Alfaro: Learning to love America in bits and pieces

Mariana Alfaro, Opinion Editor

They don’t let you bring your phone to the United States embassy when you go for visa interviews. The day I applied for my student visa, I went in terrified, wearing my Sunday best, disconnected from the world. I left my phone with my then-boyfriend, who planned to pick me up three to five hours later — we weren’t really sure how long it would take. It felt like an undercover operation.

That was the start of a five-year relationship with my F1 visa, the single laminated page in my Salvadoran passport that I hold onto for dear life. This piece of paper lets me in and out of the U.S. with the comfort of knowing that, within the confines of this country, a school, an apartment and friends are waiting for me.

Now, my five years are almost up. With that comes the beginning of my acceptance that in a little over a year, I might have to leave behind people I love, jobs I dream of and a country that has done a lot for me.

With the current U.S. political climate, many have asked me if I really learned to love this country over the past three years. And the truth is, it was hard. Those who know me are aware of the struggles I faced in trying to understand components of American history and culture that, for 18 years, had been foreign to me. And when I finally thought I had a decent grasp of what it means to live in the U.S. as a Latina, as a woman, as a foreigner and even as a journalist, 2016 came along and shook everything up.

As a non-American, processing the state of the country this year has been like watching someone you love get hurt without being able to stop it. I don’t have any senators to call, no local elections in which to vote. Many times I have stopped myself from saying “our country,” because I have no claim. For a while, I even told myself that what was happening shouldn’t affect me because, after all, this is not my home.

Soon, however, I learned that emotional alienation was not the right way to cope. Every breaking news notification, every bad tweet, every CNN chyron meant another hour of lost sleep, another meal skipped, another small bout of anxiety that went unattended. It took months for me to accept that I cared about the future of the U.S. more than anything, even if it is a nation home to millions who don’t even want people like me “in their land.”

I hate to state the obvious, but we’ve seen a truly ugly side of America in the last few months. Many times I’ve wanted to give up and leave behind my dream of joining the ranks of honest American journalists who have, in one way or another, changed the world for better. There have been days when watching my people get name called, targeted and used as scapegoats makes it hard to sit in class, paralyzed by inaction.

But the good days and memories outnumber the bad ones.

If it weren’t for this country, I would have never met people who have made me a better person in so many ways; professors and advisers who opened my mind to new worlds; random strangers who brighten my days with small acts of kindness; folks who introduced me to foods and traditions I’d never come across before; journalists in newsrooms where I sharpened my skills and learned from the best. And, most importantly, friends who, in three years, have given me a lifetime’s worth of love, loyalty and patience.

In these times when the concept of “Americanism” is questioned left and right, all these people, all these bits and pieces of the United States, have shown me the true face of what it means to be an American — hard working, curious, resilient and, over all, accepting.

I look at my small, laminated F1 from time to time. I memorized the expiration date long ago, mostly out of fear. Now, as that date looms closer, I think about everything America has given me, both the highs and the lows, and I am thankful. If and when the time comes for me to say goodbye, I’ll look back on these four years aware that they included some of the most painful days of my life. But that will never outweigh the good that came from meeting a group of people whom I love more than I could have ever imagined.

Mariana Alfaro is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.