who remains. And the lonelier the one who stays, the more like a foreigner he becomes, like the one who leaves.”
Three suitcases try to summarize 32 years of life, phrases that seek to justify what it costs us to understand, to appease what burns deep in the soul. “The children’s future,” “it’s for the better,” “better times will come.”
The crack of dawn receives us in an overwhelming way with Cruz Diez’s airport classic (a kinetic work that curiously you can also find on the outskirts of Marlins Park in Miami) and a long line to get those exit passes to go to the uncertain, the unknown, to the new that generates expectations but at the same time represents a huge fear. We have come to the point we had never imagined, the word exile no longer rings hollow, it comes without warning to form part of our lives, of the everyday.
Diego looks at me with the innocence of a 6-month old, trying to find who knows what in dad’s eyes. Camila imagines that she is going for another walk, that it will be one more stroll and we’ll soon be at home, with her dolls, with her grandparents and her friends. I look at them, my soul about to break again but there she is, my wife, my partner, my friend, and I remember that there is no time for internal fractures. I turn towards the window of the plane and Maiquetía — the airport that today has said good-bye to millions of Venezuelans — begins to look smaller and smaller. “Someday,” I think in a scattered way. Then before losing the Venezuelan coast from my sight, I completed the sentence I had left half-heartedly: “someday I hope to see you again, my land.”
It’s been 4 years since that day in which fleeing to uncertainty was the only solution to search for the life that our children deserve, and which slipped through our fingers in Venezuela. I never thought it would be that long, to be honest. I reread those lines written in April 2014 and I remember feeling back then that it would be temporary; just long enough for the country’s current situation to calm down. But life, in its unexpected coming and going, showed me that what you expect does not always happen. Today Venezuela is mired in the worst of misfortunes of its contemporary history, and my idea of returning has been fading with time, to the point of being unrealistic.
Without a defined status
“You have to wait” has been the recurrent response when we went to the asylum office in search of an answer. And although at the time of writing these lines we do not know exactly if we will have our expected ending, we still cling to the idea that this is now our home.
Our story is no different from that of many other Venezuelans. Requesting political asylum in the United States is the only way out of being persecuted for thinking freely; for exercising selfless journalism; for not being “militant;” for being harassed and threatened for daring to denounce those who insist on turning Venezuela into a space where criticism has no place; for refusing to be mouthpieces for the government. For those reasons we are requesting protections that we know would be hard to find in another country.
However, that protection is still only half-hearted. Everyday I go to my mailbox religiously, hoping to find an affirmative answer to our situation; an answer that allows my children to stop running. I don’t want t Camila to tell me again, like she did when she was 4 years old, “I like this country because nobody here wants to kill you dad.” We know one day that it will come, but while that happens, our immigration status remains undefined, totally uncertain.
But despite not knowing what will happen, our family agrees on something: The United States has become our home. From April 2014 until today many things have changed. Populism made its way to power, and life for immigrants became even more of a challenge. However, we have loved and worked in this land as if it were ours. In 2014, I delivered meals on a motorcycle in Miami and helped park cars. Today, life has given me the good fortune to return to my eternal passion, journalism, something that has given me joy and misfortune.
An Emmy for my wife (also a journalist) and for me, becoming a Spanish newspaper columnist in Nevada with a radio program, are part of my day-to-day life. Gone were the days of thunder, the tough moments that fortunately, made us the family and the team that we are today. The United States, this great nation that for years has been the refuge of the needy, opened its doors to us and we have respected and fought for it as if it were ours. Four years of success thanks to effort and hard work, something that in my country could never have been achieved.
But all those achievements — not only for us but for millions of immigrants — have not been enough. The racial and ethnic hatred that seemed to have disappeared from the United States has returned with renewed vigor. We see it from small groups of white supremacists and their absurd proposals, even in the official anti-immigrant speech, our greatest fear is that this visceral hatred reaches our children. They arrived here through no fault of their own and I always tell them that this country is theirs.
And while we have to deal with the xenophobia, racism, and the problems that the United States faces today, we have another battlefield at the same time, one in which roots and nostalgia play a fundamental role and which we have to deal with, I imagine for many years.
Let me explain. Recently reviewing texts from friends scattered around the world, I stumbled upon a phrase that left me thinking for several days. It said: “Exile is hard when those who made you laugh out loud are in countries and continents away. Being a foreigner grows old fast. Exile and loneliness accompany the one who leaves and the one who remains. And the lonelier is the one who stays, so foreign he is like the one who leaves. “
And it is that over time, when you leave Venezuela, you lose fear: the fear of insecurity, scarcity, eternal chaos, corruption, impunity and many other evils that afflict our land. With time, the fears of a society that is in decline recede, but at the same time others appear. The fear of forgetting is one of them; forgetting what we once were, what we could become as a country; forgetting our customs, our streets, our friends, our smiles, our experiences, memories and good times.We fear,, like the phrase says “we are all foreigners.” And there’s the greatest fear of all: to return some day to Venezuela (if we can) and quickly discover that there is little or nothing to find there.
Being an immigrant, being a foreigner, is a struggle in different battlefields. It is the ability to adapt to a new country and its culture, to confront xenophobia, and to overcome (or at least contain) the nostalgia that the deep bonds to your past, and what you left behind, causes you..