I was going through some old papers and photos the other day, and I decided I wanted to share some of them in my blog. This journey of moving to a different country during my teenage years was probably the one thing that shaped my character the most. It changed me in so many ways, and even though it felt hard at the moment, I’m so thankful for the experience.
The first time I moved to the United States of America, I was 15 years old. The news made me sad, because it meant I’d have to leave my friends and a big part of my family, but I think I was more excited than sad. I had the chance to experience something completely new, meet new people. It was like a door had opened, leading me to a pool of opportunities.
My dad and I moved to the state of Washington in 2012. We lived with his sister and her family; they took us to all the places they liked going to. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with my new home. It’s strange because, sometimes you take for granted certain things, like the beauty of pine trees standing tall in your hometown, or the beauty of the snow when a ray of sun hits it and it shines as if it was covered in diamonds, or the energy the river that runs close to your home brings to your soul when you stand there, just contemplating it. At first, all of those things were completely new to me, and I couldn’t help but feel lucky to be there.
The first thing they did when I arrived, was test my English at the school district, so that they would know which grade they should put me in. I passed three levels of four, which meant I could read, write, and understand the language; the only thing I needed was to speak it fluently. I did go to a bilingual kindergarten and elementary school, although we mainly learned the basics of English. It might sound “stupid”, but I really learned the language through music and movies. It wasn’t hard for me (maybe because I already knew basic grammar); back then I was a huge fan of the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne; all of their music was in English. All of my favorite shows were american: Law and Order, CSI, Glee. I guess I got used to listening to it, but I never had to actually speak it. The nice old lady at the school district told me they would let me continue my studies as a sophomore in high school, which meant if I didn’t fail any class I would be able to graduate on time. I guess I was lucky; I met many other students from other countries (and also Mexico) that graduated high school until they were 20 because they didn’t know the language.
I remember the first time I walked through the front door of my new school. My cousin Luis, who was already a senior, was with me. He explained everything. He told me about each and everyone of my teachers. He introduced me to some of his friends; most of them were immigrants too. You want to know what I loved the most about my school? The diversity you could see through the halls. I thought, what are the chances of me becoming friends with a girl from Palestine or Iraq? And a boy from Cuba? What are the chances of me meeting a guy from Germany and a girl from France? Yet, there we were, all in the same school in a small city in the state of Washington. But, I’ll tell you about the friends I made in a little bit. I want to start talking about my teachers first. I thought I could make this some kind of “appreciation post” to everyone that helped me and was kind to me. I also want to talk about my experience in general. This country holds a certain allure to the rest of America; there is something about the American Dream that always appealed to me. The American glory, success stories; I’ve always felt compelled to write about this. Not from a political point of view, but from the perspective of a young girl that left her home, not only once but twice, searching for all those things, wondering if American high school was like they portray it in the movies.
The first counselor I met was Mrs. Aguilar. Her family was from Mexico, but she had been in the States her whole life. Her spanish was a little bit broken, but she made an effort to speak to me in my first language and make me feel at home. She was in charge of welcoming kids from other countries, and she always did her best to help us through school. She pushed students when they were about to give up; many of them wanted to drop out of school as soon as they turned 18 because they felt old. They felt like they had no chance to graduate high school in a country that was not their home with a language they were having trouble learning. But Mrs. Aguilar was always there, and never let anyone give up. She encouraged me to join the A.L.A.S. Club. It was filled with kids from all around the world; we celebrated everyone’s cultures there and they taught us leadership skills . It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life.
