Angela Henao-Taylor is a 51-year-old Latina from Medellín, Colombia. She currently lives in Virginia, United States, where she teaches Spanish at a high school level. I first met her at Mercyhurst Preparatory School in 2016, where I took her Spanish I course. I took 2 subsequent courses with her after that, and she made a big impact on my understanding of the Spanish language and my overall learning. Not only did this interview allow me to capture her oral history, but it also served as a great way to reconnect and learn more about one of my favorite teachers.
Early Life in Colombia
Angela was born in Medellín, Colombia, where her entire family still lives today. She has three brothers, a mom, a dad, and several cousins, aunts, and uncles. She describes Medellín as a big city with a lot of activities to do. It’s extremely evident that she has a love for Medellín in the way she describes it, as tropical, with a lot of mountains surrounding it. As a child, she would often play outside with her friends and celebrate many birthday parties. She recalled not traveling outside the city often, because they did not have a lot of money to travel. However, she said that she did not miss it, because there were so many things to do, and all of her family was there.
When asked about some of her earlier childhood memories, Angela starts by giving an anecdote about how she was the firstborn, which resulted in her being spoiled. She recalled a time when she did not like the kindergarten she was attending and convinced her parents to take her out of it. She says,
“I hated going there and they used to sit us on the floor and the teachers and even the snacks were eaten on the floor. And I hate to be on the floor. So I remember one day after probably two or three weeks going to that kindergarten, I went to my dad said, ‘I have a stomach ache! I don’t want to go back to that kindergarten!’ And they took me out of that kindergarten, that’s how spoiled I was. So I was one year late to start elementary school because I had to repeat kindergarten. And then I was a year older than everybody else.”
It’s also evident that she had a great relationship with her parents and family, as looks back on her childhood fondly. She remembered fighting with her brother like most siblings do, but she also reflected on her experience. She and her brother were raised to always forgive each other, showing how she was raised with compassion. However, once her mother had twins when she was fourteen, the whole dynamic changed.
When Angela gained two siblings, she remembered a growing responsibility to help her mom. She recalls feeling as if she was the mom, helping take care of the twins at the age of fourteen. She said, “Then, the other two kids arrived. And then, I felt like I was the mom because I was fourteen and they were babies, and they were twins. So, I had to help my mom so much with them because of course, she’s having twins so super tired. So, I have to help her a lot with the, with the kids. So yeah, it changed.”
When she was in 11th grade, Angela’s friend offered a job at a clothing store in a market. This was her first job. She worked on the weekends and during vacations, but she said the experience was fun because she was able to make money. After high school, she attended a small college in Colombia, where she studied marketing. After her first two semesters, she began working again, which made her even busier. She remembered her schedule where she would attend classes from 6 to 8 AM, work from 8:30 AM to 6 PM, and then return to college for studying until 10 PM. She would often have to go back on Saturdays to catch up on all her work as well.
When Angela was 27, she ended a relationship with her former boyfriend. At 29, she described her fear of finding a husband. She explained her feelings at the time, saying,
“Okay, this is going to get difficult because I’m going to be thirty, finding that husband after thirty gets harder because, where?”
This reminded me of the concept we learned about in class called amatonormativity. Amatanormativity creates a narrative where the traditional view of romantic relationships, where two people are married and live together, is considered the highest goal for relationships and ought to be something that everyone strives for. This results in a culture where marriage is the main goal, and its effects make those who are not married feel undervalued.
However, Angela, with the help of a friend, joined an international group where they paired people together in the hopes of forming a relationship. It was through this group where she met her current husband. After the two of them had talked for a while, exchanged emails, and went for visits, they decided to do a fiancée visa. This eventually marked the beginning of her process to move to the US. She reminds me, however, that her goal was not to come to the U.S. to find a husband; she moved here because, in Colombia, it is hard to find a job and harder to find one that pays a decent wage.
Angela’s Experience Immigrating to The United States
Angela had her goal set from the beginning: to leave Colombia. She wanted to leave Colombia in search of better education and better work opportunities. However, her experience of immigrating proved to be time-consuming, expensive, and complicated. She recalled having to do several medical tests like blood tests, X-rays, and testing for the AIDS virus. These tests added to the expensiveness of the immigration process. She said,
“And that was the goal from the beginning, when I started the process, was to leave my country, that was the goal. And the immigration process was very, very long. The only easy part was getting the fiancé visa because I didn’t have to do it. He did it all: he paid all the money, he did all the paperwork. Then, they send you some information to your house, they sent it to me in Colombia. So I had to do a lot of, it was a lot of things. I had to take tests like blood tests, X-rays, they, like, they want a healthy person coming into the United States. They don’t want a sick person. Like AIDS, I would even have to take, like, the AIDS test for those things. So that was expensive. And that was long because after, let’s say after I got the paperwork, it probably took another six months to get all the information together. Then, you have to go to the embassy, and they have to interview you to see if they are going to let you in the country, but then they give you the visa. And when you get here, the process starts again, because right away you have to apply for a work permit so you can work, and that takes money, and again, it takes more time. Then you have to start applying for Social Security, that takes time. And after, like, you have to, because I came here with a fiancé visa, the condition was for us to marry in 90 days.”
