By Kimberly Blacutt, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
When we meet someone new, one of the first questions we have is: Where are you from?
The place that a person belongs is an inherent identifier. The places people come from often shape our expectations of them. There’s an idea that someone’s essence might lie in whence they came; and the question is natural, because you can rest assured that a person you’ve just met did not suddenly plunge out of a black hole and into existence.
Everyone has to come from somewhere, right?
In this global era, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pinpoint where someone “comes from,” and it has been only recently, when giving introductions and meeting new people, that I’ve realized the question does not have a simple answer for me, nor many of those I’ve encountered since I’ve started college.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, “In 2010, some 214 million people — 3 per cent of the world’s population — lived outside their country of origin.” Note that currently, the fifth largest country in the world is Brazil, at around 200 million people, and as writer, Pico Iyer points out, that means that these 214 million people together, are the world’s fifth largest nation. “Today, migration affects nearly every country in the world, either as point of origin, transit, or destination and often, all three at once,” In fact, According to United States Census Bureau, “the United State’s Foreign-Born Population Nears 37 Million, and more than one in five people in the U.S. are first or second generation.”
To explain this concept of home and belonging in our new, global age, I wanted to start with the small stuff. By that, I mean, I just wanted to talk to other people like me, who have to stop and think before they answer that question. So, I interviewed a few fellow classmates at Cornell University and asked them the questions I had for myself. They told me: where they came from, where they live now, and where they want to go.
So, without further ado, I would like to introduce my interviewees, please meet:
Nick Mileti, his parents are Bulgarian. He has been living in South Africa for the past ten years, and he was born in Los Angeles, California, and has visited 34 countries.
Daniel Villegas, his parents and family are Colombian. He was born in Colombia but moved to the US when he was around seven. He’s mostly been living in Miami since then.
Lizette Acosta, her parents were both born in Mexico. She was born in, and has lived in California her whole life.
Neel Gupta, his parents are both from India. He’s lived in Carbondale, Illinois, Bombay, India, and Ithaca, NY.
The first series of questions I asked dealt with where these people came from. Following are questions:
ON PARENT’S MIGRATIONS STORIES:
KB: How did your parents meet?
NICK MILETI: They met in LA, that’s why I was born in Cali.
KB: Do you enjoy being the daughter of immigrants? Do you like being this mix?
SHANTI KUMAR: Yes, it does come with a challenge though. Like in public, people sometimes don’t realize that my parents are married at all. We checked into a hotel once and they checked in my mom and my dad was right behind her and they were like “Sir, we’ll get to you in one moment,” and he’s like, “no I’m married to her!”
SHANTI KUMAR: They’re racially very different. Sometimes my dad doesn’t want to go into or stand outside the lobby if he’s in the city, if he’s carrying lots of bags because he doesn’t want people to think he’s a terrorist. Standing outside a fancy building with mysterious bags, so he’ll wait in the car or something when we’re going up.
KB: How did your parents decide to come here to Miami/New Jersey?
DANIEL VILLEGAS: The thing wasn’t really to come to Miami or New Jersey, it was more to get away from Bogotá. It was sort of a tough climate of sorts, politically, safety wise, also to have a new cultural perspective for me as well as new opportunities.
KB: What do your parents do here?
DANIEL VILLEGAS: My father’s a case analyst my mother’s a financial analyst.
KB: Did they both find jobs easily here?
DANIEL VILLEGAS: No, not at first.
KB: Did they have trouble as immigrants in this country?
DANIEL VILLEGAS: Yeah, I mean my father studied economy and my mother studied economy, they’re both professionals, but when they first got here, their degrees didn’t get qualified –or validated for a while, and when they first got here, my mom was a lunch cafeteria worker. My father was factory worker. They had to build up.
KB: Why did your parents want to live in the United States?
LIZETTE ACOSTA: My dad came on his seventeenth birthday. He came because he thought that that was the only way to make a living, be successful, he came from a really small town, and all his life was in poverty, he believed by coming he he’d be able to make a living, and maybe one day go back and build a big house in where he’s from.
He would work two jobs, go to school at night for English. He really values education. He roughed it out while he was here the first two years.
My mom kind of just came because her mom came here. She had just graduated from high school, and it was like her high school graduation trip to come visit her mom. After being here fro the summer she kind of liked it, she just stayed, she met my dad.
KB: Why did they stay?
LIZETTE ACOSTA: For them it was a better opportunity. My mom had the intentions of going back. She was only supposed to be there for summer and she was going to go back and start her career training, she wanted to be an executive secretary. [But then] her grandpa had passed away, and there was no reason for her to return.
KB: You’re parents had to apply for citizenships, was that difficult for them?
NILIM GUPTA: It was super easy, I mean my parents are both really smart the citizenship test was a complete joke for them. And they didn’t have any criminal history, I think the United states really accepted them.
KB: Do you think they feel at home here?
NILIM GUPTA: I think the biggest problem is that none of the family is here and in India, family’s a huge thing. People live with their parents until they die.