Even though I felt accepted in that club and under the protection of Mrs. Aguilar, I was a little bit nervous. I really thought people would be mean to me. Not only because I was the new girl, but because my English wasn’t perfect. It was broken, and I hated that. I hated my accent. So I went up to every teacher and told them: I don’t speak English. Almost every one of them believed me, until I got to my fourth period, with my American Government teacher. Some had warned me about him: “He is a racist”. “He hates Mexicans”. “He wants us out”. I observed him throughout the course that first class; he was proud to be an American, no doubt, but does that make someone a “racist”?. At the end of the class I got up and went to his desk. I told him, with a really low and insecure voice that I didn’t speak English. I gave him the paper the lady at the principal’s office had told me to give to all my teachers. He was the only teacher who read my name correctly. I mean, Diana is pronounced differently in English than the way we pronounce it in Spanish (like most names, I guess), and I didn’t mind. But it surprised me that he actually knew the right pronunciation. He asked me where I was from and I said Mexico. I was expecting him to be rude. I was already picturing in my mind how he would make my life miserable in school because of everything I had heard of him. Instead, he told me his wife was from Mexico too. He said “welcome to America, Diana”. As I was walking towards the door, he said, “you’re a perfectionist, aren’t you?”. I turned around and asked why. He said “Well, you do speak English. You understand it just fine, you’re talking to me, yet you say you don’t speak it because you’re insecure about your accent. You’re a perfectionist”. He was right, you know? I was so insecure, so scared people would laugh at me, that I went around saying I didn’t speak English because it was easier. I became the most quiet girl in school, avoiding everyone, even though other kids tried to be nice and start a conversation. I decided I wouldn’t speak until my English was perfect. However, Mr. Riley made me speak in front of the class and participate in debates because he wanted me to break out of my shell. It was difficult, but it helped. He wasn’t a racist. He was probably one of the nicest teachers I had in high school. He would stand outside his classroom every morning telling students walking in the hallway “keep smiling”. No other teacher in school did that. It seemed like something so small, but you have to idea how nice it is when someone says “keep smiling” or “you’ve got this, Diana” on those days when I had to force myself to get out of bed, because I felt like I couldn’t keep going. I don’t understand why kids around school said he was a bad person. I think that experience taught me to never judge others by the rumors people spread about them. Give them the benefit of the doubt, they might surprise you.
Then, there was my English teacher. As soon as I walked in and saw most of my classmates were white, I freaked out. Our teacher gave us the list of all the books we had to read and write essays about. By the end of that first class I had already given up. I thought there was no way I could survive there. So I told Mr. Bissell that I was dropping out of that class, even though it would affect my credits. I was so scared, that I was willing to graduate high school until I was 20, all because I wanted to give up before even trying. Mr. Bissell said “don’t do it”. He asked me to give it a try; he said he’d give me extra material so that I could understand the books and that if I needed help he would be there to answer my questions. He introduced me to an exchange girl from France who was also struggling to learn the language. That was an important moment for me: I went from feeling vulnerable and scared, to feel secure. It was one of those moments of “yeah, I got this”, you know? It was a challenge. But one of my counselors said to me: “read as much as you can. Read a page, write down the words you don’t understand, look them up and then read again.” I spent most of my time reading. The lady at the library already knew my name, and she always seemed happy to see me walk in. She was always excited to see what I was reading next, and she even suggested a few books every now and then. Now that I look back, I think I wasn’t alone. I just felt lonely, which is completely different. I used to be so on guard all the time, expecting people to hurt me and be mean, that it took me this long to realize that there are a lot more good and kind people, than bad. I did make some friends. Most of them were people that I would only see in class; after that they would continue with their lives and that was it.
One morning, after my American History class I went straight to my next class. I was the first one to get there. Not even the teacher was in the classroom yet. American History was one of the toughest classes, not because of what we were learning (I actually love history), but because every Monday we had to bring a current event or a political cartoon to class. Our teacher would choose someone randomly and they would have to explain what they brought to the entire class. Of course, I was terrified.
“Where you as scared as I was that he would pick you?” someone said at the door. I turned around to see a girl standing there. I looked around, thinking maybe she was talking to someone else. She laughed, “yes, I’m talking to you”.
She sat with me, and we started talking. She told me she was from Mexico too, but from a different state. She had been in Washington for a year already, but she wasn’t confident with her English yet. She was scared of people making fun of her too. We became best friends. Her name was Aileen, and she was living with her grandparents. Her parents and her siblings were living in Mexico. She is, even to this day, one of the strongest, smartest people I’ve met in my life, and I’m so grateful that I got the chance to learn from her during my time in Washington. We would often go to Subway during lunch. We both loved getting coffee from Dutch Bros, and she inspired me to be the best student I could be. Mrs. Aguilar took us on field trips to different universities in the state with the A.L.A.S. Club, and as soon as we walked into the Washington State University, we knew it was where we belonged. We dreamed of going there. We started making plans of being roommates; we helped each other bring our grades up so that we would be admitted. We became so dedicated to school that it felt like nothing else really mattered. It was our ultimate goal, and for the first time in my life I knew what it was like to have a friend that had the same vision as me, that instead slowing me down would work hard with me.
