“Where are you from?”
This question defines so many interactions every day. People coming and going, relocating, and redefining their roots and who they are. Studying in a big city like Chicago I’ve been privileged to meet so many people from different parts of the world and in conversations with other immigrants I’ve found that uprooting one’s life to take on a new and exciting pursuit comes with some significant cultural tradeoffs. From my own family’s experience, we found that the States offers opportunities to reach a comfortable lifestyle with customizable luxuries and reliable infrastructure that is also accompanied by a deep longing for the day-to-day warm customs of “home”. Things for us like family get-togethers every weekend, street vendors selling tacos, weekend mercados, greetings from old neighbors and friends that have grown up in the community.
My conception of belonging to a community took on several phases starting with feeling like I did not belong in the spaces that I inhabited since I grew up in a predominantly White suburb outside of the city and with my extended family living in Mexico our family felt out of place. In my daily interactions my status as a Mexican immigrant took center stage to remind me that I was not truly “American”. Instead I felt caught in a tug-of-war of competing and conflicting expectations for who I was meant to be. By the time I graduated college, I recognized myself as a Mexican-American blend and could use higher education identity development jargon to make sense of it all in a U.S. context. Then came my big trip to Colombia where belonging to a community took on a different meaning altogether.
It was my first time living outside of the U.S. and in Latin America. The welcome I received was completely different than that of the U.S. Colombians were excited to share their culture with foreigners and curious to learn from them too. They concerned themselves with taking care of newcomers and making sure we didn’t feel alone or out of place. They asked me “Estás amañada?” (“Do you feel at home here?) every day for the first two months of my time there. Strangers offered to show me around the city or suggested food to try and places to visit. I also observed that Colombian culture prioritizes relationships over tasks and productivity. Personalized greetings in the mornings acknowledge everyone in the room and goodbyes usually express gratitude or good wishes for the other person. This also means that a conversation in a crowded room is usually never between two people; it is open to commentary from everyone. So you can imagine that privacy and rudeness are relative concepts coming from a U.S. context. People were somewhat confused by my Mexican-American background since I can speak both English and Spanish fluently, but lack the cultural capital from my birth country, which makes it difficult to relate sometimes to my Colombian cousins.
All in all, however, there was a sense of homecoming during my stay in Colombia. Returning to Latin America, the land where people are loud, expressive, passionate, and unpunctual is a bit different from my upbringing in the U.S. It is confusing to be torn and wandering between “homes” and seeing which one is the right fit. Yet, within a 5 month stay in Colombia I found a community of people who cared about me, offered to help me settle in, and missed me when I left. It did not matter where I came from, rather, who I was and most importantly, that circumstances brought us together to enjoy each others’ company. In a time when we let borders separate us, my experience in Colombia reminded me that our connection to one another as human beings sews us together in a quilt of humanity. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes on the topic of ubuntu, “It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours'”. “Home”, then is not where I was born, it is the people and spaces that welcome me in to break bread just as I am. No pre-qualifications. No judgment. Just us.