Identifying with a Country that Turns Me Away

By Ximena Restrepo.

Donald Trump is #NotMyPresident.  

But, since I’m not even an American citizen that is a bit of an obvious statement.

I’m Colombian, so my president is a wealthy man from a wealthy family, named Juan Manuel Santos, destined to govern long before he was ever born. I don’t know much about him, or about Colombian political history, besides the fact that Juan Manuel Santos studied Economics and Business Administration at Kansas University. He was even in a Fraternity. He’s a frat boy, my president.

The reason this particular fact stands out, the university, not the frat, is that I spent seven years of my life in Kansas, and often had to confront the friendly local rivalry between Kansas State and Kansas University. I’ve always been a fan of KU; I followed their basketball and football teams as a teenager. Though my friends have always known me as the Colombian girl, they would never question that I was just as much a part of the community, of the school, of the country as they were.  They would come over to my house, eat Colombian food at our table, see the tiny traditional model balconies my mother placed on the walls as decoration, and they wouldn’t blink an eye. I could be both Colombian and their friend; Colombian and American, both Colombian and just like them.

From back here in Colombia, a few years back, I watched the live feed of Presidente Santos’ visit to the KU campus, the talk he gave, how he had great English but would slip into common mistakes like “taking decisions” instead of “making decisions” and other little things that somehow gave me comfort. I fit in there better than he could, I thought.

I find myself a lot more affected by the decisions Trump makes than by Santos’, and more even than I was ever affected by Obama’s. I didn’t watch Santos’ talk at KU thinking that’s my president. I didn’t even vote for him, or at all. Instead, I’ve followed American politics closely and deliberately since I’ve had use of political reason.  I’ve never felt capable of doing that in Colombia. Every liberal politician shot, every kidnapped person on rustic videotape, every massacre felt foreign to me: as if I were watching it on the history channel, or learning about it in middle school with Miss Calovich. 

Perhaps I consciously create this mental block because I never chose to be back. After seven years in the United States, an immigration judge decided that we would have to return. He decided that:

“Venezuela…

“Your honor, it’s Colombia.” our lawyer corrected.

“Colombia, right, is no longer an unsafe place and you will be just fine once you return.”

After quickly answering his phone to confirm a dinner reservation, he “granted” us, what a sweetheart, a year to appeal or return to Colombia on voluntary leave. So we came back. In August 2008, we boarded a plane, which to my three-year-old American sister felt like a vacation and to me felt like nothing. My parents had said, “don’t worry, we’ll be back in four to six months,” but I haven’t returned to the States since that day.

We left because we wanted to do things the right way. To never have to explain even one day of overstaying. Months after our departure, Obama was elected. Not long after that, people in my exact situation who stayed, legally or illegally, were covered under the Dream Act.

Who would have thought?

Last month, I signed up for a writing conference held at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro feeling like I could really come out of it with direction for my book; the book I’m writing about my life as a child immigrant, and how it’s affected me as an adult.  Back in October of last year, I was planning to visit the places I would go with my best friend in the world, my cousin Monica, when I returned to Kansas to visit her.

“I’ve been back in Colombia for going on nine years and I am still the “gringa” to a lot of people because I will never be Colombian enough.”

Neither of these events happened. While you, reading this, resist your new government from a country you chose to be in, I watch from the sidelines, as a government that isn’t mine decides what I can and cannot do. What I should and should not identify as. What flight I cannot book, how long I have to be in a long-distance relationship. Because to them, the American diplomats sitting behind a glass window at the embassy, I am at risk of wanting to stay in the country I once called mine, and that’s not okay. To them, my perfect English, my freelance job, my independence, the things I’m most proud of, are my biggest liabilities. To them, I am one step away from being “illegal,” a word that should never be applied to any human being.

So I’m bitter. I’ve been back in Colombia for going on nine years and I am still the “gringa” to a lot of people because I will never be Colombian enough; because my rolled r’s won’t always come out perfect on the first try, because I’ll confuse words and say perpetualiza instead of perpetúa, because all my friends are foreign, because I speak more English than Spanish during my day. The other side of that coin? I can’t visit Monica, or go to my friends’ weddings, or visit my significant other while he’s away.  I can’t apply for jobs or conferences because I am not quite American enough. Hell, I start to feel like I’m not American at all. After two failed attempts to return on completely innocent, temporary intentions, I start to feel like maybe I can’t resist something that I should never have thought was mine.

“While Trump is certainly not my president, he is yours.”

I’m not yet at a place where I can write to a young immigrant girl and inspire her, bring her spirits up, but I can make her, and you, hopefully, angry enough to do something; Something other than reading this, closing the window, and moving on with your day, because—while I can’t do much about the unfairness of my case—many of you can. While Trump is certainly not my president, he is yours. You are a citizen of a nation that prides itself on democracy, giving people a say and constantly has open phone lines to hear yours voice. I am not a criminal; I have a degree in Hispanic American Literature. I read books, I tell stories, but I don’t create lies. I feel just as American as I do Colombian. Is that so threatening?

I, with no valid say in anything American follow its politics, listen to its stories, and feel compelled to tell mine. You, please, read this, take responsibility of your privilege to act, to move as you wish, to speak, and oppose any kind of ban, wall, and policy that can perpetuate—perpetuar, if you will—the separation created when false fear sets in. 

Ximena Restrepo is a Colombian writer and an entrepreneur whose family sought refuge in the United States during the Colombian armed conflict, and lived there for seven years of her childhood. She currently lives in Medellin. 

Do you have a Global Perspective to share?
All of our articles are written by overseas activists. Submissions welcome around How-to mobilize overseas, Global Perspectives, and Feature Actions. Email americansresistingoverseas@gmail.com.

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