KB: What would you say made your parents want to live here? Opportunity?
NILIM GUPTA: Yeah, opportunity.
KB: When people ask you where you’re from, what’s your typical response?
NICK MILETI: I usually try and summarize it. But people say “Oh Nick, Oh, He’s South African” that’s what sticks in people’s minds, because I did spend most of my time there.
My friends always used to joke, “I’m the first white, African-American” because in essence, it’s a fair statement because, you know, I have that African Culture, but in my mind I’ve always been American, always wanted to come back here, follow the politics watch the movies, listen to the music, the culture.
I felt like I was visiting South Africa. I feel like I’m African American.
If someone has a certain heritage, at what point does that continue to shape them? What does it mean to be African? is it the color of your skin? Is it the culture? I always felt American.
KB: If you had to pick one place, and say you’re from there, where would it be?
NICK MILETI: America. I feel like nationality is not genetic, is not biological. It’s not where you’re born, isn’t not where you’re passport’s from. It’s your culture and it’s your beliefs. That’s what shapes your nationality.
KB: Do you feel like you’re multicultural?
NICK MILETI: I speak Bulgarian, I eat Bulgarian. That was my culture at home, and you spend a lot of time at home, so I definitely think that has shaped me, but there’s this other factor of what you want.
I decided I wanted to be more American. I didn’t watch local news, I watched CNN. All those small decisions shape ultimately who you become. You determine your nationality yourself.
KB: When people ask you where you’re from, what do you say? Do you have any trouble with this question?
NEEL GUPTA: Oh yeah, totally, when I came to Cornell I started saying southern Illinois, but I knew people here who knew me as being from Ithaca, so that made it weird. And so then, around them, I’d say Ithaca… but yeah, southern Illinois.
KB: Do you ever tell people you’re from India?
NEEL GUPTA: I mean, they can tell. Indian people do ask me, where I’m from in India, so I tell them where my parents were born.
SHANTI KUMAR: when it comes down to me, I look at the group of white Jewish kids, and I’m like I know what that’s like, kind of. And then I look at the group of Indian kids and I know what that’s like, kind of. But if I go into either group, they know I’m kind of, slightly different. I’ve been very comfortable in both types of groups but I don’t feel like I completely get all the jokes they’re making or completely get all the references.
KB: Do you have any trouble when people ask you where you’re from?
SHANTI KUMAR: I mean, I say I’m from the Bronx, and they’re like yeah, but what are you? And then, you know I joke about it and I say, I’m a hinjew! Half Jew, half Hindu!
It’s been more of a struggle to figure out what to say in college, because if I say one the other one doesn’t feel true. My mom used to tell me you are 100% Hindu and 100% Jewish. And I’m like, that’s mathematically impossible.
KB: Are you used to having to answer the question: Where are you from?
LIZETTE ACOSTA: Depending who asks it, I know how to answer. Here I just say I’m from California cause that’s what most people are getting at. I haven’t come across more or less the question: What are you?
KB: Ethnicity wise?
LIZETTE ACOSTA: I do identify as being American, but ethnicity wise, I’m Mexican. Cause I really don’t know what American is. When you fill out those bubble sheets. I’m more Mexican.
NICK MILETI: There wasn’t a notion of home.
Home is where I am right now. You don’t associate home with an area or a building. Home is wherever you are at the time. People ask me where I live, and I’m like “High Rise Five.” And they’re like no, where do you live, and I’m like actually, “High Rise Five! All my stuff is there, you don’t get it! I actually live in High Rise Five.”
KB: Where do you consider home?
NEEL GUPTA: Carbondale.
NEEL GUPTA: It’s where my closest friends are, I feel like I know the people in Carbondale and I really fit in. And I feel like my room in Carbondale is my room in Carbondale and nowhere else.
KB: Why? What’s special about it? Is it the room you’ve lived in the most?
NEEL GUPTA: No, it’s the room I’ve loved the most? My family’s pretty split up, my mom and my sister are there. Vacation, that’s where I go.
NICK MILETI: Because I have all these nationalities, I’m not 100% of either one, and that always leaves room for feeling not part of the group, and I’ll tell you why: Cultures change through time, if you move out, let’s say go to college and come back, when you come back things may be different, when I go back, the notion of being South African is kind of different.
KB: Do you consider yourself American?
NEEL GUPTA: Yeah, but not completely. I’m Indian-American, my heritage is in India, but I was born in the US and have lived here for most of my life.
KB: If you could only pick one, what would you pick?
NEEL GUPTA: If I could only pick one I would say Indian, because I’m not gonna break the chain of an entire ancestry.
KB: What parts would you say you have a stronger sense of belonging in?
DANIEL VILLEGAS: It’s not so much entire geographic areas; it’s more little spaces.
KB: Like groups of people?
DANIEL VILLEGAS: Groups of people, I find a lot of attraction to pedagogic areas. Like school, is something I’m attracted to, or University. Here at Cornell, the entire campus is fantastic.
KB: Do you consider yourself patriotic towards any country?