I also made a few friends from the Middle East. Zuhal was the first one to approach me and ask if I wanted to be friends with her. I thought it was strange, because people don’t usually go around asking other if they want to be friends; friendship just happens. But she was one of the nicest people I met in school. She was a little bit older than me; probably around 18 or 19. I enjoyed listening to her tell me about her home and her family, their traditions. Isn’t it strange how you can feel included in a group of people that are the complete opposite to you? Zuhal used to wear a hijab everyday; she told me that it was something like a “sin” for them if a man outside their families saw her hair. She could show it to other girls though, so one day during gym class, she let her beautiful, long, black hair down. She was so excited to show me; she was always excited to tell me about her culture. I guess not everyone in school was as excited as I was to learn from them. I could see the way some people would look at me when they’d see me walking around the hallways with her, her sister Zainab and their cousin Abdul. They were always together, but they barely talked to anyone outside their group. Soon I realized it wasn’t because they didn’t want to, it was because others didn’t want to talk to them. I could see nothing wrong with them. Yes, they had different traditions. Zuhal had to always wear jeans and long sleeves, and of course her hijab. I could use dresses or skirts if I wanted to, and I could always let my hair down. They dreamed about getting married and having a big family; I dreamed about going to a university and I knew I would never put anything or anyone before my career. Like I said, we were complete opposites. We had been raised in completely different sides of the world, but that was OK. They never discriminated me for not believing in the same things they did, and they never called me a sinner for dressing differently, so why would I? High school seemed so hollow from that point of view: there were the cool kids, and the rejected ones. But one thing I wish every kid in high school knew is that how popular you are at school has nothing to do with how successful you’ll be in life. I don’t understand why we care so much about those things when we’re young, why we put so much pressure on ourselves for something that means so little in life. I walked through the halls of that high school feeling accepted at some level, but still not really wanting to fit in. I watched from the outside the popular kids: the beautiful cheerleader, with her hair perfectly curled every morning and her boyfriend, the cute star of the basketball team, always keeping it cool, everyone wanted to talk to him in class. The tall, handsome quarterback of the football team, always so serious. The boys from the soccer team, that were always front page on the school’s paper and were always in a group; not anyone could join them at their table. And the super nice, blonde girl with the bluest eyes and the cutest outfits. They all walked around school with some kind of air around them that screamed “I’m on top”. They transmitted some kind of superiority. But I never tried to belong there; I never even dreamed of being like them. I knew I wasn’t meant to be part of their circle anyway. I had one goal: WSU. I knew that if I focused on superficial things I would never get what I wanted. So I stuck to the few friends I did have that I knew would bring something positive into my life.
Keyla was a girl from Mexico. Her parents brought her to the States when she was just a little girl. She was in my English class and she always helped me without expecting anything in return. She always had a smile on her face. You could always see her carrying at least three books from the library in her hands; I think she was the only person I knew back then that read even more than I did. If I had to define Keyla in only two words, they would be kind and inspirational. She has the purest heart, and she’s always looking to help others, often putting others’ needs before her own. She’s one of the few people from Washington I’m still in contact with, commenting on each other’s photos on Facebook or Instagram every once in a while. She dreamed of going to WSU as well, and she actually made it. It makes me so happy to know that she fulfilled her dreams, even though her future is uncertain. I encourage you to read this short article that was published about her back in 2017, so you can see a little bit into her story, her fight and why I think she is one of the bravest, most hard working people in the world (or at least in my own small world of people I know).
I made other friends too, that also made my days in high school brighter. They all helped me see the world from a completely different perspective. Like Maryam, a girl from Iraq. She never wore a hijab, and she could dress however she wanted. She told me that when her family arrived in America, her father told her she was now free to live her life the way she wanted to. Finally free. You see how we take things that seem so simple, like freedom, for granted all the time? Her father didn’t mind when she told him she wanted to be able to show her golden hair. He told her he would support her whether she wanted to marry or pursue an education. She also ended up going to WSU. All because they were finally in the land of dreams.
