Immigrant Voices: Maria Paula Gonzalez
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Maria Paula Gonzalez goes by Maria Paula rather than just Maria because when she first arrived in Steamboat Springs as an eighth-grader from Bogota, Colombia, people thought she was Mexican.
In school, she was immediately grouped with other Spanish-speaking students, all from Mexico, but Maria Paula fought to retain her identity — to hold tightly to a connection with a home country and culture she still loves today, even after becoming a permanent resident of the U.S. about a decade ago.
Maria Paula’s mother moved to Steamboat 16 years ago. She followed two of her brothers who lived here and were working under J-1 visas, and at first, she came without her daughter.
“She was going to give it a try first and see,” Maria Paula said. “We had a lot of opportunities back home. We weren’t struggling, but it wasn’t easy. She was a single mom, and we had the support of my mom’s father, but she wanted to be independent and have her own things, so she decided to give it a try in the U.S.”
Maria Paula joined her mother in Steamboat during the middle of her eighth-grade year, and she said the transition was really tough for her in many ways. She had never seen snow and didn’t understand why she had to wear 10 layers of clothes just to go outside. She put mayonnaise on her fries, which made her seem like a “weirdo” in the school lunchroom. And she resented having to serve as her mom’s interpreter, having to interpret for her to assist with almost every aspect of life, sometimes even on a date.
Because Maria Paula was here on a tourist visa, she had to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Colombia — spending six months there and six months in Steamboat.
That cycle went on for two years until 10th grade when Maria Paula was supposed to stay in the U.S. permanently. But that didn’t last for long.
“I was one stubborn child who did not like this country,” Maria Paula said. “I had everything back home. I was spoiled. I had friends. I was well-known. Obviously, my mom was trying to do the best for both of us, and she knew we didn’t have the same opportunities there.”
Looking back on that tumultuous time, Maria Paula sees herself struggling to find her identity — a normal phase of life for any teenager but made exponentially harder because she was straddling life in two countries.
“I had everything I needed (in Colombia), and I came here thinking things were going to be the same, but I came to be a nobody in a very small group of Hispanic kids. I was kind of stuck. Because I was not Mexican, I had a really hard time even integrating with them. It was like a nightmare.”
And when Maria Paula tried to explain that she wasn’t Mexican but Colombian, it was obvious people here associated her country with only one thing — drugs.
“I started meeting new people, and I started saying I was from Colombia, and people would say, ‘Do you sell cocaine? Are you a drug dealer? Do you have any?’ I was so shocked,” she said. “I was very proud of who I was and where I came from when I got here, but I just felt like everyone shut me down, saying ‘you need to speak English, you’re in America, you’re not in your country.’”
Before the end of 10th grade, Maria Paula returned home to Bogota where she graduated high school and began attending college to become a petroleum engineer.
What she experienced as a high school student mirrors what immigrants often encounter when moving to a new country, Maria Paula said.
“I feel like that’s something that impacts us as immigrants — people wanting us to kind of shed who we are, forget our language, forget our culture, feel ashamed of it,” she said. “And I feel like it’s one of the reasons why I had such a hard time adapting, because either, I had to embrace who I was, fully, and be completely proud and just go on with life and not care what anyone said and pretty much be alone. Or forget about my culture, fully immerse in this culture, just go with the flow and become another American person to fit in. There was no in-between for me at the time.”
Returning to Bogota also wasn’t the answer.
After receiving her permanent residency in the U.S., Maria Paula could no longer travel back and forth between the U.S. and Colombia, working two months in Steamboat to pay for college back home. She eventually got permission to be out of the country for two years to finish college in Colombia, but that also proved difficult.
“It was a nightmare. I had to work from 4 a.m. to 1 p.m., then go to school, and I wasn’t making much money,” Maria Paula said.
That schedule made it hard for her to keep up with school, so when her two years were up, Maria Paula returned to Steamboat to stay.
“I finally accepted this is my country, too, and I’m going to be a part of it,” Maria Paula said. “It never felt like home, but I think it was just me. I never gave it that place of calling it home until I grew up.”
That revelation came five years ago, and since then, Maria Paula has found her place serving as an interpreter and translator for Integrated Community after working as a housekeeper, dental assistant and a hospital pre-admission scheduler.
In her role with Integrated Community, Maria Paula works to help immigrants overcome one of the biggest barriers they face moving to a new country — language.
She said working with newcomers who need help navigating their new life in Steamboat also helps her see that her struggles adapting to life in the U.S. were not in vain.
“Having to work with my community makes me realize I have something to say. I can make this transition better, and I can explain to people we don’t need to strip out who we are in order to belong. We cannot not be Hispanic, we cannot not be Latino, we cannot forget who we are to fit in. It’s kind of asking us to kill a part of ourselves, and that’s not fair. We’re here for a reason. We’re here because we want to be better, we want to improve our lives.”
Maria Paula is not naïve. She also knows people genuinely struggle to understand the immigrant experience.
“I feel like it would be better if immigrants can assimilate the culture and really truly adopt it, and it would be really good if the other part of the population really understood it’s not easy to leave everything you know and everything you are behind to start from zero,” she explained.
Next year, Maria Paula said she plans to become a U.S. citizen after 10 years as a permanent resident.
“I feel once that happens, I will really feel part of both countries,” Maria Paula said. “That’s going to be the last step for me — to grab it all and completely feel like this is my country, too, and you have no right to tell me I don’t belong here.”
To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email lschlichtman@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @lschlichtman.
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