//Resiliency in the midst of uncertainty: What being Hispanic means to me

Resiliency in the midst of uncertainty: What being Hispanic means to me

A Latin American migration story

As a Venezuelan, born to a Chilean mother, living in Miami for the better half of my life, resiliency has been a constant theme in my family’s life.

My Chilean side of the family lived through Augusto Pinochet’s iron-fisted ideologies of the 1970s and 1980s before my mother and father moved to Venezuela in the late ’80s, where I was born in 1991.

My father, an engineer working for Ford Motors, and mother, a businesswoman, provided a stable life for my sister and me in Venezuela. It was a life filled with private school education, brand-name clothing, McDonald’s Happy Meals, vacations, Pokemon, the latest toys from the U.S.
That time was an overall happy period, yet marked with dread, fear, and change.

I had no notion of resiliency. In many ways, I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but even through my sheltered existence, I would quickly taste the bitterness of poverty and desperation that force people to act in hellish ways.

At age 6 or 7, while my uncle drove my dad’s latest vehicle, a red 1990s Ford Explorer, I experienced a paralyzing moment that has haunted me for decades.

As an engineer working at Ford Motors, my dad would often change cars freely, call it perks of the jobs. From Mustangs, the less remembered Taurus, my dad’s parking lot always had new horsepower. On this particular day, my uncle, older sister and I were out and about, spending the day together.

After a day out in the city, it was time to return home. Upon entering the brand-new SUV with my sister happily navigating shotgun and me in the back, a pair of unknown men violently opened both front doors, screaming, demanding that my uncle sit in the back with me. The two men entered the front cabin. They decided who among them would drive, while the other placed my sister on his lap. With my heart beating as I’d never felt it before, I turned to my uncle and asked where we were going.

He replied, “don’t worry, Felipito, it’s going to be alright.”

I saw my sister holding on to her pink Power Ranger doll tightly with a gun almost bracing her leg. It was the most fear I had ever felt. The thieves drove us around to areas far unknown to me, up in the mountains, where no one would be able to find or trace us. I cannot recall how my uncle was able to negotiate with those men. They dropped us off in a random part of town and drove off.

It took all the resiliency in me not to shed a tear. I failed badly.

That incident was followed by a few more carjackings and a fast-changing political landscape. By 2003, we found ourselves in Miami, Fla. My family escaped the beginning stages of Chavismo, the policy of the deceased Hugo Chavez, leader of the socialist Bolivarian Revolution before it consumed Venezuela in the mid-2000s and onward.

My dad caught a whiff of Chavez’s stench early and brought us to the land where Croquetas, palm trees and sea breeze fill the air.

Though Miami is very much an international place by its own right, the immigrant experience is wrought with confusion, fear, and much culture shock, even if Spanish is openly spoken and heard throughout the area.

You have to be resilient. Otherwise, you’d drown in a sea of uncertainty.

I did not assimilate to the American lifestyle right away. I longed to be back in Venezuela. As a preteen, I did not understand my parents’ decisions, though I had experienced first hand the flawed social landscape that we left behind.

Left to right: Felipe Rivas’ mother, Monica Guzman and sister, Nadia Rivas and Felipe Rivas.

Many of my initial friends in Miami were Colombian, Peruvian and Cuban. While Chavez used my forefather to tyrannize and divide people, Simon Bolivar allowed me to connect with other children in the land of the free. His vision of freedom connected my new friends and me as we got to know each other.

Our newly formed bond forged by our individual immigrant stories and the resiliency to endure the coming challenges. I noticed that with all my friends, although born in different countries, a resilient attitude helped fight homesickness, fears of deportation, lack of English-language command, and the abundance of setbacks that come when immigrating to a foreign place.

Still, bullies outside the classroom stole the little joy I was experiencing during so much change. I was bullied for my appearance- picture a chubby 11-year-old with a unibrow and hand-me-down clothes, not so bad by any standards, but kids are cruel. Most frustrating of all, I could not understand what they were saying, but their snickering and pointing spoke clear enough. Right there, in the fifth grade and as a new student in Miami, I made it my mission to fully excel in English class. It was then where resiliency and Bolivar’s conquering spirit began to flourish and take root in my life.

By the time I entered high school, I had a strong command of the English language. Three years of ESOL classes in middle school prepared me to get to this point. It was at this point, however, that I began translating letters for my parents. Bills, collections notices, denied job applications. Though parents do not often share their stresses with children, in this case, it was the child creating the stress via the solicited translation services.

Felipe Rivas (left) graduates from high school.

This served as an opportunity for my mom to ingrain the importance of education into me – a call to action that did not fall on deaf ears. I saw how resilient she had been through our time in the states, but seeing her frustration in not understanding the language was a pain that was still fresh in my psyche. It was then that I doubled down on my decision to excel in English literature and become a journalist.

My decision to become a journalist was, in part, to be able to verbalize the resiliency that is innate in me and others. I attribute this to my Hispanic heritage. I have been able to give voice to the voiceless through my work as a journalist and give new sounds to issues where cacophony abounds. I have my immigrant experience to thank for that.

To me, being Hispanic is having the capacity to overcome challenges. It allows me to connect with other cultures and their plight for freedom and equality. It is this resiliency, which I believe is innate to the human spirit and has allowed me to be a better journalist, a better friend, a better family member, and a better God-fearing man.

Felipe Rivas
Felipe Rivas

Felipe Rivas is a journalist and artist in Miami, Fla.