For these preliminary steps alone, she recalls it taking about six months to complete. From listening to her experience, it is apparent that the process was long and expensive. However, the journey did not end there. She remembered that due to her visa, one of the main requirements was for her to get married within ninety days. She makes a joke about how, if she were immigrating today, the premise would be akin to TLC’s 90-Day Fiancé, but it is also clear that this part of the process was a struggle as well. Angela had to make a life-changing decision in a short amount of time. She describes, “it is difficult because you have to make this decision about getting married to a person that is totally different from you, from your culture, from your language, from everything, in less than ninety days.” However, once that requirement was met, she still had to apply for residency. This process required her to travel often. Not only did this take a lot of time and patience, but the paperwork and the means of traveling were also expensive. Whilst in the immigration process, she and her husband moved, adding more complications. She remembers,
“We lived at that time, we lived in Indiana. So I think we had to go to Cincinnati, something like that. And so, you have to go for interviews. The two of us. We had to show that we are married, we had to show, like, pictures of the marriage. And they only grant you some residence for five years, with the condition that you will stay married. So, after five years, we said, ‘Okay, we cannot be doing this because after five years, you have to apply again, so they extend it.’ But instead of extended, we just needed the citizenship, and it took forever because we started that when we were in Indiana, but then we moved to Virginia. And when we moved to Virginia, like, they put us at the end of the pile. So where is my paperwork? I didn’t have any papers. There was one time when I wanted to go to Colombia, and they sent me a letter that says, ‘Yes, she is legal, she can come and go’. And that’s what I showed because I didn’t have a passport or a visa. So that’s why I showed that when I was coming back to the, to the country. And then after that, so you go back, you take a test. It was very long and very costly. It costs a lot of money, and a lot of work because you have to travel many, many times to Washington because the appointments weren’t in the city we were living, they were in Washington, D.C. So we had to take three days and go there, and spend time in a hotel, money in a hotel, traveling. It took probably three or four years for me to do all the paperwork to become a citizen after I had already applied for the residency and proved that I was still married and all that, it took probably three years or four.”
The immigration process, she said, took around three to four years in total. It required her to go to many appointments, some of which required her to travel to Washington D.C. with her husband. This also contributed to how expensive the process became with having to spend money on hotels and other traveling expenses. In describing her experience, it is apparent that the process proved to be a source of stress for her. Angela also described the troubles she faced in trying to go back to visit Colombia due to the complicated immigration process. At the time, she did not have a passport or a visa, so she had to show other forms of documentation to be allowed to travel. However, once in the US, she had to deal with the normalized discrimination of Latinas.
Facing Discrimination as a Latina
I introduced Angela to a story I learned in class where Aaron Schlossberg, a lawyer from New York, was verbally abusive to workers at a restaurant because they were speaking Spanish. When I asked her if she had any experiences where someone had treated her differently or expressed being uncomfortable with her speaking Spanish, she said that she had not experienced discrimination like that, but she has had experiences where people discriminated against her because she was a Latina. In one instance, when she tried to open a bank account in Virginia, the person at the window denied her service because of her identity. She remembers,
“There’s a couple of situations, not necessarily with me speaking Spanish, but maybe the way I look, because I cannot deny that I am Latina, right? One day, when I first moved to Virginia, I started being a teacher. So, they were going to pay us by deposit, direct deposit, and we just moved from Indiana, so I didn’t have a checking account in the bank in Virginia. So I asked around. Somebody said, ‘Oh yes, go to this bank. That’s the bank here.’ I forget the name of the bank. And I went there and this lady, and I said, “I need to open an account,” And this lady looked at me head to toe, and they said, “No, we are not taking new customers here.” I was, I felt like that was discrimination because the way she looked, she assumed that I didn’t have any money, maybe “What was the reason for this lady opening, she probably barely speaks English. She doesn’t have any money. I don’t want her.” And she, “No, we are not opening accounts,” like what? I never heard of a bank not accepting new clients. So that’s the only time that I can really, really feel like I was discriminated like that I remember that if there has been other incidents, I guess they weren’t as bad because I don’t remember them as much. I think I have been lucky because at least in that part, people for me talking in Spanish? No, never had that problem.”