Alejandra, another girl from Mexico, also told me the story of how her family came to the States. Scared, lost, risking their lives all because they had only two choices: staying in Mexico and dying for sure, or trying to get a better life somewhere else, even if it meant they could die on their way there. At least they would die trying. They were normal people with normal dreams; she dreamed of being a reporter, and her brother wanted to be a musician. I also met Eliezer, a boy from Cuba that seemed to be always happy; he was always cheering people up. He talked to me about the political problem going on in his country, and he told me the story about how he became a refugee. The way he looked at life, even after everything he had been through; just by spending five minutes talking to him you could see he was wise beyond his years. There were also Kevin and Taylor. Kevin was a boy from Mexico; he was living in the States while his mom and siblings were still in Tijuana. Taylor was an american girl that was too shy to even talk to me at first. They were outsiders like me, and they welcomed me with open arms in their small group in the few classes we had together. I loved the way Kevin was always making jokes, and how Taylor was so patient with me and my broken English.
Even though part of me felt like I never really belonged there, and I didn’t get the whole “american high school” experience because at the end of the day, I was still an outsider, I did get to do a few things that excited me at the time. Like when my cousin took my sister and I to our first high school-football game. Being on the stands, watching the game, feeling the energy of the whole school; one of my favorite thing about my school was the team spirit everyone had. I did go to a different high school later on and it wasn’t the same. Absolutely everyone in this school felt proud to be a “lion” (our mascot), and even though I didn’t grow up there and I wasn’t the most outgoing girl in school, I did feel the pride as well.
I also remember the one time I try out for the dance team. I felt like I wanted to belong somewhere and be more active in school, meet new people. I was late to the try outs; the rest of the girls had a whole week to learn the routine, while I had only two days. When I was a kid I used to take classes at a Jazz and Ballet Academy, so the coach noticed I caught up fast. I missed the audition because my dad told me we were going back to Mexico at the end of the school year, so there was no point in doing it. The amazing coach asked to see me and said she was willing to let me join the team without the audition. I always wonder what would’ve happened if I had stayed. But I do think everything happens for a reason, and anything you lose in life is because it wasn’t meant for you.
So, after almost two years, I had to say goodbye. My parents wanted to go back to Mexico and despite me begging to let me stay and finish high school, and see if I had a shot at WSU, my dad said no. He said “we’re a family, and families stay together”. I felt like all my hard work had been for nothing. I had made some amazing friends, and now I had to say goodbye.
Here are some of my favorite people from Washington that signed my yearbook that year:
You know I love you so much! You’re super special. I wish you nothing but the best, and never give up on your dreams. You can do everything you put your mind to. Remember you’ll have a friend in me forever. You can always count on me. Never change, you’re special. Eli (Eliezer)”
I want you to know I adore you… meeting you was one of the most wonderful things that ever happened to me. Before meeting you, I felt alone, like I couldn’t find my place… but then I met you and I felt like I finally fit in. You’ve been a really good friend, and you’re an amazing person Diana. You have so much to offer to people, so open your heart and let all the good inside of you come out. Thank you for listening and supporting me. I’ll never forget it. You’ve been with me on the hardest moments of my life and for that I’m so grateful. I don’t want you to leave! But I can only wish that destiny will put us together again, because I think we have many things in common and we could be great, great friends… next year won’t be the same, I’ll miss you 😦
I love you so much and I can only wish you the best. You’re smart, fight for the things you want and don’t let anything or anyone take it away from you. Fall in love even though you might suffer; it is one of the most beautiful things that could happen to you. I hope we can keep in touch. Don’t forget me. Love, Aileen”
Oh, I’m so sad that you’re leaving but happy that you’ll be with your family. I wish you the best, you’re a really good person and I know you’ll be very successful in life, wherever you go. Don’t forget you’re always welcome at KHS, and thank you for all your help with A.L.A.S. Mrs. Aguilar”
I went back to Mexico during the summer, and then, in a twist of fate, I ended up going back to America for my senior year of high school. But this time, I moved to Anaheim, California instead of Washington. I changed the snow and cold wind, for sunny days; and instead of watching the majesty of the Columbia River every morning on my way to school, now I had palm streets standing tall along every road. The scenery wasn’t the only thing that changed though…. But I guess I’ll save all that for part II!
Here are more pictures of some of my favorite things and memories from Washington: