Updated: Jan 13, 2021
A daughter, a mother, a student, an activist, a teacher, an immigrant. We see labels more than we think. Although they don’t define us, they are a part of us. Being labeled as an immigrant can be seen in many ways. Some positive and some not. Last week, our team interviewed Dora Currea. Dora’s inspiring story told through these labels allow us to see her side of these labels. Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Dora migrated with her mom to New Jersey at the young age of six. She took from her mother’s strength and perseverance to work hard and study at Dartmouth, Harvard, and MIT. She gave back to Latin America by working at the Inter-American Development Bank for 20 years. After retiring, she decided to enlist in Teach For America, a non-profit organization working to strengthen schools. She worked as a teacher at a Hyattsville public school where she taught many immigrant students. Dora devotes her time to advocating for migrants in our local community by visiting and writing to detainees while writing letters to representatives, and co-chairing the Cathedral’s Sanctuary Ministry. We are lucky enough to bring you her story today!
Can you describe your personal experience immigrating to the United States?
When Dora was six, her parents’ marriage grew strained. At the time in Colombia, there existed no legal means for divorce or separation, so her parents decided it would be best for Dora and her mother to move to the United States. The two obtained visas and moved to New Jersey, where Dora’s mother worked hard as a seamstress in a factory, sewing zippers at night for extra money. With the help of a Puerto Rican classmate’s translation for her, Dora soon began to thrive in the Jersey City public school system, eventually gaining admission to Dartmouth College (and later continuing her education at Harvard and MIT). She often returned to Colombia with her mother so that her parents could continue to work on their marriage, and because of this was raised in both American and Colombian culture.
Did you ever feel like “the other” after migrating to the United States?
Dora says that she was “lucky enough to grow in such a welcoming environment.” The diverse and accepting community in the New York-New Jersey metro area shaped her view of the nation built by immigrants that she’s proud to live in. When she arrived at college, she realized that she wasn’t white. She realized that she had to put a label to her ethnicity, race and nationality, which is a struggle many minorities and migrants face. She’d “carry this label” for the rest of her life. Although Dora grew up in a welcoming community, she’s felt and seen how the nation built by immigrants is now shaming their culture, accent, status, and race. “It just isn’t the same.”
What was the most difficult part about leaving Colombia?
Dora believes that she missed out on “what it really means to be a Colombian.” She left Colombia during a time of violence and fear. When she visits her cousins she sees the sense of pride and unity they have from surviving such a difficult time that she would never comprehend. Although she is incredibly grateful for growing up in the United States, she feels that she missed out from an experience that connects Colombia as a nation everyday.
Were there any moments where you felt scared due to your migratory status in the US?
Dora noted that over her lifetime, attitudes towards non-citizens have grown increasingly negative, and she has experienced this first hand. During her travel for the IDB, Dora had frequent interactions with customs officials, and these interactions grew increasingly discomforting over the years. Even as a permanent resident, she was grilled about why she hadn’t yet naturalized, and whether this meant she was not sufficiently committed to the United States. After being frequently hassled about her residence card, she eventually naturalized, but even with a US passport, she says she is treated suspiciously when coming from Colombia-and much more so than in the past. She observed, “It’s as though because you’ve gone abroad, you now have to have an excuse… You’re treated as though… ‘Why would you want to leave this country?’”
After working in the Inter-American Development Bank, what inspired you to participate in Teach for America?
After a career in the IDB working for Latin American development, Dora decided to “turn inward” and focus on immigrant issues in the United States. Eager to understand immigrant issues from a local perspective, she decided to join Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that dispatches teachers to high-need areas to promote educational equality. Dora taught at a low-income school in Hyattsville, Maryland, whose student body was 80% immigrant, and says that she has drawn on this experience in her further work for immigrant causes.
What challenges have you seen immigrant students or first generation students face in the education system?
Dora described the high school she worked at that had a large minority and immigrant population as outdated, essentially falling apart, and way beyond its capacity. She also recalls having to distribute and then recollect textbooks each class so that her many students could have access to textbooks. She stated, “I think that the way that this country has chosen to fund education is unfortunate because it means that depending on where you live, you get that level of education.” Dora explains that she sees this imbalance in funding as a way lower income kids and many minority communities are given a lower quality education. Additionally, from her experience teaching she feels that a large responsibility is placed on teachers that are given too many tasks while not being given the tools they need or the respect they deserve. She expressed her frustration with the lack of tools and funding given to schools with a large minority student body, while students are told that the only way to accomplish the “American dream” is through a quality education, one that they are often denied.
What are some of the biggest issues you have seen immigrants face when they first come to the U.S.?
Dora described the troubles of being thrown into a completely new environment and having to create a life for yourself. She identified one of the biggest challenges to be something that she struggled with herself: the language barrier. Having come to the United States at a young age with no understanding of English, she recalls the struggles of engaging in school and having to have her Puerto Rican classmate translate for her. She also describes some of the insight she gained when working with immigrant children at her school who faced great difficulty in getting to the United States and then were faced with prejudice when they finally arrived. She expressed, “Some of them had to make a tremendous effort to get to this country and then have to face the feeling that you are not wanted… You deny them after all that effort and then say that this whole thing about opportunity was really a hoax because we really don't want you. In fact, we don't like the way you look; we don't like your last name; we don't like your accent; we don't like anything about you.”
If there’s one thing you think everybody should know about immigration in the United States, what would it be?
Dora stated, “Everybody should go back to history. They should confirm that this is a country of immigrants.” She explained that the rights and freedoms established in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are taken very seriously by people coming to the United States. Even if people have been excluded from these liberties throughout the history of our country, their promise has inspired the entire world. Dora explains, “We have incredible ideals that are from the founding of this country and that is what makes this country great. It is a sense of having a promise and a sense of possibility that is what is so unique about us and that is what we should constantly remember.”
Interviewed By: Marianna Bonilla, Carolina Zubler, and Rose Schoshinski