Juan Couso was truly the most genuine person I met at W&J campus, graduating this past May 2020. Before I even knew Juan, he was instantly kind and caring towards me. We trained to be first year student mentors together, and I soon realized that Juan possessed a rare gift of making anyone feel loved and appreciated instantaneously. Throughout the school year, he would always ask me how I was doing, offer me a hug if I was having a rough day, and say “you’ve got this.” Juan has overcome racial stereotypes, the difficulties of cultural assimilation, and is still figuring out the broad spectrum of his migrant identity. However, his inspirational story of migrating to the United States is one of resilience, adaptability, and triumph. In Juan’s own words, “I want to tell people about my experiences. I’m an immigrant too. I was able to graduate from college and high school. If I can do it, you can do it.”
Born in Colombia, Juan came to the United States after briefly living in Spain. Although most of his family lived in Colombia, one of the main reasons his parents decided to leave was because “drug violence was still something that was very prevalent in Colombia.” Juan added that “there was still a lot of corruption in the government and my parents didn’t want their children being raised in that world.”
Juan’s father had a friend living in Spain who spoke about the good job opportunities he was receiving and encouraged Juan’s family to make the move. Since Juan’s grandfather had been a Spanish national, his family was able to move to Spain with relative ease with everyone being a Spanish national but his mother. Juan told me that “the way that Spanish nationality works is that it goes down three generations.” Hence, even though “my father was born in Colombia, but both my sister and I still have Spanish nationality.”
However, once they arrived in Spain, Juan divulged how “my Dad couldn’t find a job and my mom couldn’t get a job because she wasn’t a Spanish national.” At immigration, the Spanish officers even tried to separate his mom from the family despite the fact she had a visa and Spanish national children. It was obvious that Spain was not as glamorous as Juan’s father’s friend had described, and his family soon looked for other options. This is what led them to Houston, Texas, where Juan now resides.
Juan’s family had several connections to Houston. His grandfather had worked there for several years and his uncle and aunt had recently made the move. Although Juan’s father wanted to return to Colombia, his mother did not. Juan stated she made her position clear “as the boss woman that she is” by telling his father “I’m not moving backwards. I’m moving forwards.”
Moving to Houston in November of 2003 was not easy for Juan at first. His family was immediately challenged with a language barrier, and the only person who spoke a significant amount of English was his mother. He described that “my Dad and I did not know a lick of English. We knew ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Or ‘I don’t speak English.’ That’s it.”
Juan’s mother became a teacher and eventually his father became a valet driver. However, Juan described his father’s situation by saying that “it was so degrading for his education” since he had a master’s degree in Colombia but was parking cars in the United States. Additionally, around this time Juan had been in school for about three years and was starting to assimilate to American culture and became fluent in English. He recalled that “I lose my accent. All things are looking way better.” And then his father passed away.
Juan’s mother was a central figure in his upbringing. Juan caringly stated that “Martha takes no crap from anyone. She has always been a really strong woman. She has overcome so much. My Dad dying, her breast cancer, the two moves that we’ve had from Colombia to Spain and then from Spain to the US.” While reminiscing, he emphasized that “she held our family together.”
In addition to overcoming a language barrier, Juan explained to me other issues he overcame such as a fear of deportation, navigating the spectrum of migrant identity, preserving his heritage, and his path to becoming a United States citizen. When Juan and his family first came to the US, they were on tourist visas that eventually expired. As he grew up, Juan recounted that he was “always dealing with the fear of ‘what if we get deported.’” One complication to starting the process for official residency in the United States was that you had to file for a visa outside of the country. This meant that Juan and his family had to “leave the country and come back in.” So his mother thought, “Where is the closest place we can go?” and then decided the family would drive across the border to Mexico. Juan recalled that the scariest part of this experience was that “all of our things were in our apartment in Houston.” If they weren’t allowed Visas and reentry into the United States, they would be without a home and without all of their belongings. Luckily, they didn’t run into any issues.
After obtaining residency in the United States, Juan felt a slight bit safer in regard to his status in America but recalled that “whenever I was in middle school, that’s when I really felt the difference. I felt like I was not a citizen of the country I am in.” This led Juan to think about many issues that most teenagers don’t have to contemplate. For example, when his school was arranging trips to visit colleges, he remembered being uneasy about flying and going through security. He recalled that “I didn’t have any form of US I.D.” and was thinking, “oh my god, what if they stop me and I get deported.” Luckily for Juan, he encountered no troubles. He reflected on this experience by saying that “it’s a scary thing being an immigrant in this country and not knowing that one wrong thing or one wrong TSA agent who will say something.”
In addition to constantly feeling unsure about his status in the United States, Juan also elaborated on the complexity of navigating his own migrant identity. He explained that he has had difficulty preserving his Colombian identity “because we’re so whitewashed” in the United States. One example Juan gave me was about how his family “had to change our names because people can’t pronounce our last name.” Essentially, “we Americanize-ed our last name.” I was filled with empathy when Juan told me “I wish that I didn’t have to do that.” He and his family had to change an integral part of their identity and connection to their heritage in order to better assimilate into American society. As a native-born American, I had never before thought about the importance my last name has had in my life. Last names symbolize our belonging to a family and link us to our ancestors. This dramatic change was only one way that Juan had been “whitewashed” by American society.
