From the Republic of Generación Ñ

tatiana de la tierra

Miami, 1993. My Resident Alien card is thickly laminated and hard like a green mango. It has the image of a thirteen-year old me–naive, self-assured and dreamy. In the photo, my thick, curly hair is tamed and pulled back to expose my right ear. My signature is legible, a sharp contrast to the furious and complex scribbles that now legally define me. And the card has mysterious computer codes and classifications, square numbers written in the Federal Government’s language.

I lived as a Resident Alien in this country for twenty-five years before considering applying for U.S. citizenship. Being an official “Alien” suited me. It allowed me to do as I pleased without taking this country seriously. It was proof of my allegiance to my homeland, my romantic relationship with Colombia. As an “Alien” I could travel the world with a Colombian passport and return to the U.S. through the long non-citizen lines at Customs. I could work, drive, go to school, publish, travel internationally, use credit cards, complain about free speech, get financial aid, go to the hospital, rock out to Springsteen, and do just about anything I wanted. I couldn’t vote in U.S. elections, but I could vote for the Colombian presidential candidate of my choice. I couldn’t commit felonies, because as a Resident Alien, I was deportable. Having a Colombian passport and a U.S. “green card” meant that I was more likely to be questioned upon entering the U.S., that I was more likely to have my luggage searched. It meant that I lived here but I was not of this country. And that was how I liked it.

Being a Colombian in the U.S. means that I have another national anthem that plays inside of me. It means that I am a Spanish-speaking and South-American-dreaming sort of gringa. It means that I listen to Latin radio, stay hip to my Generación Ñ’s literary endeavors, keep my eye out for Latinos in Hollywood and in Washington, D.C., and that I celebrate the accomplishments of all Latins. It means that I eat coconut rice as well as fast food. That I am culturally eclectic and I can be nothing else.

It also means that I see the U.S. through Colombian eyes. The “war on drugs” is a war against people of color that intends to centralize the profits from the production and sale of illegal drugs within the U.S. It is a guise used to prohibit Colombia from reaping the benefits of legitimate trade: textiles, coffee, flowers, bananas, petroleum, and other Colombian industries. It is a war on Colombia’s land and people. Aerial fumigations of the herbicide glyphosate make the soil barren, disturb the ecosystem, poison food crops, displace indigenous farmers and endanger the health of those who are “accidentally” doused.

The “war on drugs” is a war against Colombia, a country that is “decertified” and tagged as a “narco-democracy” one year and then allotted 1.3 billion dollars in U.S. “aid” via Plan Colombia in the year 2000. Plan Colombia intends to beef up the Colombian military with training, intelligence, weapons, ammunition, helicopters, and technology to “fight drugs” by decimating guerrillas. Plan Colombia supports the paramilitaries–aided by the military–that execute and torture scores of people thought to be sympathetic with guerrilleros. It increases human rights violations. It provides minimal provisions for the millions of Colombians displaced by war. It does not offer coca farmers any real alternatives. It aims to poison the land, kill the people, and create further conflict between the rich and the poor, indigenous peoples and multinational interests, guerrilleros and paramilitaries. It is a Vietnam in the making and is bringing Colombia closer to a military dictatorship.

Colombian graffiti says it best of all. Plan Colombia: The U.S. provides the weapons; Colombia provides the corpses.

I am an ungrateful immigrant, one they never should have let into this country way back when my father solicited a visa for himself and his entire family and it was easily granted. I think I have the right to be here, as well as anywhere else I want to be. I can’t live in war-torn Colombia, where I am bait for kidnappers. I am too “American” for my own good. Regardless of my romantic Colombian notions, I am as solid a gringa as Elvis Costello’s “My Aim is True” is eternal.

But that’s not why I became a U.S. citizen.

The signs had been there all along. Immigrants, people of color, “other” people–we have always been hated here. My father, who has a Bachelor’s in Business and who tried everything to succeed in the “land of opportunity,” makes minimum wage working as a security guard. A quarter of a century after emigrating here, no one in my family owns their own home or any other piece of the mythical pie. We were never meant to.

With the increase in anti-immigrant legislation and the many other legal and violent attempts to eradicate “others” in this country, I finally realized that becoming a U.S. citizen was a smart move. The lines at Customs would be shorter, I reasoned, and I would preserve the rights that I always had as an “Alien.” But I wouldn’t be any different. I could still claim Elton John, Grace Jones, and The Pretenders as part of my teenage landscape. I could say, proudly, that Joe Arroyo, The Latin Brothers and Grupo Niche were the Colombian salseros of my generation. That vallenatos won my heart one teenage summer in Barranquilla. That roqueros like Juanes and Los Aterciopelados keep the rage and hope alive. That Shakira is one of the most brilliant artists of this decade, that Carlos Vives is one of the coolest, and Margarita Rosa de Francisco, one of the sexiest. That my family, the majority of whom live in Colombia, matter most to me. That I have always been “American” anyway, a South American who lives in North America.

I applied. I waited.

Two years later, I walk into an American Legion Hall in Miami and face a twenty-five foot wide version of the red, white and blue. I sit with hundreds of other immigrants who will emerge from this building as naturalized U. S. citizens. Immigration officials are on stage, in front of the huge flag, making announcements that I pay little attention to. Instead, I watch others seated around me in the auditorium. A pregnant woman smoothes out her daughter’s dress. Another wears a purple sari and holds an older man’s hand. The woman who sits next to me wears cherry lipstick and clutches a crumpled marriage certificate in her hand. I listen for dialect and note the skin tones–fair, copper, and brown–and decide that one is Cuban, one is Indian, and the one next to me is Jamaican. I wonder briefly about where they come from, what they aspire to, as our paths cross briefly for a ritual that is the culmination of each of our long stories.

I do not place my hand over my heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, and I notice that hardly anyone else does either. I take a moment to pledge allegiance to myself while hundreds of soon-to-be citizens mumble the Pledge like a tired prayer in church. Then, we form a line and each of us stops at a table where our identity will be newly defined. I cringe as an immigration employee nonchalantly takes my white “green” card. Good-bye to one of the best photos of my life, to my Alien self and the promise in my Coca-Cola eyes.
And then I’m handed the Certificate of Naturalization with a picture of a thirty-three year old me. I look tired and solemn, distraught, bearded and battled with unbrushed hair. I look like shit. And this paper, with a green eagle emanating turquoise rays in the background, becomes my sacred document, my official identity.
New identity in hand, I open the door to the outside. It is drizzling. I pause as two elder citizens walk down the steps. A man with a tan guayabera and yellowed hair slowly leads his white-haired companion. He guides her gingerly by her left elbow and says, “Cuida’o. Wash out you step.”

I smile and follow them.

Published as:

de la tierra, tatiana. “From the Republic of Generación Ñ.” La Calaca Review: Un Bilingual Journal of Pensamiento and Palabra 2003: 24-27.