Nov. 29, 2017 11:48 am

This Philly Venezuelan wants to encourage ‘participation, not isolation’ among immigrants

Guillermo López has lived in the city for two years. Here's why he wants to become a U.S. citizen and help educate others in the immigrant community about the benefits of naturalizing.

Philadelphians on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

(Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia)

This is a guest post by Immigrant Leadership Institute participant Guillermo López.
My name is Guillermo López and I am from Venezuela.

I grew up in a very small, poor neighborhood. Maybe that is why I am always thinking about how people live, their problems, and their living conditions. My upbringing resulted in me developing not just a sense of responsibility but also feeling a sense of solidarity with those around me.

My parents were illiterate. My mother only attended elementary school for a short time and my father never went to school. My father learned to sign because my mother taught him. However, he was always concerned about the education of his children. He was a very hard worker and always said, “I don’t want you to follow in my footsteps. Education is the most important. Study, always study.”

He sent my brothers, sisters, and me to college. In my case, I studied journalism and almost immediately after I got my degree I started teaching at a university in Venezuela. I retired 19 years ago and later I decided to move to the United States.

I knew, even before moving here, that Philadelphia was somehow different from other cities in the country.

I am familiar with many cities in the U.S. I was living in Massachusetts for about 10 years, and during that time, I visited Philadelphia a few times. This is why I knew, even before moving here, that Philadelphia was somehow different from other cities in the country. Here, people like to talk to each other in the streets and in their neighborhood. People are much friendlier. They are open.

At this moment, I am living in a primarily African American neighborhood here in Philadelphia. A lot of times, I see people sitting on the front steps of their houses because they don’t have work. I talk to them every day. They don’t know who I am, they only know that I live there and that I am not American. They don’t have much, but they like to share everything. Every two to or three months, they organize block parties and they invite me.

One day I told them that I would not be able to attend because I did not have time to buy or prepare something to take to the party. But they said, “Don’t worry about that, we have everything.”

One thing I always do when I am in a new city is to try to know the city by taking the bus. I don’t care about which bus it is, I don’t care what route it takes. It is a great way of looking at the neighborhood, and listening to the people on the bus. Even though I try to immerse myself in my new city, what it is always on my mind is the difficult times people are facing in Venezuela. I think many immigrants experience the same because they are not just dealing with the problems in their home country, but also the problems they might have fitting into their new country.

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What it is always on my mind is the difficult times people are facing in Venezuela.

As immigrants, it is difficult for us to recreate the way of living we have in the country we came from. The U.S. has many different cultures and sometimes I find it difficult to understand which culture I am dealing with. For instance, we have Italians and Vietnamese people in South Philadelphia; we have Russians, Indians and Chinese people in the Northeast.

How do you interact with all of them and at the same time try to integrate your culture with the culture of the majority? What is the culture of the majority in Philadelphia? That is the question. We have to define what is the predominant culture here in order to say, “I want to be like them.”

The first thing we do when we come to America is to start participating in “American living.” I participate in conversation groups at two libraries. We talk about what is happening around us. Not just about politics, but the problems people here face every day. I would like to immerse myself fully in the process of dialoguing and creating understanding between people, and the way to do that is to become a U.S. citizen. I feel I cannot express my concerns freely and loudly if I am not a citizen.

We need to find a way to create programs where immigrants can understand what it means to participate in the life of the city.

Many immigrants become isolated from the city and from the general population because when they come to Philadelphia they live in clusters. We need to find a way to create programs where immigrants can understand what it means to participate in the life of the city, contribute to the city, and get to know the people around them who are not like them.

We need to create programs that motivate participation, not isolation. If not, they will always be immigrants living with other immigrants.

Immigrants are frustrated because they do not feel there are people in power they can trust to solve their problems. Many do not know who to turn to because everyone around them in their neighborhood is living in the same situation. They are afraid of asking for help because they do not know how they will be received.

I want to become a citizen and help educate people about the benefits of naturalizing. Many do not want to go to government officials because they are afraid – they think the authorities are always looking for a way to deport them, even if they have legal status. This is a big reason why immigrants do not apply for citizenship – they are not confident enough in the process. They believe that is not an interview about how much they know about U.S. history, civics, politics, or government, but one to revise their status.

That’s why I want to focus on helping working class people who came here because they need to work and survive.


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