Finding True Refuge

In 1989, I was born in Medellín, Colombia. I lived the first six years of my life in Colombia before my parents moved our family to the United States. At the time, Pablo Escobar, a drug lord and narco-terrorist, was wreaking havoc in Colombia and my parents didn’t feel that living in Colombia was safe anymore. My parents settled in Miami, Florida in hopes of giving my older brother and me a better life.

Me (left) with my brother, 1992.

Beginning school in Florida was difficult because I had to first overcome the language barrier and navigate the cultural shock at just six years old. I had trouble keeping up in my classes and kids would make fun of me. I dressed and spoke differently than other kids, which made me feel like an outcast. My sanctuary was the class held after school by the lunch lady. She taught English to any kids who were interested. She would play Beatles songs for us to help provide examples of the language in a fun way. I remember I learned a lot of my English from The Beatles. Whenever I hear the song, “Yesterday” I think back to those great times learning English from the lunch lady. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would have learned the language so quickly.

My childhood was a constant uprooting because we were living in the US illegally. My parents had to move us around a lot to different places in Florida and had to use other peoples’ identification to help them get jobs since they were unable to get work permits. A lot of my childhood was spent with just my brother while both of my parents worked multiples jobs at once.

Me in 1999.

Alongside the stress of working and living under threat, my dad was never good to my mom. I remember he had major drug and alcohol problems. He also had an awful temper. It caused a lot of fights between my parents. He also used to take his anger out on my brother and me too. He wanted everyone in our family to be perfect. When we didn’t live up to his standards, he would beat us. I remember once getting beaten because I hadn’t written neatly enough on a homework assignment. Though I lived in fear of my father, I tried to understand him. I knew that he had been brought up getting beaten too. It was the only form of discipline he knew.

Regardless of the risks of living under false identities, my parents were able to make enough income for us to live comfortably for about seven years, but our years of stability didn’t last longer than that. When I was 13, my dad finally got caught with fake identification. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained my dad and searched for my brother, mom, and me. We were lucky to have found out about my father’s capture before the officers arrived. We didn’t go home to our apartment for days until officials had left the place alone.

My father’s arrest devastated us. We had tried so hard to create something stable in the US and it was ripped away in an instant. My mom tried so hard to keep our family together. Until my dad was deported, we didn’t have any contact with him. After three months in jail, my dad was sent back to Colombia, and when we finally had the chance to talk to him. He seemed disinterested on the phone. It was like his deportation made him feel ashamed that he lost his sense of duty as the patriarch of our family. I think it broke him. He stopped trying to be there for us. He gave up on being a dad for a long time.

My mom, brother, and I were forced to flee to New York where my aunt lived. For two years, we remained under the radar, trying to get by with just my mother’s income. We moved back to Miami after things had calmed down. It was only a matter of time until immigration got my mom too. She was driving home from work one day when she was stopped by a cop for an expired license. At the time, cops were allowed to ask drivers for their resident cards or proof of legalization in the country. Since my mom couldn’t provide that, she was detained and eventually deported.

A year after my mom’s deportation, my brother and I ended up going from home to home, anywhere that would give us a roof over our heads. The first home was my aunt’s, but we didn’t stay long because her husband didn’t want to support my brother and me. We were desperate to find any place to stay because we did not want to sleep on the streets. I was forced to leave behind many material things like pillows, instruments, and clothes, because I couldn’t take things with me.

I was 15 by this point, and knew I had to get a job since both of my parents were gone. I searched for a job. Since I was unable to get a work permit, I had to rely on my friend from school to help get me jobs in South Beach where we lived. After school, I would go work a retail job part-time getting about $7 an hour. And I kept working and going to school until high school graduation.

My brother was in a liquor store one night and overheard someone looking for roommates. He thought this guy could be a possibility for a new temporary home, so he exchanged numbers with this individual. Within the same week we moved in with a complete stranger. My brother was hesitant, but we were desperate to find a home. Our new roommate was addicted to cocaine and had a drinking problem. I hated being around that environment, but it was all we had. We had to suck it up until we found something else. Eventually, we had made plans to move out.

On the night before my brother and I got another place, our roommate came into my room, drunk and under the influence of cocaine. He quietly sat on my bed, touching my hair and trying sweet talk me. I couldn’t move nor understand him. Before I could react, he jumped on top of me and locked my arms in place. He began touching me aggressively. He silenced my several cries of “no.” I was sexually abused that night, and it was the most horrible feeling I had felt in a long time. Thankfully my brother broke the door in and stopped him from continuing even longer. I only had my brother in this foreign country, but even he couldn’t always protect me. I felt soulless.

After that incident, I was a different person. I was no longer me. I was a careless version of myself. I began living a roller coaster ride of depression, with really high, happy moods followed by low, miserable moods. During those dark times, I had a desperate need to feel connected to life but couldn’t figure out how. Searching for a way to feel something, I began harming myself. I would cut and burn my legs, forearms and areas near my pelvis. The pain was a way of keeping me from falling into a dissociative state of being.

When I was about 16, we caught a break and moved in with my uncle. Things felt more reliable with him, or at least I thought it was at first. What I didn’t know was that my uncle and his former girlfriend were alcoholics. They would drink every single day. Drinks for breakfast, drinks for lunch and wine for dinner. Their favorite drink for them was Aguardiente Antioqueño, with 35% liquor volume. There were fights on a daily basis due to the excessive drinking and they would encourage me to drink along with them to the point where I was going to school drunk. I was their toy. This was my environment every day for a year. I felt obligated to my uncle and his girlfriend for taking us in, so I would do what they asked of me. I could handle the drinking, but I couldn’t handle the beating from my uncle’s girlfriend. She would beat me for staying out too late on school nights. They didn’t realize that the reason I stayed out so late was to avoid the drinking and fighting I had to deal with in their home.

One day, when I was only 16 and very naïve. I made the mistake of trusting someone that told me he would help me get my green card. I was desperate and somewhat alone. This man was charismatic and made it easy to trust him. The man was a personal trainer, and he offered to train me for free after hearing my story. He sympathized with my situation and seemed to truly care.

Before training, he would help me stretch. He started massaging my inner thighs, but very differently from the rest of my body. I felt the same discomfort that I had with the guy who held down my arms to my bed. I began having flashbacks. The trainer claimed that it was normal routine for him and the rest of the girls he trains. I was filled with utter disgust. I wanted to kill him with my bare hands. He had lured me into something that I thought was honest and beneficial considering everything else I was going through, but I was just another girl stupid enough to fall for his scheme.

In high school, I also joined the ROTC, which was my saving grace. I loved the discipline and integrity that came with the military. I took pride in my pressed uniform and shiny shoes. I wanted to join the Navy but couldn’t without legal documentation. I still stuck with the program because I enjoyed the experience. Despite of all the low blows life was throwing at me, this Navy program helped me stay above water. It provided the training and techniques to help me get stronger each day. It guided me to a right direction when my compass was showing me bad turns and wrong people.

Me (far left) while in the ROTC, c. 2006.

My self-mutilation continued as I tried to escape all the lies and terrible feelings from the abuse from the horrible human beings I had encountered. I didn’t want to stay any longer. As soon as I graduated high school, I returned to Medellín to be with my mom. My brother chose to stay, but I couldn’t bear to. My mom and I had always been very close so living hundreds of miles away from her was excruciating. I just I felt like I didn’t belong in the US and that I wouldn’t get any more opportunity in the US than I would in Colombia. Moving back to Colombia was a major culture shock for me, but it was worth it to be reunited with my mom again.

Though my mom returned to Colombia, my dad didn’t reunite with her. My mom found out that my dad was having a long-distance affair with a woman living in the US. They decided to separate because the stress of it all caused further strain on their marriage that was inconsolable. My dad learned that he had gotten the woman pregnant, so he began dating her when I was 17. Since his new girlfriend was a US citizen, she began the process for me to obtain legal papers for the United States. It was going to be a long process and a long shot for approval, but I allowed them to file the request anyway.

Colombia makes it very difficult for people over 40 to find a good job if they don’t have any sort of education. Because of this, my mom was unable to find a career back home. I made the choice to become the sole provider for my mom. Though I didn’t have a college degree, I felt confident that I would find a job because I had the much-needed skill of knowing and speaking fluent English. I applied for a secretary job at a global technologies company that asked for someone who could speak English. After the language assessment portion of the interview, I was told that I should try for ga better job than the secretary’s position because my English was so clean. I applied for a quality assurance position and was hired on. I knew nothing about what the position did, but I was willing to learn, and they were willing to give me a chance. I fell in love with the job and work environment I had been invited into. I felt challenged and trusted.

In Medellín in 2009.

When I was 22, my father called to tell me he and his girlfriend had gotten married. The marriage had helped their old request to adopt me and allow me to get papers and living with him would get me legal permission to live in the US. My father had mellowed out over time, and I was willing to go live with him now that he had changed. This news was so unexpected. I was finally getting a chance to legally go back to the place I had spent most of my childhood. I could finally try to enlist in the military. I was shocked, but anxious to finally get that experience. I quit my job and moved back to the States.

Back in Miami, 2012.

All of my childhood, I yearned for proper papers to stay in the US, but when I finally had them, it didn’t feel like I expected. I missed Colombia. Many of the dark memories of my teenage years had tainted the country for me. And when I took the tests to join the military, I failed — twice. I came to see that maybe my dream of joining the military wasn’t the dream meant for me after all. I made peace with it. After a year of trying to make it work in the US, I returned to Colombia in 2013.

When I had first returned to Colombia, I tried to join the country’s military, but they had strict guidelines. They don’t want soldiers to have any scars, tattoos, or piercings. Since I had scars and a few tattoos, the Colombian military was out. The same rules applied for law enforcement, so I put the dream of working for a government agency to rest. I reached out to the company I had worked for before I went back to the US, and they offered me another position. Twice, they’ve embraced me in difficult times, and I’ve been working there ever since.

From my time at the global technologies company, I’ve gained valuable experience and have moved up within the company. I’m a project manager today, which gives me a lot to do, but I like staying busy. With the abandonment of my old dream, I picked up a new one. I now dream of impacting the lives of others in a positive way through my knowledge and experiences. Through my job, I’m able to help others this way. This is what makes me happy.

Kayaking with my mom, 2016.

It took me awhile to find happiness, but I’m glad I’ve found it. Over time, I learned to accept that I cannot control things. Though they may not work the way I want, sometimes the new outcome will be better for me in the end. I’ve had to let things go in life and accept that life has its own route. I look less at material things in my life and more at people in my life for happiness. In the past, I was always chasing something material to find happiness. I now find happiness in the people around me like my mom. My mom has been a driving force in my life to keep striving and become a better person. With people like my mom in my life, I know I’ll continue to live a contented life.

This is the story of Renata Aguilar

Renata lives and works in Medellín, Colombia today with her mom, whom she is very close with. When Renata was six, her family moved to Miami, Florida in hopes of better future but only found struggles as her parents unsuccessfully avoided deportation which forced her to find shelter with only her brother by her side. Once she moved back to Colombia, she knew she was meant to stay there, as she feels it is her true home. Her brother still lives in the US and seems to be doing okay. She still visits the US every six months to see him and sometimes visit her father and stepfamily. In her free time, Renata loves to watch documentaries and thrillers. She loves Pulp Fiction and knows the entire movie by heart. She also enjoys spending time in nature. Renata also has eight tattoos, a few including Salvador Dali paintings and a dragon. Since her move back to Colombia, she put her mom and her mom’s needs above her own and made sacrifices. As she moves up in her company, she is finally able to start saving for a car. Her goal is to continue learning and face new challenges at work so that she can continue to better herself.

Renata, 2018.
|Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker |

Life Log #105

This story first touched our hearts on June 25, 2018.

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