I immigrated to the United States when I was nine years old with my parents and sister.  August 12th, 2003, is a date I will never forget and one my family and I celebrate each year religiously.

My parents, paternal grandparents, my sister, and me.

I was born in Venezuela, and my parents decided to move us to Orlando, Florida for a better life and to have more opportunities than what was available in a communist country. All I heard was we were moving to Disney World, and I was over the moon. Moving to Orlando meant going to Disney, riding roller coasters, and eating as many burgers and pizzas as I wanted. The simple things you take for granted, like an extra slice of pepperoni, are all you ever need when coming to America.

This thought quickly changed because I had to start school and begin a routine where Disney was not involved. My parents tried to make this “new reality” as normal as possible, they got us our uniform, new school supplies and even walked us to our classes. Even though they kept saying it would be so much fun, I remember feeling very nervous.

I remember my first day of school like it was yesterday.  My class was taking a test that day. When I looked down at my paper, I had no idea what it said. I tried reading it ten times. I knew myself as an outstanding student.  Good grades.  Never giving my teacher or parents any trouble.  So I panicked.  My teacher spoke Spanish, so I asked  “Qué dice esto?   No entiendo las preguntas.” I remember her exact words. “Tienes que averiguarlo por ti misma,” meaning “you have to figure it out on your own”. It was the “new reality.” I had never been put in the position of not knowing what to do. I held back tears as much as I could. At that moment, I realized Orlando wouldn’t just be burgers, pizzas, and roller coasters. 

My parents worked extremely hard when we moved to Orlando. I can only imagine how scared they were to quit their jobs, sell their house, pack their luggage and leave their whole life behind so they could have a better life. Yes, they moved to Orlando for a better future, but when we first got here, they had nowhere to live, no jobs, didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak English and had two daughters to take care of. The pressure the uncertainty they must have felt was probably huge! My parents worked in housekeeping, selling resorts, cooking, selling and installing DirecTV. From that time, I remember my parents always having a positive and “go-getter attitude.” Today both of my parents are Realtors, and my dad is a Real Estate Broker with his own property management company. My parents are my most significant example of perseverance, hard work, and dedication. Because of them, I strive to be a better person and professional every day.

Growing up was more challenging than I thought it would be because I was an immigrant who had to learn a new language and culture. It was a confusing couple of years. I went from having many friends at school to not having any and not being able to understand anyone. There is a large Hispanic community in Orlando, so over time I found friends who spoke Spanish. Learning to speak English was the tricky part for me. The first two years consisted of tutoring, reading English books, and memorizing as many Disney Channel songs as possible. My sister and I would watch the Lizzie McGuire movie on repeat and sing her songs “a todo pulmon.”

“Hey now” was basically our anthem. This was huge for me because I remember not knowing what the characters were saying at first, but we watched it so much there was a point where we actually understood what they were saying and what was happening.  And looking back now, the lyrics really must have been more meaningful than we even realized, as we were just trying to find a place to belong, somewhere where we could be accepted and our dreams could be made.

In college, I studied Broadcast Journalism and loved learning about different ways of storytelling. Unfortunately, I continued to experience prejudice due to my accent. I won a scholarship to attend a prestigious Journalism conference where we would work amongst the best news professionals in the industry in a newsroom. Along with other students, we had to audition to be anchors, producers, cameramen, and other roles. When auditions finished, and results were announced, my name was missing from the list of students chosen. My mentor pulled me aside and said,

Hearing those words made me feel defeated and powerless. I had worked so hard, and to know they didn’t even care about my work crushed me. After that experience, I questioned my career path, work, and where I wanted to go in life. An experience that was supposed to be enriching and educational turned out to be one of the worst weeks of my life.

At the time that moment felt like the end of the world, but it taught me an important lesson.  While others might try to hold you down, others are there to lift you up.  As my mom would say, “ no hay mal que por bien no venga” meaning every cloud has a silver lining. I had a professor in college who helped me become comfortable speaking in public even when I was terrified.  He asked me to speak in front of our class each week and gave me constructive feedback on how to improve.  He cared about me and accepted me for who I was.  Finally, with the help of mentors like my college professor and others along the way, I realized that my accent did not define me as a person or the quality of my work.  In fact, it enriched me as a person.  I am proud to be a Venezuelan American.  I’m proud of my parent’s heritage.  And you know what, nobody can hold me down for who I am or where I come from.  

Nowadays, I embrace my cultural differences. When talking to friends and family, I start my conversations in English and end them in Spanish o vice versa. I love eating out at Hispanic restaurants and trying different cuisines like empanadas, ceviche, and a good old cafe con leche! Living in Orlando has not only introduced me to other Hispanic cultures but other cultures in general. Orlando has become my home, where I can be myself and meet people who have gone through the same experiences I did growing up. It is good to know I have a community here that supports one another. I visit family back in Venezuela often, and all I want to do is sit on my grandma’s brown velvet couch with golden legs and listen to all her stories while we munch on arepas. 

My husband is Colombian, so I’ve learned much about his culture and background. What has impressed me the most is how different and similar both cultures are. Both countries speak Spanish, eat arepas, and the people are incredibly welcoming and friendly. Other than Spanish slang terms and a few different holidays, the affection and warmth are the same. We both share the same values: family is what matters.

I appreciate my Hispanic culture and learning about other cultures too. I look forward to when my husband and I decide to expand our own family and get to teach our kids about the different traditions, foods, and opportunities this wonderful world has. I want my future kids to be proud of their heritage, just like their parents are.  It took me until I was in my 20’s to realize and be proud of my culture, but I want my children to be proud of where they came from every day they are alive.

I am grateful for my parent’s decision to move to America when I was nine. It has shaped me into who I am today. Their decision changed the path of my life for the better.

Now, I work with a team full of understanding, creative, and inclusive individuals who value my work and strive for me to become a better professional. The best part about my role and team at McKinley is that they care about my background, and my Spanish flare is being put to good use. <3

At McKinley, we strive to be a place where everyone can be accepted for whom they are and celebrated. Our residents, our employees, our team… our family. We are all from different cultures, have different roots, have all walked different paths, and have different stories. Here, we embrace that diversity in all its forms because we know that, in the end, it is the blending of the myriad of individual experiences, stories, and life lessons that make our communities thrive.