Not Identifying With Your Passport, Part II

This is a response to Marc Daalder’s October 16th article on the subject of country.

“Where are you from?” Ever since I stepped foot on this campus, this question has started nearly every interaction. Most of the time, I give a straightforward answer, but there’s always conflict. I could say I’m from Weston, Florida, since that’s where I spent the last ten years of my life. And if you were asking where I went to high school, learned to drive, or met my best friends, it’s the answer I would give.

But that’s not really what you’re asking when you ask somebody where they’re from. Most of the time, you’re looking to make assumptions. You’ve heard that Texans are conservative and expect West Coasters to be laid-back. You want to know where I’m from because you really want to know how I am. Saying that I’m from an anonymous South Florida suburb, then, might give you the wrong idea.

I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1995, four years before Hugo Chavez came to power and a mass emigration of Venezuelans began. Most of us ended up in Miami, trying to escape Chavez’s radical policies and the surge of violent crime that followed.

I lived in Venezuela for just long enough to miss it when I was gone, and I left young enough to never fully feel like a Venezuelan. In fact, I didn’t even have a valid passport at one point. As part of a series of changes designed to give legitimacy to his regime, Chavez changed the country’s official name to La Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela. My passport, which read simply, “Republica de Venezuela,” was rendered invalid. The country I had left did not exist.

I could not simply replace what was lost with what was new. An American passport, that little blue book more sacred than the Bible for so many would-be citizens, was not within my grasp. Before I could have a country again, there would be a string of temporary work Visas for my parents, fees and immigration lawyers and paperwork and residency applications, a residency denial, and finally, at long last, a Green Card. (“Why didn’t you just marry a Cuban,” somebody asked my mom one day, only half joking.) It’s still two years before I can apply for citizenship. I’ll have to take a test to prove my grasp of American civics and history, despite having sat in an American classroom almost my entire life.

In the meantime, we adapt. My mom keeps our new Venezuelan passports in a safe place back in Weston.

Meanwhile, I live in Amherst, and it is the most American I have ever felt. It was here, at a class screening for Vera Brunner-Sung’s movie Bella Vista, that I watched the experience of losing one’s place come to life on the screen. The main character in the movie wanders through Montana’s expansive landscape feeling like an outsider, anchored only slightly by her day job of teaching immigrants English. The film flits through impressive shots of mountains, rivers, and forests, which are juxtaposed with claustrophobic scenes shot in the shabbily-outfitted motel room where the main character stays. After class, the filmmaker, who attended the screening, admitted that the movie’s theme of placelessness was drawn from her own experience as a first-generation American, saying a this feeling of not having a home might even be a fundamental part of the American experience. Those who are lucky enough can go to college far from home and settle into their lives wherever they choose, never quite giving themselves fully to a place if they don’t want to. This is the experience Brunner-Sung had, the one she shares in her film. For these people, placelessness is not heartbreak – it’s freedom.

Not all of us are so lucky.