On his path to becoming an American citizen, Juan often felt that he had to reject his Colombian heritage and Spanish citizenship. He emphasized his interpretation of the system by saying “it’s implied that if war happens within those two countries, you’re supposed to say ‘America, I pledge my allegiance to you.’ You’re supposed to renounce part of who you are and who your ancestors were. It’s sad. It’s depressing. I’m proud of my Colombian heritage. I’m proud of that part of who I am.” However, like many other migrants residing in America, Juan remarked that despite not being a natural born citizen, “I consider the United States my home. Although I wasn’t born here, I have spent so much of my life in this country that this is my home.”
Before graduating, Juan had the chance to study abroad for a semester in Ecuador, which shares a border with Colombia. Juan explained that while he was abroad, “I really did find a connection to Ecuador because I was so close to family.” Although Colombia and Ecuador are very different in terms of their culture, they share a history in that they were both once part of “La Gran Colombia.” Juan greatly enjoyed his experience abroad, but often felt conflicted about how to enjoy beautiful tourist landmarks. He described to me how even though the city of Quito in Ecuador “is the product of perpetual slavery, genocide, and all of those nasty things,” he was amazed by how Ecuadorians had “created something so beautiful” with their music, literature, art, and traditions. In addition, Juan recognized that since he was Spanish and Colombian, “I am the colonizer and the colonized.” Hence, his experience in Ecuador was “so conflicting and complicated.” When returning from Ecuador, he felt a similar fear going through TSA to get back into the country. He was questioned about why he had been in Ecuador and what he was studying. Although “there was no problem, the fear of ‘I’m not a citizen yet’” remained in the back of Juan’s mind. Juan’s anxiety wasn’t unwarranted. To put his experience in context, as an American-born citizen I still feel nervous going through TSA when returning from a foreign country even though I have gone through airports many times and do not have my citizenship or status in the United States questioned. The bravery it took for Juan to travel abroad and even domestically within the United States is something that American-born citizens will never understand but that we should respect and admire.
Recently after having lived in the United States for 16 years, Juan became an American citizen on June 2nd, 2020. Before taking his oath, he took the time to explain his experience of going through the naturalization process. Personally, I learned that the process is more restrictive and extensive than I knew. One can apply to become a citizen after having a green card for five years. However, “the actual citizenship application is almost worth $1000 per person.” And that’s without a guarantee of acceptance. This cost immediately deters and excludes many people from seeking citizenship. Juan expressed how lucky he felt that his family was fortunate enough to pay these fees and have their application accepted, but he also expressed his remorse and sadness for the many people who are unable to become Americans. Even in his own community in Houston, he recognized that many people had the goal of becoming American and had the “American Dream,” but were unable to even start the application process due to finances and out of fear of being deported back to their native countries. Juan told me that many people in his community came to the United States “for their livelihoods because if they don’t get out of those war-torn countries, they will die.” Juan remarked that “it is saddening and very depressing that so many people have so much hatred towards minorities and people who are not from this country” when they are only seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
Juan elaborated by telling me about his own experiences facing racial prejudice. Back in 2016, Juan was confronted by a student at his college who was a “really staunch Republican.” He recalled that she would consistently say “build the wall” in front of him, quoting Donald Trump’s notorious catch phrase. He would respond to her by saying “you do know that you are undermining my presence here at college and it’s really hurtful. It’s not just that you believe in his politics, but that you believe people should not be allowed in this country.” He reminded her that with her own logic, she should not be permitted in the United States herself because her own ancestors were immigrants too. A fact we all too often forget that Juan highlighted is that “the only actual Americans are indigenous people.” Although I was deeply saddened by Juan’s experience with racism, his goals and aspirations for after college are inspirational.
In the future, Juan hopes to be a teacher and wants to help minority students get “college ready.” Juan stated that “I want to tell them that their identity matters, that their identity is something that is so important to who you are, and that your lived experiences are so beautiful and no one can ever take that away from you. As a teacher, I want to tell kids that ‘you might not be able to see someone who looks like you up there, but you can get yourself up there.’”
Juan has clearly taken the time to piece together his migrant identity and establish who he wants to be in the United States. It is inspiring that despite all of the hardships he endured, he still wants to reach out to others and help better their situations. Selfless, humble, and informed, Juan represents what I imagine the ideal American citizen to be. He is focused on helping the next generation succeed and is skillfully approaching the harmful myths about migrants to foster the ideal American society of inclusiveness, empathy, and prosperity.
Please feel free to comment any reactions or suggestions below! It is important to generate discussions based upon the stories we read and engage with others to help celebrate the diversities and multiplicities that make up our world.