I am an immigrant. An exile. I am a Venezuelan. And I am an American. But most of all, I am a human being.
These labels and names which have been ascribed to me are based on where I'm from and, sometimes, how I look. Despite any associated benefits and consequences they may carry, these categories have placed me in the same class as at least 41.3 million other residents of the United States, if not more.
Attitudes towards these millions of people have shifted recently from mostly general indifference to extreme scrutiny and, in some cases, rejection and hate. This is mostly due to the outpouring of refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East. As a fellow immigrant, this post is directed, not to these unfortunate victims, but to the immigrant who has built their life in America, though I welcome-and encourage-all to read it.
It might have had something to do with the fact I was raised in a cultural hotspot known as the "Capital of Latin America," but my identity as an immigrant and as a Hispanic was something I never called into question. I always felt I lived at the perfect intersection between two worlds. One, an Anglo-American nation which welcomed my family and I with open arms, allowing us to restart our lives in the U.S. The second, a hub of Spanish-speaking immigrants which made up the majority of my classrooms, neighborhoods, the shops I ventured into, and the community where I lived.
This might have been the reason why leaving the "Miami Bubble" was such an eye-opening and insightful experience. I arrived at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the last stop of the Deep South and home to my first long-term contact with Real America (and not North Cuba). I would like to make it explicitly clear that Gainesville has been and continues to be an incredible home to me. Go Gators!
What Gainesville and its daily experiences did make crystal clear was that I, Alfredo Ramirez, was in fact an immigrant, a distinct term which roughly translates to "I was not born here" in its most rudimentary context. This difference was apparent when new friends and strangers asked, once they discovered I was Hispanic, if I could dance well, what an arepa was, or mistook my pronunciation of Venezuela for "Minnesota."
The experiences also made it that much easier to find other people similar to myself. During my time in Gainesville, I have worked and collaborated with UF's Hispanic Heritage Month, the Gainesville Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and several other multicultural student organizations. My experiences with vastly different kinds of people from all corners of the globe and walks of life taught me an incredibly important principle, applicable to the situation the world finds itself in today:
One individual immigrant is part of a much larger and immense community of immigrants, regardless of where we are from, what language we speak, what religion we practice, or how we look.
If you take apart the word immigrant and instead choose to look at the person in corporeal form, you will find that there is a single, unifying characteristics among all classes and groups of immigrants. At one point or another, whether we know it or not, we, as immigrants, were once without a home.
Now I don't mean that we were all living on the streets. To some, the reality of the situation is actually much worse. In my case, as in many cases, it means that my parents decided to seek a new home, away from their native land, in order to find a better life for their new family. If that message didn't sink in, let me try again: my mother and father, having lived their entire lives in Venezuela and knowing it as the only country home to their friends, family, and history, made the conscious decision to seek a better life away from the one they grew up in, taking their children with them to a strange, new land.
This is a decision that does not come lightly. It means the life which you knew, the people you were friends with, the job you worked, and country you love are not good enough. If you want something better, you must leave all you know behind in the hope that there is something better waiting for you, requiring you to travel an uncertain amount of distance and time before you can reach that beacon. Even with the promise of a job and improved life, this is still a brutally tough decision to make. So much so that residents of conflict and struggling parts of the world choose to continue making their livelihood in the only homes they've ever known.
I can only be grateful my parents had the courage to undertake this burden and make a decision that has been wholly beneficial to my family. Yet, I still find myself worrying about the country and people that I left behind. This sympathetic worry, however, pales in comparison to the worries of my parents decades ago or to the people who continue living in the murder capital of the world. It is even less compared to the trauma suffered by the 59.5 million people forcibly displaced, according to the UN.
Now I am not here to advocate an open-door immigration policy nor amnesty to all who want enter this country; not only is this idea naïve, it also fails to remember that many of these people have no greater desire than to return home to try and rebuild their lives. But I will ask of my fellow immigrants and children of immigrants, next time you consider the status of another immigrant, exile, refugee, or whatever you desire to call these human beings, ask yourself the question: What if they had said no? What if you had been a victim of the same treatment and injustice which they suffer now?
If you ruminate on it for more than four seconds, you'll probably find out that you don't like the answer. And neither do those people which we continue to turn way. A false fear of security and xenophobia are not valid claims to defend a misguided refusal. I ask then that you open your arms to immigrants and refugees alike, proceeding with a normal degree of caution as before, and have America shine like a New Colossus once again, welcoming those "huddled masses yearning to be free."