A Hidden Immigrant – Expat file #22


This post is from a fellow EXPAT who blogs under the handle: “fine roadkillspatula.wordpress.com” 😉

I learned an insightful new term the other day on a site that focuses on life overseas. The author refers to a “hidden immigrant” as “One who speaks the language – looks the part – but is missing social cues and cultural meanings.”

When I started college in 1977, I had lived a total of 3 years of my life in the US. The other 15 years had been spent in several parts of Colombia.

In Colombia I was clearly an outsider. I spoke fluent Spanish, but I was a foot taller than most people and had blond hair and blue eyes. Little kids used to run after me shouting, “¡Gringo! ¡Gurbai! ¡Guachirnei! ¡Sábana biche!”* I had very good Colombian friends but was usually on the edge of what was happening socially. (Introversion is not a desirable trait in Latin America.) My closest friends were other missionary kids from the US and Canada.

So when I got to college, I looked like one more gringo in a university full of gringos, speaking good English, knowing the basics of survival. But there was a lot I didn’t know, and plenty that I learned but didn’t care for. 

I coped by finding niches: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (I could relate to evangelicals, especially intellectual ones); majors in Latin American Studies and Spanish (familiar language and material, people interested in Latin America); international student friends (people from home or places like it). I also traveled home as often as I could, and to Dallas where many of my high school classmates settled. I wrote letters constantly to friends and family.

In relating to Americans, though, it felt like I was setting aside 15 years of my life and operating on a couple of years of out-of-date experience. As the years went by, I got better and better at it, and felt more comfortable. By the time I reached grad school, I felt like an 8-cylinder engine hitting on six, comfortable and competent but not fully confident.

I noticed that my mind made a big switch when I traveled to and from Colombia. When I flew into Medellín, everything looked crowded and small and messy. By the time we drove across the city and started up the mountain to our house, my perspective was restored and everything looked just right. When I flew back into the Miami airport, everything was huge and clean and people were big and fat. It usually took a couple of days for it to quit being strange. One time I was clear back in Lawrence, KS, and had to run an errand downtown. I saw someone across the street and wondered, “Who’s that gringo?

This mental switch fascinated me. I chose to study intercultural communication for my Master’s, thinking I could work with people who planned to go overseas and prepare them for cultural adaptation. 

Once my classes were done, I spent a year in Honduras working with refugees. It was a wonderful environment; the agency had recruited missionary kids from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, fresh out of college, because we knew Spanish and were comfortable living in primitive circumstances. It felt great to get back to Latin America and make use of those years that had been set aside.

Since then, nearly all my jobs have been multicultural and multilingual (I’ve deleted a few that weren’t relevant):

Refugee logistics worker (Mocoron, Honduras) – 1984-1985.
Purchasing agent (self-employed, Miami; clients agencies in Latin America) – 1985-1986.
Administrative assistant (charitable agency in Miami serving the Hispanic community) – 1985-1987.
Community researcher (mission agency in Miami) – 1985-1987.
Admissions clerk (missionary linguistics school, Dallas) – 1988.
Training/teaching assistant (missionary linguistics school, Dallas) – 1988-1990
Adjunct professor of linguistics (missionary linguistics school and University of Texas at Arlington) – 1990-1991.
Linguistics professor (several Bible schools and missionary training centers, Costa Rica) – 1991-1995.
Teaching assistant, linguistics (missionary linguistics school, Dallas) – 1996-1997.
Professor of English as a Second Language (two language schools, a community college) – 1997-1998.
Translator (two agencies in Dallas) – 1998-2000.
High school Spanish teacher (Mansfield, TX) – 1999-2000.
Translator (another agency in Dallas and now Tampa) – 2000-present.

At this stage of my life, I’m a voluntary outsider to American culture. Alicia and I talk Spanish to each other. We eat a Colombian diet and hang out with Alicia’s sister and brother-in-law and sing Spanish songs. We travel to Colombia every six months. I like living in the US, but am grateful for the multicultural nature of my employment and my marriage and for the Latin grocery store nearby. I feel more fully integrated as a person than at any time in my past. 

*Three of those four expressions are attempts at English. If you read them phonetically you can figure them out.



from Franco’s SPAIN to COLOMBIA via England: EXPAT Files #6

I met Christian Zozaya a few years ago online through my school, Colegio Nueva Granada’s (CNG), website. He read a chapter of my book and asked to read the whole thing even though it was not yet edited – much less published. To my surprise and delight he wrote back with helpful cultural comments and edited some grammatical mistakes he had found in the Spanish.

