Colombia, My life

A hidden immigrant

I learned an insightful new term the other day on a site that focuses on life overseas. The author refers to a “hidden immigrant” as “One who speaks the language – looks the part – but is missing social cues and cultural meanings.”

When I started college in 1977, I had lived a total of 3 years of my life in the US. The other 15 years had been spent in several parts of Colombia.

In Colombia I was clearly an outsider. I spoke fluent Spanish, but I was a foot taller than most people and had blond hair and blue eyes. Little kids used to run after me shouting, “¡Gringo! ¡Gurbai! ¡Guachirnei! ¡Sábana biche!”* I had very good Colombian friends but was usually on the edge of what was happening socially. (Introversion is not a desirable trait in Latin America.) My closest friends were other missionary kids from the US and Canada.

So when I got to college, I looked like one more gringo in a university full of gringos, speaking good English, knowing the basics of survival. But there was a lot I didn’t know, and plenty that I learned but didn’t care for. 

I coped by finding niches: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (I could relate to evangelicals, especially intellectual ones); majors in Latin American Studies and Spanish (familiar language and material, people interested in Latin America); international student friends (people from home or places like it). I also traveled home as often as I could, and to Dallas where many of my high school classmates settled (their mission has a major center there). I wrote letters constantly to friends and family.

In relating to Americans, though, it felt like I was setting aside 15 years of my life and operating on a couple of years of out-of-date experience. As the years went by, I got better and better at it, and felt more comfortable. By the time I reached grad school, I felt like an 8-cylinder engine hitting on six, comfortable and competent but not fully confident.

I noticed that my mind made a big switch when I traveled to and from Colombia. When I flew into Medellín, everything looked crowded and small and messy. By the time we drove across the city and started up the mountain to our house, my perspective was restored and everything looked just right. When I flew back into the Miami airport, everything was huge and clean and people were big and fat. It usually took a couple of days for it to quit being strange. One time I was clear back in Lawrence, KS, and had to run an errand downtown. I saw someone across the street and wondered, “Who’s that gringo?”

This mental switch fascinated me. I chose to study intercultural communication for my Master’s, thinking I could work with people who planned to go overseas and prepare them for cultural adaptation. 

Once my classes were done, I spent a year in Honduras working with refugees. It was a wonderful environment; the agency had recruited missionary kids from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, fresh out of college, because we knew Spanish and were comfortable living in primitive circumstances. It felt great to get back to Latin America and make use of those years that had been set aside.

Since then, nearly all my jobs have been multicultural and multilingual (I’ve deleted a few that weren’t relevant):

Refugee logistics worker (Mocoron, Honduras) – 1984-1985.
Purchasing agent (self-employed, Miami; clients were missionaries and agencies in Latin America) – 1985-1986.
Administrative assistant (charitable agency in Miami serving the Hispanic community) – 1985-1987.
Community researcher (mission agency in Miami) – 1985-1987.
Admissions clerk (missionary linguistics school, Dallas) – 1988.
Missionary in training/teaching assistant (missionary linguistics school, Dallas) – 1988-1990
Adjunct professor of linguistics (missionary linguistics school and University of Texas at Arlington) – 1990-1991.
Linguistics professor (several Bible schools and missionary training centers, Costa Rica) – 1991-1995.
Teaching assistant, linguistics (missionary linguistics school, Dallas) – 1996-1997.
Professor of English as a Second Language (two language schools, a community college) – 1997-1998.
Translator (two agencies in Dallas) – 1998-2000.
High school Spanish teacher (Mansfield, TX) – 1999-2000.
Translator (another agency in Dallas and now Tampa) – 2000-present.

At this stage of my life, I’m a voluntary outsider to American culture. Alicia and I talk Spanish to each other. We eat a Colombian diet and hang out with Alicia’s sister and brother-in-law and sing Spanish songs. We travel to Colombia every six months. I like living in the US but am grateful for the multicultural nature of my employment and my marriage and for the Latin grocery store nearby. I feel more fully integrated as a person than at any time in my past. 


*Three of those four expressions are attempts at English. If you read them phonetically you can figure them out.


30 thoughts on “A hidden immigrant

  1. I can relate to this somewhat. I was almost 12 years old when I left Puerto Rico. I’ve been in the USA for nearly 25 years. I go home when I can quite often. I feel like an outsider though much like I felt as such when I got to the USA. Specially when I couldn’t speak English at first. It took me about 6 months to nearly a year to learn English. I know so much about the way of life in the USA and hardly know anything about Puerto Rico. I only know what I’ve read in books etc. I do remember what it was like living there the first 11 years of my life, but since then so much has changed that I don’t even recognize my hometown much. I used to teach ESL here in Pennsylvania and also Spanish. I used to be a translator for the local hospital when I lived in the city. I am trying to find a job I can do from home where I can translate in both English and Spanish. I am impressed with all you’ve done! I am also glad that you have adapted to your way of life going back and forth between Colombia and the USA. It sounds like you are doing quite well. You’re awesome! 🙂

    • Thank you!

      Check with Language Line. It doesn’t pay very well but you do it from home.

      Most of my Puerto Rican friends have similar stories to yours; they’re more comfortable in the States although they enjoy visits to PR, and most are planning to retire in the States.

