Citizens’ Journal is proud to present the Coming to America series of immigrant related interviews conducted by Ventura resident Dr. Kathleen S. Roos. CJ publishes a new story each Sunday. These stories describe what life was like in their native country, the whys of wanting to come to America and what they have found here. It is the hope of each interviewee that those born in America, who have not had these experiences may reflect on what it means to be an American by these immigrants. Many have risked their lives and their families to come to America. Some have had an easier road, but the desire to be free, to make choices and what it means to become an American is a thread found throughout these interviews.
In current news today look at the young man Enes Kanter, the Boston Celtics basketball player speaking out about human rights and comparisons to China and the companies who do business there! He is from Turkey and Muslim and his family is paying a price for his decision to speak out. He is also taking a lot of heat from others here in the U.S. to risk his career to take such a stand. A very decent guy who makes a great example to Americans. He is well-known and appreciates the U.S. and our freedoms and deplores the atrocities in China and other parts of the world relative to abuse and lack of human rights. Most of these interviewees are not well known, or famous but their stories matter. All the varying perspectives of the interviewees are presented. Each one is their own story.
For the Citizen’s Journal readers who want to go back and view previous interviews we have included a list of those already published which can be located through the journal’s search engine box by typing in Coming to America, and the name of the Country. These include interviews from Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge through Cambodia: The Next Generation (installments 1-3), Oaxaca, Mexico (4), Santiago, Chile (5), Aligarh, India (6), Santiago, Cuba (7), Cambodia: years later told by an American dental professional (8), Jalisco, Mexico (9), Bagdad, Iraq (10), Bulacan, Philippines (11), and United Kingdom (12) and many more enlightening chapters.
“Freedom Is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the blood stream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” Ronald Reagan
Where were you born? Country, town?
I was born in Bogota, Colombia
Tell me about growing up in your country. Comparisons to U.S. if applicable.
My early memories of growing up in Bogota were filled with love and support from beloved aunts and uncles, who were our main source of financial and emotional support. My aunts Rosita and Lucrecia and her husband Climaco, were our benefactors and providers of whatever we needed for school tuition, uniforms and housing for my sister and I during most of her teens. They were present at our birth, baptism, first communion, wedding and main holidays.
My father left us early and we had to fend for ourselves with a tiny pension from his service from the government. My beloved mother Berthica was ill prepared to handle the finances and we struggled to make ends meet. Thanks to the family welfare system, common in our culture, we managed to go to school and have a simple life.
Because of our precarious and limited financial condition, I realized early in my teens, that I needed to make it on my own and relieve the burden to my family of paying for school and living expenses.
Did you travel to other countries prior to coming to U.S.?
We had no financial means of traveling much further than small towns, where we had relatives that were always happy to see us and spend quality time.
During my last two years of high-school, I attended night classes at the German Consulate near my school. A close school friend and I were planning to go to Germany and study at the Free University of Berlin.
As fate would have it, I was not too serious about German class and spent more time organizing weekend parties with friends from school. Of course, when it came time to pass the German proficiency test, my teacher recommended I take one more semester to ensure a better score that would allow me admission to the University in Berlin with a scholarship.
Frustrated with the outcome of my plans to go to Germany, I contacted fellow students from my school who had migrated to the US to work and go to school.
They were most encouraging and offered to house me as I arrived in New York. I firmly believe that, we all reach certain critical paths in life, when a simple decision changes the course of our lives completely.
What were your experiences in school, college educational system in your native country?
Growing up with limited financial conditions, I had to attend neighborhood private elementary schools that were very limited in facility and teaching personnel.
In high school, I always felt that we were not getting the best education because of limited financial resources for the schools to provide adequate facilities and equipment. For me, everything looked poor and I wanted more and better. Despite the lack of resources at school, teachers were very motivated to teach and support us.
I left my country midway into my last year of high school. Shortly after, I began to work in New York, I applied to Bay Ridge High School for after-hours school. I was surprised how easy and simple the standards were at the time. I could not believe we had an “open book test” What was wrong with studying and memorizing for the tests? I recall taking my finals on chemistry and very candidly asking the teacher “are you leaving the Table of Elements open?” And he replied “of course”! I then said “all the answers are practically there” his reply was “good for you”.