Angela’s experience with the bank teller reflects the intolerance of people who speak different languages, and how they are treated in the US. When she was describing her experience, it made me think about Amy Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue.” In her essay, she writes about growing up with her mother, whose native language was Chinese, and how she did not speak English in the manner White people with English as their first language had determined as the “acceptable” form of English. Because of this, Amy’s mother experienced a lot of discrimination for not speaking in the way that people with English as their first language did.
She writes, “It has always bothered me that I can think of no way to describe [my mother’s English] other than ‘broken,’ as if it were damaged and needed to be fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. I’ve heard other terms used, ‘limited English,’ for example. But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people’s perceptions of the limited English speaker… the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her” (Tan 255-56).Amy Tan, “Mother Tongue”, 1990.
When Angela was describing her experience, she could tell the bank teller noticed a difference in her English. Here, I saw a distinct correlation to Tan’s experiences with her mother being given sub-par service due to the way she spoke English. The bank teller’s actions actively dehumanized her; by telling her they were not opening new accounts, she was not taken seriously nor given any service.
The bank teller’s decline of service acted as a microaggression against Angela’s Latina identity. James Ellis, Candace Powell, and other writers in the Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology Journal describe microaggressions as:
“intentional or unintentional brief exchanges that communicate hostile, derogatory, harmful slights and insults on an individual or group. Micro aggressions subtlety demean and invalidate a person’s identity, experiences, and historical background and are conveyed in derogatory verbal, behavioral, and environmental undertones. They are interpreted by individuals as if they do not belong to a setting or group, are intellectually inferior, cannot be trusted, and often adhere to racial stereotypes” (Ellis 267).James Eliis, et al., Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 2019.
Through Angela’s remarks on this experience, it’s clear she was affected by this microaggression. As the authors wrote, the bank teller’s microaggression was laced with racist and xenophobic ideologies that made the bank teller act in a way that told Angela she did not deserve service. In committing this microaggression, the bank teller tried to make Angela feel as though she did not belong at that bank. By looking her up and down, the bank teller demeaned Angela’s identity and used her behavior to make Angela feel as though she didn’t belong. These beliefs stem from the normalized and extremely damaging narrative that immigrants do not belong in the United States.
In another part of the interview, I asked Angela if she remembered a time when her ethnicity had affected her career as a Spanish teacher. She responded with a story where she faced struggles with assumptions in her career. These assumptions led others to believe that because she is a Latina, it only made sense that she taught Spanish. She also mentioned how one of her colleagues told her that some school districts preferred not to have a native Spanish speaker as a teacher. This resulted from fears of parents that native Spanish speakers would be too demanding of the students.
“One thing is interesting because, ‘Oh, what do you teach?’ ‘I teach Spanish.” Of course, they assume that just because they look at me. So that’s something that I think affects that in good ways and in bad ways. In good ways, because maybe that’s why I always find a job, because “Oh yes, she can speak Spanish.” So, if she’s a teacher, she’s going to be better than a person who may be a teacher but doesn’t, Spanish is not their first language or a person whose Spanish is their first language but is not a teacher. So, it’s like because of my ethnicity and because I studied to be a teacher, so I have the two things. But yes, I think so, I think in that in that particular regard, even though sometimes I think that has affected me because there are some schools where they don’t want teachers whose native language is Spanish because they say we are harder, harder teachers. So, for instance, when I came here, one of the other teachers that was in the training, I asked her because she was subbing in another school, so I said, “Why didn’t you stay in that school?” And she said, because, and this lady is from my country also, so she said, ‘because in there they don’t hire native speaker teachers for Spanish, because they think the parents, they think that as a native speaker, we are harder on the kids.’ We are more demanding on what they have to accomplish. So, yes, that’s how I feel like. Yeah. It gives me a little bit of. Yes. Prejudice sometimes.”
Differences in Colombia vs. The United States
Throughout the interview, Angela touched on a couple of differences between Colombian culture and the United States. First, she described the difference in education. In both the United States and Colombia, students in high school have groups of friends where they socialize during school. However, she noted that she often did not socialize with her school friends outside of school, as many students do in the US. From her experience, schools in Colombia did not have after-school activities, and on the weekends, she would not socialize with her friends from school. This was because she already had her neighborhood friends. She also described the differences in college between Colombia and the United States. In the United States, many students stay in dorms while completing their education. In Colombia, the experience was quite different. She noted that students did not live on campus and instead traveled to university for schoolwork or to attend classes.
