Let's start with some high school pictures...
I was 14 years old when my mom propped an empty suitcase in front of me and said “whatever fits in here, that’s what you can take with you”...
Just a few months prior my parents had decided we were leaving Venezuela and permanently relocating to the United States, so while the suitcase scene didn’t shock me, it did feel like a turning point in my teenage mind...we were leaving.. I had been asked to pack...the move was real!
I saw my childhood home come apart when my mom decided that the easiest way to get ready for the move was to sell everything in the house and start anew. I remember very clearly when strangers would walk into our home and make offers on furniture, picture frames, kitchen appliances, even our Christmas tree ornaments were for sale. I spent the last few nights sleeping on the floor because my bed had been sold and celebrated my 15th birthday in an empty house blowing candles on a cake that sat on a kitchen stool, no bells or whistles, there was no time for a “quince” party, we were leaving the country within the next week!
On December 31st, 1996 we boarded a plane and said goodbye to our native country. I can still hear my sister Claudia sobbing at the airport and screaming “please don’t take me, I don’t want to leave!”, that moment will remain a jarring memory for me. It was the first day of our new lives and at the time it sounded odd that my parents had picked that day to move to a new country but 25 years later I can see why it was the perfect date; it meant closing a chapter and starting a new one along with ending a year and ringing in a new one, the meaning is deeper than I ever thought 25 years ago.
The first few months were rough as I navigated the American high school experience as a newly arrived international freshman. Leaving my all-girl Catholic school to be “dumped” in a less than desirable public American high school wasn’t my cup of tea and I felt really lost for most of that first year. I was no longer wearing a preppy uniform every day, there were no praying nuns with cheerful attitudes or people willing to be friendly just because that was the right thing to do. Instead, I was faced with unwelcoming mean kids that made fun of me for not speaking English and for not understanding their sexual jokes, teachers that were mostly disconnected from the students’ needs, and a high school campus that looked more like a jail than it did a school. I often wondered what I had done to deserve this and so badly wanted to go back to the bubble I had lived in for the past 15 years.
Things at home weren’t great either because we had gone from living a comfortable life in a big house to being crammed in a two-bedroom rental apartment. My dad was no longer Dean of Architecture in a prestigious university; he was now a pizza delivery driver trying to make ends meet and saving every penny so we could have a decent life as immigrants. My mom was no longer the always available stay-at-home mom, she was now another breadwinner and my sisters and I were spending more time alone than we ever had. Those first few months felt lonely and ominous, they brought so much anxiety and disruption to our perfect family but they also taught me the first lessons I learned in my new life as an immigrant, as the foreigner that I had become and the one I would always be. I learned that letting go of what was would be the only way to move forward, I learned that home is where your family is and that it is in difficult times that we truly understand the value of love, resilience, and sacrifice.
Our life in the United States was just getting started…(to be continued!)