He is writing a memoir of his fascinating life. I have two posts from Prof. Zozaya, the introduction from the draft of his memoir, Culture Shock and the text he wrote to commemorate the 75th anniversary of CNG (he was one of the first students). At the recent reunion in Bogota I was very pleased to run into several of his classmates and hear stories about the old days (my parent’s generation and the earliest days of CNG).            Cinda

Christian's friends dancing the Sevillana

Christian’s friends dancing the Sevillana

Born in Madrid the son of intellectuals (my father was an M.D. and my mother a Licenciada en Filosofía y Letras – roughly equivalent to a Master in Arts) my life was expected to be that of a well educated Spaniard. I would go to the Institución Libre de Enseñanza (a liberal school); college would be followed by graduate studies with a scholarship from the Junta de Ampliación de Estudios. Eventually I would be a respected professional living a life of comfort with the occasional trip abroad. I would probably speak, apart from my native Spanish, French and possibly have a good knowledge of the Germanic languages. It was going to be a nice, orderly, settled life but fate would not have it so.

The onsets of the Spanish Civil War, and afterwards of World War II were to change not only my life but that of millions of people. This book is about what it did to me and to a lot of kids who found their lives changed forever…

The Spanish Civil War broke out on July 18, 1936 and the government moved in November, first to Valencia and then to Barcelona. My family all tagged along. My grand-parents went because Antonio was a prime candidate for a firing squad given his Republican antecedents 1., and my parents because father worked for the government as head of the civilian anti-malaria campaign….

…in the spring of 1939 I was in England where my parents had sent me. Like hundreds of thousands of others…. (… to be continued)

1. Cinda’s note: Christian’s grandfather, Antonio Zozaya, was a columnist for liberal newspapers in Madrid.



Riding through a cafetal on horseback.


Reflections on the Earliest Years of Colegio Nueva Granada in Bogota (I attended from 1939- 1946)

I went to Colombia after having spent a year in England while my parents stayed in Spain to the bitter end of the Spanish Civil War. My parents did not want me to forget the English that I had learned during my stay in England so they enrolled me in the Anglo-American School in Bogota.

The school was backed by the oil companies. Exploration was intense in the Magdalena River valley and the companies had hopes of finding a second Lake Maracaibo. Their employees came to Colombia with contracts for several years. This was too long a time to keep a family apart or to interrupt the kids’ education. The solution? The Anglo-American School.


I bore the school flag for the Independence Day parade.

The school changed its name from The Anglo-American School to Colegio Nueva Granada during his period. The Colombian government had declared a state of neutrality during WW II and all the international schools had to adopt names that did not reflect nationalities. Le Lycée Français had to change its name as well; I think it became l’Institut Pasteur.

With time Colombia changed its neutral stance against the Axis powers. When the school moved into a building previously occupied by the German Club, the occupants vacated it in such a hurry that they left a photograph of Der Füehrer hanging on the wall. Eventually there was another move, to the former Japanese Embassy. It was on Carrera 3 and Calle 75, a steep climb from the end of the tram line to the gate. That’s when the school bought its first bus.

Although the principals were professional educators the faculty was made up to a great extent of the children’s mothers. One of the teachers was an English lady who had her ship torpedoed under her by a German submarine as she was crossing the Atlantic from East to West. Mrs. van Schjeik, a Dutch lady, spoke excellent French and she taught us during the first year. Mr. Righthouse, a South African lawyer (we all suspected he was working for MI6 – British Intelligence) taught us a second year of French as well as algebra and geometry. Whether professional educators or not they were all excellent teachers with a full grasp of the subjects that they taught.


With fellow Spanish emigres in the mountains. (Christian is on the left).

In 1947 my family moved to Venezuela. In the ensuing years I had several encounters with people from the old days in Bogota. Fast forward to today. My wife and I are retired university professors and we live in Venezuela and Baton Rouge.

Christian Zozaya

Cinda:   Time will tell if Christian is able to live out a peaceful retirement in Venezuela. I find his story fascinating and urge him to keep working on Culture Shock.                                                                                                                    Want to read more of his disrupted life after Franco and Hitler came to power?