      • You’re welcome! I’ll check Language Line, thank you! Life is a lot easier in the states than it is over there. If I were rich I’d move back home and maybe live in San Juan. I still have my sights on moving to England someday though. Have a great Sunday! 🙂

  2. Oh my I learned so much about you in this post…I was born and raised in Garden City KS I always wished I had paid more attention to my neighbors and learned Spanish but I didn’t now that I look back I could have learned so much from Paul’s parents
    I really enjoyed this post

  3. ordinarybutloud says:

    I frequently miss social cues and cultural meanings, even though I’ve lived in Texas most of my life. I think that has something to do with me and nothing to do with emigration. I’m glad you’ve found a lifestyle with Alicia that makes you feel integrated. :). Also, as my son would say, I’m soups glad you’re on WordPress.

    • I suspect there are socioeconomic, regional, political, cultural differences that make people within the US feel some of the same things, especially with moves. And you lived in England when you were young, which shapes your basic outlook on life.

  4. I can understand how enriching a multicultural life could be. Even though I don’t speak Spanish and live mostly around white people, I feel almosr multicultural when I go to Iowa and see very few Hispanic people, and my niece orders “pollo” in the local Mexican eatery and pronounces it “polo.” Of couse the Hispanic waiter didn’t react, he must hear it all day.

  5. I find myself getting along better with the Hispanics and the Chinese in the restaurants I like to go to than with people I’ve known my whole life. The servers at West Tenampa are always friendly and accommodating; they face me directly and speak louder so I can hear them, which is more than even my family does since I started losing my hearing about ten years ago. The girls at the Chinese buffet love to give my boy hugs, and he gives them kisses. Before I started wearing my wigs again and was wearing head scarves instead, I had a lovely conversation with a random Indian woman at Walmart wearing sari. She told me where she buys her scarves and that she hoped to see me there.

    I don’t think I’m meant to be a white American. I don’t fit in here. I’m out of place, awkward, and I don’t relate well to others. People don’t take the time to know me. All they do is point out my height as though I didn’t already know I’m enormous by female standards, or ask me if I have cancer. It’s disappointing.

    • I have a sister who’s 6’2″. Her husband Gilberto (from Medellín) is 5’5″. She’s always stood out, but she’s okay with it.

      I had no idea you wore wigs or scarves. American culture (any culture) can be hard on people who are different. A lot of other cultures seem more gracious, although of course it varies within any group. I appreciate the warmth of Colombian culture, but it’s an effort for me to remember to greet everyone (even a sales clerk that I want to ask questions of).

      • I was diagnosed with Trichotillomania when I was nine, but I’ve pulled out my hair since I was a toddler. After 25+ years of it, my hair loss is permanent.

        • Oh, wow. My ex coped with stress that way. She often had a bald spot behind and above her ear. I think she doesn’t pull as much now, but I haven’t seen her much in recent years.

  6. this is. a great blog 🙂 I have many friends from US and Canada that after spending. most of their lives down here find it funny to go back to the north, have some of them living in panajachel permanently.

    idk id I could leave Latin America, chaos suits me 😛

  7. As SisterMae says, I learnt a lot about you in this post. I loved it because of your description of feeling left out and how you merged in to the groups. All that experience makes a person whole.

  8. I had a strange experience when I flew into the airport in Salt Lake City in 2006. I felt like a foreigner because I looked around me and everyone was white. It was eerie and then reality struck: why do I feel this way if I am white too?

  9. Hola R.S. ¿Cómo estás? Yo soy Angie Washington, parte del equipo de editores para A Life Overeseas. Muchas gracias por incluir el link a nuestra página. ¡Me encantó tu artículo! Que bueno escuchar algo re-positivo de un “imigrante escondido”. Me da esperanza para mis hijos que estamos criando aquí en Bolivia. Sigue adelante con tu hermosa vida multicultural.

    • ¡Gracias! Estoy aquí pasando rico en Medellín en el momento. ¿En qué ciudad están? Un amigo mío vive en Trinidad y es director de un colegio cristiano.

      Mis hermanas también tienen vidas multiculturales. Una es profesora de español en Wheaton University, otra está involucrada en cuestiones de justicia social (Chicagoans for Peace) en Colombia, otra tiene esposo colombiano, y otra trabaja en una clínica para niños sordos y ha dado conferencias en Colombia, Argentina, y España. Cada vez que nos reunimos cantamos las viejas canciones de nuestra juventud. A todos nos ha parecido muy importante seguir disfrutando de la cultura latina, aun viviendo en Estados Unidos.

      • ¡Que bien que tu amigo está trabajando con un colegio cristiano en Trinidad! Vivimos en Cochabamba, la ciudad de “la primavera eterna”. Nos gusta. Mi esposo y to nos crecimos en el estado Nebraska donde todo es planisimo, entonces nos encanta estar en un pueblo grande arodeado por montañas.

        Parece que tienes una familia muy hermosa. Es un regalo de Dios, realmente.

  10. RuthG says:

    What you don’t mention is that you are now more deeply immersed in Colombian culture than you probably ever were as a kid in Colombia, since back then you were in American schools. I totally understand how good it feels. I love my time with Colombian friends & causes these days, & even though I have a great life in Chicago, I’m REALLY looking forward to living in Medellin some 11 years from now. 🙂

  11. Pingback: A Hidden Immigrant – A Place in the World

  12. Thanks for sharing your Latin American story. I just hit “follow”! I have spent about two years of my life outside the US, in Spain, Chile and Guatemala. I know what you mean about people in the US airport looking so obese after time away. I’m glad you have found a way of life that suits you. I have raised our child to speak Spanish, so we speak Spanish together at home. Hope you will check out my rincón Fake Flamenco.

    • I’m glad you were able to raise your kids that way. I didn’t. One learned Spanish on her own in high school and college and working after graduation, and ended up in Costa Rica. Unfortunately she died in a motorcycle accident there in 2019.

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