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Statelessness: how I became a citizen of nowhere

Playwrights’ Corner
Francisco Mendoza stands in a subway station, in front of a sign that reads "Manhattan & Queens." A yellow circle is visible behind him, though the letter on it that indicates the train line is obscured
Photo by Michael Lloret

I've been an immigrant since I was 12.

This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately, as I deal with the gargantuan task that is securing a visa that will allow me to stay in New York and keep working on my writing.

I am now 28, which means I've spent 14 years living in places that aren't the one I was born and raised in, speaking languages that aren't the one my parents taught me. Something about that feels strange to me. Like I came back from work and instead of changing into comfy sweatpants, I kept the suit and tie on – for 14 years. Like I'm never truly relaxed because I'm never "home.” Like I'm cursed.

My childhood in Argentina was a tranquil one. We lived in Mendoza, a beautiful wine region at the foot of the Andes. My family is, with the exception of one great-grandfather, made up of immigrants, but the last three generations were all born and raised Argentinian. We weren't a wealthy family, so each generation worked hard to give the next a better life. My dad spent most of my childhood traveling abroad for business, coming back with presents from all over – Brazil, Singapore, South Africa. He was like the characters in the pulpy adventure novels I loved, who faced threats from giant snakes and hungry tigers in every chapter (I know that my father's adventures were probably more like struggling to tell cabbies the hotel's address, but still). I dreamed of being a world traveler too. If only I knew.

When my dad sat us down to say we were moving to Brazil, where he had been permanently assigned, I wasn't scared – I was happy! It felt like something special was happening to us. I couldn't relate to my family's sadness; I counted the days until we left. When we finally did, it took us a whole day to arrive in Belo Horizonte, since we had to take three different flights. As the last one landed, a disturbing thought crossed my mind and ruined the excitement: I was never going home again. Home as in literally the house my parents built when I was six and that we were so fond of, but also home as in the school that I had attended since kindergarten, or the church where I had been baptized and where we worshipped every Sunday, or my grandma’s house where I would spend entire weekends. That was gone, and in its place was an apartment building in a huge, hilly city where people spoke another language – nothing like my flat, quaint, homely town. Eventually, I got used to it, but I was right that day on the plane: I never went home again.

When you stay in a foreign land for too long, you lose the connection to your place of birth, but you never totally become part of the new country. Every time I went back to Argentina, I found it was partly the place I remembered, but different in enough ways that it didn't feel familiar anymore. Yet in Brazil, I always had an accent, there was always some cultural reference I wasn't aware of, always something letting me know that I didn't totally belong. Trapped between the two, I ended up not belonging anywhere. Which means, like I said in the beginning, that I will never again be able to relax in the completely familiar. I can't help but think about the situation of the so-called Dreamers in the news – what does "go back to your country" mean to someone who has built an entire life in a new land? 

When I graduated from college, I moved away to São Paulo, a monster of a city that is pretty much unrivaled in terms of size and population in the Americas. It was the first time I lived away from my parents and siblings, but I felt connected to its energy, which promised a new life not built on pre-existing connections. One of the things I really struggled with in Belo Horizonte was that, for a city with three million inhabitants, its residents can be fiercely provincial, constantly probing to find whether they have any relation to anyone they meet, which leads to bizarre conversations like "I think my cousin attended your high school. Who taught the classes? Maybe you had teachers in common." I struggled to get on the same level of excitement when it turned out that, indeed, me and the person's cousin had been taught by the same teacher. In São Paulo, no one cared where you were from, only what you were doing now. I felt invited.

But São Paulo is still in Brazil, and there was an entire world out there. I started traveling abroad on vacation, feeling different places out, and in spite of resisting it (because it felt like such a movie-induced cliché), I really loved New York. It's like São Paulo on steroids – smaller, but more global. In São Paulo, I saw many different faces but most spoke Portuguese; in New York, people speak languages I've never even heard before – and on the
subway, not in the UN building. It's an entire city made up of people like me. It took me two years to finally move here, but I did, and on top of that, I finally realized my childhood dream of pursuing storytelling as a profession. I found a "truer" version of myself here, and now the smell of hot concrete and the screeching of the subway feel oddly reassuring – as close to home as I'm ever going to feel, in this city of transplants. I miss a lot of things – my family, the good friends I made along the way, the weather – but that's unavoidable. I will always lead a life of longing, and even so, I'm happy here.

Except, of course, for the fact that I might be deported come June, when my student visa expires. I struggle to reconcile the fact that I've attached myself to this place, finally unpacked my metaphorical bags and allowed myself to stop running for a moment, with the legal reality that my stay here has its days numbered. I don't feel like I'm a victim of the situation, that someone's doing this to me on purpose or that the government is treating me unfairly (especially compared to immigrants who come to this country running away from dire circumstances and really cannot face the prospect of returning). But it is unsettling. A new reminder that I don't belong, right when I was starting to feel like I did.

So I resist, and work hard and ask for help to come up with the (surreal) amount of money it takes to petition for a visa. And I try not to let the anxiety of not knowing where I'll be this time next year prevent me from relaxing on the couch at the end of the day – but it does, which wreaks havoc on my health, both physical and mental. I use it as fuel for my writing, in which all my protagonists are foreigners of some sort, or at least different from everyone around them. I try to make my peace with it, telling myself I'll create a new life wherever I end up, and I'll be happy eventually – which I'm sure will happen. But it seems so hard to believe right now.

I've been a foreigner since I was 12, and it's now clear to me that I will be a foreigner forever. I have to personally create the circumstances that other people take for granted – the identification that comes from a shared culture, language, traditions. I built my own little country. It doesn't have borders other than the places I still don't know. It doesn't have an official language except that of the accent, which I'm tired of being mocked for, so I've completely owned. It has a only a few citizens, my family and friends, but like any patriot, I'm ready to die for them.

In time, I'll learn to feel like home in this little country of mine, regardless of where I actually live. After all, I can't be deported from it. And that doesn't feel like a curse. For that, I feel truly blessed.

UPDATE 7/16/2018: Francisco acquired his Artist's Visa in July 2018!