Tell me about your job/profession here as compared to your native Country
Well, since I migrated to this country as an 18-year-old, I do not have any reference to actual personal work experience in my country; however, from my observations and knowledge of how things used to work in Colombia, it was not what you know or how well prepared you were for the job, but “Who you know or recommends you for the job”.
In the US, when interviewing for a job, I was never asked such questions as to who sent me to be interviewed. Instead, I was asked to talk about my knowledge and experience in the field and interests on the job I was applying for.
When did you come to the U.S. and have you become a U.S citizen?
I arrived in New York City on June 13, 1963.
Yes, I received my US Citizenship on August 14, 1968, while serving in the US Air Force, at my last tour of duty at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah.
Why did you want to come to the U.S.? Or did you want to come to the U.S.?
As I mentioned earlier, my first choice of country to go to school and work was Germany; but my destiny was to come to America.
How do you perceive the U.S. today as compared to when you first came here? (Especially during these times of change).?
From the time I first came to this country, I was extremely busy trying to balance school, family and work. My schedule was quite occupied with work and carrying a full-time academic load and attending to a growing family. By the time I graduated in June 1973 with an Electrical Engineering degree from Cal Poly, Pomona, my Colombian wife and I already had three children. My time during those years of having kids, going to school was totally dedicated to supporting all of their activities and keeping busy in sports like soccer and tennis. I was a soccer coach for my children during all of their high school years.
In reality, there was not much time for other outside interests like politics and civic duties. Since my retirement from St. Jude Medical, ten years ago, my wife and I have spent much of our time traveling the world.
The political arena during this decade has deteriorated and reached a sad and destructive path since Trump became president. I was not a politically involved person before and much less now. All I can do is pray that someday we may regain the dignity and integrity of a democratic country like ours should be.
Are your parents and family here or in your Colombia and how do they perceive the U.S.?
None of my family members ever lived here. They all reside in Colombia.
I do not really know how they perceive the U.S. since they have never been here. I have two nieces who live in Europe, one in Austria and another in Germany. They are both professionals with great jobs and married to German citizens.
Do you see parallels of things happening in Colombia compared to the U.S. Good or bad?
I believe people, regardless of national origin, race, religion, profession and political affiliation, behave in their environment motivated by basic economic and social drivers in fulfilling their personal needs. For instance, unethical behavior that is driven by financial gains such as bribes and under-the-table money exchange is common everywhere to some degree. In Colombia, unethical practices are common in all aspects of personal or business relationships. The difference between Colombia and the U.S. is readily obvious in Colombia, whereas in the U.S. is most common at the upper corporate economic levels and not readily visible to the average person.
Do people own guns in your country? Did they ever and/or were they confiscated?
I never knew that any one member of my extensive family, who owned firearms, except for my uncle Jose, who was an officer in the Colombian Army.
Carrying arms has a negative connotation in our society and assumed that vandals are the ones who carry weapons.
Tell me about medical and public health options in Colombia vs. the US. Is medical care free in your country?
Since I left my country early in my teens, all I can judge is based on my emergency trips to Colombia, when close relatives were sick and hospitalized. The medical field in Colombia is well established and I observed very humane and loving treatment by medical and nursing stall to their patients.
By contrast, the American health system is primarily driven by economic incentives, that make treatment and medications extremely expensive to the average person.
How does the education system work?
Because I left my country in my teens, all I can judge is my family. In particular my two nieces, living in Europe, went to college in Colombia and are currently extremely well established in their jobs. One niece is a dental surgeon and has commented that their clinical procedures in Colombia are more detailed, as compared to her observations of coworkers in Germany.
Explain what you mean regarding religious freedom?
The pursuit of happiness is a universal human driver that is impacted by the ability to realize our dreams within a society that respects universal human rights.
Colombia, like most Latin American countries, is predominantly a Catholic Country; however, other religions are free to function without any restrictions.