DANIEL VILLEGAS: No, not at all.
KB: Not even with sports?
DANIEL VILLEGAS: No.
KB: Do you consider yourself patriotic towards any country?
NICK MILETI: (Nick is wearing a US soccer team jacket) Definitely, in the world cup they let us wear what ever jersey’s we wanted on Fridays, and I wore this jacket. It’s definitely contextual for people like us, depends if your in Africa, you know, it depends on the kind of people you’re with. People ask me, “What’s your favorite country?” I say, “United States!” This is actually my favorite country.
KB: Do you consider yourself patriotic?
NEEL GUPTA: No, I consider myself a world citizen.
KB: Do you consider yourself patriotic?
SHANTI KUMAR: No! (laughs) The first time I felt a twinge of patriotism was when Obama was elected, I was like, “Oh my goodness this country made a correct decision!”
I was talking to my friend about fighting in the army if we were drafted, and he was like “totally!” and I was like “I would not! I’d move to Canada or go to jail.”
KB: How about sports? Do you want the US to win when they’re playing?
SHANTI KUMAR: I think the US has so many good things going for it and they’re up against Ghana or something, I’m totally rooting for Ghana! Because Ghana should get a world cup! They have fewer things! I generally root for different country other than the US, I don’t think the US should win, I guess I’m not really a patriot. It is sad when the US people cry.
Finally, I wanted to see where these individuals wanted to live in the future,
because maybe it’s not so much about where we come from so much as where we’re going.
KB: Where would you like to live? Ideally? Practically?
SHANTI KUMAR: Ideally, I would not live in the US because I just don’t want to live here, but I probably will end up here, and it’ll be fine. I think for my work I’ll end up somewhere temporarily in Africa. Maybe Italy, where the organization I want to work for is.
I would not want to live in the United States, nor in Israel God no!, or India, certainly not.
KB: Why not?
SHANTI KUMAR: I think I don’t want to live in the US because I’m not that patriotic and I don’t want my kids to grow up in the United States because I want them to have more exposure, so they learn the multiple languages that I never did. The thing about the US is that it has so many opportunities and what not, the school systems are pretty great and free. You can get decent free schooling here. I don’t want to live in Israel or India though, where I guess a lot of Jews or Indians could go back to. Israel for more political reasons… I don’t want to be there and I don’t like what the government is doing. In India, I don’t think I could survive without knowing Hindi. Somewhere in Europe on the Mediterranean would be ideal.
KB: Do you envision yourself living in Colombia, or working there in the future?
DANIEL VILLEGAS: I envision myself working there, not necessarily living there fulltime. I don’t quite envision myself living anywhere in particular. Not necessarily because I can’t chose, but because I don’t want to live in one specific point. I kind of enjoy the change in culture, confining myself in just Colombia or just the United States would seem sort of constraining.
KB: Where do you envision your self living/working in the future?
NICK MILETI: I definitely want to stay here, I want to go back to Cali.
KB: Where do you want to live in the future?
NEEL GUPTA: New Zealand.
NEEL GUPTA: Yeah, I’ve thought about it.
KB: So neither India nor the US?
NEEL GUPTA: I mean…
KB: You don’t have the urge to go back to a place?
NEEL GUPTA: I mean I’m young, I guess, eventually, India, I’d say. Because the US, I’ve lived here.
KB: Are you planning on going back home after you graduate?
LIZETTE ACOSTA: Yeah, I’m planning on going back to California.
As for me, when people ask me where I’m from I say Bolivia. Because right now, Bolivia’s home. I say, right now, because I didn’t consider Bolivia home when I first moved there in 2003 at nearly nine years old. When I moved there in 2003 and couldn’t speak Spanish, home was Tucson, Arizona, where I had friends that spoke the same language I did, where all the houses had walls that were painted, where there were no protestors on the streets. When I arrived I was “gringa,” and Tucson, Arizona was home.
I’ve been living in Bolivia, my father’s home country for ten years now, and I speak Spanish fluently, have developed close bonds with my family that lives there and have grown to love Bolivia. Bolivia is where my family is, Bolivia is where I celebrate holidays, Bolivia is where I know there are people who want me to succeed.
So when they ask me where I’m from, I say, “Bolivia,” and I mean it. And then I might hear something like “That’s so cool!” or “you’re the first one I’ve met!” or “so you’re an international student then?” followed by questions like “how do you like the US?” or “Aren’t visas annoying?” To which I’ll respond I’m a US citizen. And they’ll say, oh so you’re not really Bolivian. But I am Bolivian, and I’m American too. There’s a question about whether someone, who is a lot of different “things” is fully all of those “things,” or whether the mix makes it impossible for this someone to be wholly anything. I like to think that I’m 100% Bolivian and 100% American. And I don’t see that as a mathematical impossibility. I like to think I’m 200%, I’m bilingual, I’m bicultural, and I’m grateful to say so.
As of now, I can see myself living in Bolivia in the future, and yes, I would say I’m patriotic. ¡Viva Bolivia! … y Estados Unidos también!