Let's Talk Human Rights Blog: "My Story of Coming to the U.S."

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My story of coming to the U.S.

Our guest blogger this month, Gabriela Fuentes, has a Masters in Communication and Development and advocates for intersectional global social issues such as reproductive rights, immigration, and culture. Currently, she works with a well-recognized non-profit in Iowa. She was a dancer, will always be an actress, and is a Spanish teacher too who believes that art is a strong tool for social change. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, dancing, taking pictures, and theater.

Gabriela Fuentes

Have you ever been high? Hey! And I'm not talking about drugs. I'm talking about altitude. I bet you haven't been at 11,942 feet above the sea level. I'm from the highest administrative capital in the world: I'm from La Paz, Bolivia, which rests on the Andes. Besides, I think I'm the only Bolivian here in Des Moines Iowa...if you know somebody, let me know! 

My parents met in California. My father is a Vietnam veteran who is Chilean-American, and my mother is Bolivian. They thought it was going to be so much better to raise kids in either Chile or Bolivia, because in the United States, you can't throw "la chancla" if your children are misbehaving...and I think they were privileged in having that option, and it gave me the opportunity to see both different contexts. 

So, we left California and went back to South America. In Chile, things didn't work, but they did in Bolivia so we stayed there until I was 25. It’s not that I was unhappy there, but I wanted to challenge myself...speak another language, live in a different place. You see, Bolivia is a chaotic-quiet, big-small place that you would love to live if you hate monotony, trust me. We have different types of weather in each different city. If you like cold places, come to the high planes. If you like hot weather all year round, come to the Oriente region, next to Brazil and the jungle. If you like something in between, there are cities in the middle of these 2 areas. 

When I refer to big-small, I'm trying to say that in Bolivia, 23 people live in a square mile. Here in the US, that number goes up to 36 per square mile. 

Bolivia photos

I say “chaotic-quiet” because although almost nobody respects laws or traffic, we have a march almost every day because nobody is ever happy with the government. We have been colonized by Catholics, but we still believe in ancient gods and goddesses from our Aymaran culture. We are categorized as one of the "poorest" countries after Haiti. Although all of that is a reality, we always have time for friends, to host people, to have parties. It's a very nice place to grow up surrounded by friends, family, and unique traditions. 

Anyway, coming back to my story. I was 25. As a hobby, I've done a lot of research in theater and a lot of theater. I wrote stories from the ironies that my eyes saw. I was done studying communications, got a diploma to teach in the Universities, and I was working. What happened? 

"Muack Muack Muack, mamacitaaaa witu fiuuu, ricaaaa...." 

I was on the receiving end of lots of catcalls! That was the beginning. All my life I’ve received them, but my critical eyes started to wonder why a “simple” act like this one, can evolve into killing a woman and then placing the blame on her for her decisions. 

So, I started to reply to all of them: “Would you treat your mother or sister and sister like this?” 

One time, a truck driver said something so nasty to me that it made me respond back very loudly on the street. Everybody looked, but no one interfered. When I got home, I told my family and my dad commented: "maybe you have done something wrong." 

I thought, “What?! I HAVEN'T! I WAS WALKING! NO ONE HAS THE RIGHT TO DO OR SAY SOMETHING TO ME IF I DON'T WANT TO! WHY IS MY FAULT!?” And yep. That was definitely the beginning. 

From January to June 2019, Bolivia has registered 56 femicides so far! 56 people died just because they were born women. This is alarming! 

I knew I had to do something, and I thought about taking my professional career to another level. So I passed the TOEFL, I found Ohio University, which was the only university in the United States that had the master's program I wanted, Communication and Development (that basically is communication projects in “underdeveloped” countries, like many in Africa or Oh! mine) and they told me I can get financial help if I was a good student (I've always been one) so I got the financial help and they gave me a job as a Spanish teacher at the University. 

I packed my entire life into only 2 suitcases, and I left my chaotic-quiet life when I was 26. 

I knew nobody in Ohio, but the people at the University were so nice, and I met so many friends from so many different parts of the world, that opened my eyes even more about the global situation that every woman faces every day. 

I graduated with my master's and also earned my certificate in Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies. I was ready to change the world and I moved to Washington DC, again without knowing anyone.

But again, I often heard the comment, "You look very new". Being new is a problem because, of course, no one knows you. If you look different it will be a lot of implicit biases, and it takes time to build a network by yourself in a culture that is not yours, in a language that you need to continue learning every day, with an accent that you will never lose. 

Getting a job after moving to Washington, D.C. was difficult. Even though I had all the qualifications, it seemed that nothing was enough. I had a master's, but I ran out of money living in an expensive city. Things at that time got really bad. I will never forget the month when I was eating once per day because all of my savings and my “perfect plan” to have a job didn't work, and I did not have money to buy food. Since I came to the U.S. by myself, I never asked for money from anyone, and when my family asked how things were, I was like: It will get better. 

That happened 2 years ago. I needed to eat, so I started working in a retail store. Very far away from what I wanted, but hey! A job is a job, right? I've always thought that no matter the path if you have a goal, you will soon get there. 

My goal took 2 years to show up. Now, I'm working with an organization that advocates for reproductive health in Iowa. I'm starting there, believing that women’s & reproductive rights are so crucial that intersects in many ways with humans’ rights, and I can continue learning that from any part of the world. No woman/human being should die or live a life she does not want because the lack of her rights/reproductive rights. 

We might be living in different places, but in the end, we all should have the same rights. Here, I am a Latina who has a dream to continue learning from our Latin American context, embracing our different cultures and beliefs, trying to make contagious the belief that we can improve this country if we are empowered people. 

I'm 30 years old and I'm starting my life from square one in a place I don't know, and it's fine. The process is always more important than the outcome. We have a life to live, to try, to fail, to cry (maybe a lot) but laugh too, and stand up again. 

Maybe my life sounds happier than the rest, I cannot think about coming to a country with no language, carrying nothing...just your family, and also carrying with you the strong desire to have a better life. All of us have an immigration story: our great grandparents, parents, partners...us! The nature of a human being is to migrate. That's what we celebrated in June - Immigrant Heritage Month! So please, take your time to listen to more stories, and realize that in the future, it could be your own children or grandchildren that are the ones who migrate. 

And please smile at the people next to you. You don't know how lonely it gets sometimes for someone who is new, and a smile can make a huge difference.

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