What things do you like most about the U.S.?
My best impression, from the time I arrived in this country, is that everyone gets a chance to make their own choices on their lives and work toward achieving their goals.
I can honestly and humbly say, that I have fulfilled and, in some areas, exceeded my dreams of having a career that would reward my efforts and give me a happy and secure life, so that I can be supportive to my children and grandchildren.
I also like the fact that if you work hard and apply yourself to whatever endeavor, there are tangible rewards from people around you who recognize and reward you for your efforts. I made my way not only for my personal efforts but for the total support of people around me, who opened doors and gave me a chance to demonstrate my abilities.
What thing do you miss about Colombia?
Of course, the loss of the family love and care for each other is hard to realize once we left our ancestral home. But in life nothing comes free and some sacrifices are made to fulfill our goals and dreams for a better life.
What do you dislike most about U.S.?
I was so very busy raising a family, going to school and working that little time was left to do other things like getting involved in church or civic activities.
As more leisure time came after the kids grew up, I began to pay more attention to the political arena. The more I learned about politics, the less I wanted to be involved; however, I did my civic duty of voting at every election. Unfortunately, with the disastrous entry of Trump into the political arena, I became totally disillusioned with the political system, and withdrew from all activities related to politics.
What differences do you see between the two Countries?
In America, we are heavily dependent in our jobs and work hard to maintain a standard of living that meets our requirements. Too much time is dedicated to meeting or exceeding financial goals, while time marches by and we are getting older and sometimes fatter.
In Colombia, people seem to spend more time having quality time with family and friends. Family and friends are important to maintain a happy social life.
In Europe, people seem to work at a slower pace and spend more leisure time with friends and family. One only needs to walk around the city and observe family and friends spending time outdoors and gathering at public places.
How does Colombia’s market economy work?
Colombia is a country with many natural resources and agriculture is by far one of the largest industries. Coffee is a precious commodity and flowers are another major source of exports to the rest of the world. The textile industry has a long history of quality fabrics that compete well with the international markets.
Does Colombia secure its borders? Do you think that is a sovereign right of a country to protect its citizens? Why or why not?
I can only comment based on the news from Colombian newspapers like El Tiempo, that I follow in the internet. Recently, there has been a significant influx of Venezuelan refugees. The high number of refugees crossing our borders has totally overwhelmed our ability to provide adequate Human Services. The lack of employment for these refugees forces them to resort to illicit activities and crime.
To maintain order and serve its citizens, countries need to maintain control of their territory integrity and secure their borders. However, in cases where there is a humanitarian need to provide asylum to people in need, a government needs to provide humanitarian aid and try to resolve the conflict at the source. The droughts prevent them from growing their own food and are left with no other alternative but just migrate to greener pastures.
Can someone just come in from some country and take up residence in Colombia?
Yes, as I indicated above, Venezuelan migrants are given entry to the country with no restrictions.
Can you describe some instances or personal experiences that happened in the US that would be different in Colombia or vice versa?
Upon my arrival in the US, I had changed travel days and did not have time to inform my fellow Colombian friends in New York of my late arrival. Therefore, as I walked around the airport terminal trying to figure out how to call their apartment, a gentleman approached me and asked me something that I could not understand. He pointed his finger to the public phone and I showed him a paper with a phone number. He then proceeded to dial the number of my friend’s place. After he talked to the person on the other end, he handed over the phone to me and put a handful of small change in my hand. Wow, the first time I needed help, there he was, a kind man ready to help me. The person at the phone was the landlord of my friend’s apartment and she spoke Spanish, telling me exactly what to do to get to their place.
Are you glad to be in America? Why/why not?
I am absolutely, positively and totally glad to be in the US and have benefited of many opportunities to work with very talented people in the Aerospace industry, who were my tutors and mentors during my years of being a college student.
Many doors were opened for me and many opportunities given to allow me to work, go to school full time and support my growing family. I wish I could just reach out to those who helped and supported my efforts and say “look this is the result of all of the good things you did for me.”