When I asked her about her husband, she also told me about the cultural differences regarding marriages and parenthood. She says that the concept of marriage is different in Colombia. There, a lot of the importance in marriage is to raise children. She says,
“The parents, or mostly moms, worry about growing up, like, raising their kids, more than taking care of the marriage.” She also adds, “if you go to Colombia and you ask anybody, they are going to tell you that marriage is the worst thing ever. They are, 90 percent of the people are going to tell you that.”
She liked that, in the US, there was also an emphasis on the relationship between the two partners, making the success of their relationship as important as raising children. She says that her relationship is easy because she and her husband do not have children. She shows her strong love for her husband as she adds,
“That’s the best part, like, oh. He’s such a good husband! Like, perfect.”
Her Greatest Success
One thing that I felt was important to ask Angela was what she deemed to be her greatest success in life. When I asked this, she said that her biggest success was her ability to go to school in the US, graduate, and find a job. She remembered the struggles of living in Colombia and how she set her eyes on moving to the U.S. to be able to better provide for herself. When she first moved here, she was content with working at a fast-food restaurant, but the people close to her helped remind her of the ambition she carried. She was able to not only graduate with a bachelor’s degree but with a master’s and mentions how she never thought that would happen whilst studying in a country where she was not familiar with English. She reminisces,
“The biggest success in my life is being able to go to school here and graduate. Like, when I went to school here, college, so I had to do a bachelor’s, and then I did a master’s degree. And the fact that I graduated from those things, in a country that I don’t speak the language and I was able to, like when I first went for my bachelor’s degree here, I would have been in the country only for two years, so the fact that I was successful taking classes in English in here, and I was able to keep up and I was able to graduate. To me, that’s the biggest success. And that has helped me a lot, you know, to get along with people and to know people and to find jobs, which was the main purpose from the beginning. That was the main purpose why I moved here. I didn’t move here to find a husband. I moved here because in Colombia it’s so hard to find a job and it’s so hard to find a job that pays you a decent wage. Because I am not, I don’t want to be rich, but I just want to have enough to be able to survive, just to have enough to have a decent life. So that was the main reason I moved here. When you asked me at the beginning what made me move here? It’s because I wanted to get out of Colombia, I didn’t want a husband from there because there is no way you are going to succeed. There is no way you are going to make ends meet in there. So, I said, ‘I need to find a way to find a better life and I’m going to find a husband in a different country, so I can move there, and I can work.’ That was my main reason. So, to me, the fact that I was able to go to college [was my biggest success]. In Colombia, only rich, rich people go to college in a different country.”
This reminded me of our studies on class. Angela’s intersectionality as a Latina woman who was lower class affected her visions of the future. In bell hooks’ feminism is for everybody, she utilizes a quote from Rita Mae Brown to describe how class affects more than just the means of production. She includes,
“Class is much more than Marx’s definition of relationship to the means of production. Class involved your behavior, your basic assumptions, how you are taught to behave, what you expect from yourself and others, your concept of a future, how you understand problems and solve them, how you think, feel, act” (hooks 39).Rita Mae Brown, included in bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, 2000.
In Colombia, Angela struggled to find a job that paid a decent wage for her to be economically self-sufficient. She says because of her class, “there is no way you are going to succeed. There is no way you are going to make ends meet in there.” Class undeniably affects the potential for someone to succeed, therefore inscribing narratives where those in the lower class have no potential to succeed. Angela moved to the US to be able to provide for herself, to achieve goals she felt would not have been possible in Colombia. She also notes that only the extremely wealthy can go to college in a different country, understanding how class affects people’s potential.
As a freshman, I walked into Angela’s class with a limited Spanish vocabulary and some basic understandings of conjugation. By the time I left as a senior, her instruction gave me the ability to engage in debates and write essays fully in Spanish. Along with this instruction, she also included anecdotes and stories about her life in Colombia that I cherished. Interviewing her allowed me to hear a larger part of her story, which I am extremely grateful for.
In listening to her history, I am reminded of the privilege I have as a white person who was raised upper-middle-class and has lived in the US for most of their life. From my viewpoint, coming to the US as an infant through adoption, it is hard to imagine the complications faced in going through the extremely long and complicated immigration process as an adult. Living in the U.S. as a Native English speaker and being able to study at college, with a full understanding of the language I am being educated in is another aspect of privilege I have.
Angela’s story is incredibly inspiring. From living in Colombia to leaving her culture and family behind to move to the US without a full understanding of English, and then graduating with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, her story is a testament to her ambition and determination.
Ellis, James M., et al. “Examining First-Generation College Student Lived Experiences with Microaggressions and Microaffirmations at a Predominately White Public Research University.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, vol. 25, no. 2, 2019, pp. 267–267., doi:10.1037/cdp0000198.
“Feminist Class Struggle.” Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, by bell hooks, South End Press, 2000, p. 39.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue” (1990).