Where are you from?

I am from Montevideo, Uruguay. I actually moved to the United States as an undergraduate student. Upon graduation, I received a training visa to practice bilingual social work in New York City. I worked at Catholic Guardian Society as a foster care case manager, working with children who were placed in foster care. My caseload was with children and parents who were Spanish-speaking. I worked with their parents to help them improve their situation so that they could once again care for their child. I also helped arrange visits between the children and their parents.

What was it like growing up?

I grew up in Montevideo, Uruguay. My father was an exporter of raw sheep’s wool. He worked as a broker between the farmers and the wool buyers overseas. He arranged for the shipment of the wool they purchased in large bales. He would classify the wool according to quality and send samples out before the buyer would decide on purchasing a specific large quantity. My mother was a stay-at-home mother. She did some work with local artists on the side. I am the oldest of three. I was fortunate to have a stable upbringing.

What brought you to Cleveland?

I actually moved to Cleveland when I decided to attend graduate school in social work. I was hoping to stay in New York City, but Case Western Reserve University made an offer I could not refuse, so I relocated to Cleveland, Ohio.

What were your first thoughts about coming to America? Did those change?

When I first moved to the United States as an 18 year old I was very nervous, as I came here on my own. I was really homesick at first and communication was a lot more challenging. We did not have the conveniences of today’s electronic and digital systems. I had to write letters. I could not afford to call my family by telephone. It was terribly expensive. I felt like an outsider as the fashions for clothing were different, meal planning was different, and my accent always caused people to ask where I was from. My parents would try to find people in Uruguay who might be travelling to the United States and would send me small packages or letters through them. I would try to travel back to my country for the winter holidays – because it would be summer time there. I also had difficulty at first sorting out the educational system. I was used to essay tests and did not have experience with multiple choice tests. I was also apprehensive about the sexual and social freedom of young people in the United States. The norms for behavior in my home country were specific and defined and the power of gossip and family honor was more controlling. As with many new experiences, the initial fears are often overcome by the building of relationships. It took time for me to understand that in many ways, the fears, worries and anxiety related to change and new environments or people is shared. The power of connection is what helps us overcome these changes.

What challenges did you face as an immigrant transitioning here?

Because I came as a college student from another country, I was only able to come with a suitcase of belongings. However, I soon learned that the other students were also leaving their families for the first time. The main challenge was getting used to the educational system, the culture and the differences in habits and idioms. I had to get “adopted” by local families in between the academic sessions. I did work on the college campus and this, too, was a connection to other working students.

What is your occupation?

I am a social worker by training. I started out providing direct services in mental health and substance abuse treatment as a bilingual social worker. Then I became a supervisor and eventually I became a director.

How have other Clevelanders made you feel welcomed?

When I first moved to Cleveland I was a student at Case Western Reserve’s School of Applied Social Sciences. My first encounter was with the students and professors in that venue. I was really fortunate in that I had a really good experience. I met some wonderful people and I received a lot of educational and moral support. I had to always find work on the side. At first I had a difficult time getting around the city on public transportation, especially after work hours. However, with time, I learned my way around and became more familiar with the city and the different neighborhoods. Through waitressing, working at the school library and working out at the gym, I got to know people from several interesting walks of life. The best part for me was exposure to so many different people with different backgrounds. I really enjoyed finding fellow South Americans or Central Americans as well as people from so many other cultures, races and ethnicities. It did not take long before I realized that Cleveland was where I was going to become established. Through an involved process I became a registered alien and began my career. I also did get married, had children, and finally became a citizen of the United States in Cleveland’s Federal building, in 2008.

What traditions or customs do you continue to practice?

My culture shares several aspects of Cleveland’s culture; in particular the similarities in the holiday traditions. I have also enjoyed my active and ongoing connection with the Hispanic community. The common language and heritage feels very familiar to me and I have joined various boards and committees with the purpose of reaching out and serving the Hispanic community in our area. I am energized through collaborating with leaders of the Hispanic community to bring light to the heritage that we share in common. Each Spanish-speaking country, however, has its own food and traditions and sharing these with my Hispanic colleagues and friends is also enriching. The difference is the weather is the opposite from my home country’s seasons. The winter here is summer in Uruguay and vice versa. We are on the ocean in Uruguay; we are on the lake in Cleveland. The winters in Cleveland are a lot colder! We don’t get snow in Uruguay… The biggest adaptation that I still have a hard time with is how early people have their dinner. In Uruguay we eat after 9 p.m. at night. The social gatherings start after 11 p.m. at night and go well into dawn. I am still a night owl.

What do you love about Cleveland?

I have now raised my own two children in Cleveland and I am thankful that we have a rich circle of friends who have an international perspective and flair. Whereas I used to miss that in Cleveland after living in New York, I now feel Cleveland is on the map. In New York I enjoyed staying in contact with friends from my homeland who would travel through and I would wish that they would also come through Cleveland. Now I see that my homeland visitors, family and friends, actually schedule Cleveland as a stop on their trip – and come back because they enjoy it so. I love the arts in Cleveland, the excellent music venues and the diversity of artistic talent within the various races and cultures. I also love the food choices, the great restaurants and so many food-related events! Of course I love the cultural festivals and the great activities, outdoors and indoors that occur in Cleveland. I am glad we have weekly lists of everything going on so that we can pick and choose things to do with friends and family. I love that we can interact with our elected officials and feel heard. I also love that we can be active with the community in so many ways. And I love the excellent healthcare that we have in Cleveland and the good work being done to improve public and population health and behavioral health for all. We have a long way to go, but I am thrilled to see how people care and how many people work really, really hard because they want to make life better for everyone who lives in the greater Cleveland area.

Why is it so important to welcome immigrants and refugees?

I believe that each person’s life experience is extremely valuable in helping another with appreciating and valuing human qualities and the purpose of life. I also believe that learning and understanding what is important to different people make for a better experience for everyone. Understanding is connecting and through connecting we build self confidence, acceptance and a spirit of contribution to a greater good. I am a strong believer of the value of contribution. I believe that we have more to gain from giving than receiving. I am not focusing on material wealth, but on spiritual wealth. I believe that our immigrants and refugees have so many challenges that are different from ours. Their perspectives and appreciations are also for things that may be different from ours. Whereas I gravitate to, and feel comforted by that which is familiar, I also enjoy the exchange of ideas and perspectives that make me think and grow. I believe that the interaction with different cultures and practices help us both appreciate our own, as well as develop a new sense of purpose through growth and understanding. We have an opportunity to build economic synergy through expanding our community with new residents. New ideas, innovation and new consumer markets are what our city is built on. Hope and opportunity seeking are a common human thread.

What suggestions do you have to make Cleveland a more welcoming community?

I think we should continue our course to open up the water front. Water is a unifying force for all. I also think we should continue to make our arts and cultural opportunities relevant for our different racial, ethnic and cultural groups. We should seek to build representation of our racial and ethnic groups in our administration, governance and decision-making forums. We should invite diverse thought and incorporate such thought as we evolve our traditions and practices as a community. We should make an effort to attend each other’s cultural events and get to know more about these rituals and practices.