A government building in the old town area of Cartagena, Colombia. Photo by Blake Sobczak

A government building in the old town area of Cartagena, Colombia. Photo by Blake Sobczak

I met Cristina in the cramped, musty basement of Centro Romero in winter 2009. Several worry lines creased her forehead and her young, tired face reflected a life of hardship. The Colombian immigrant spent three hours every Tuesday night preparing for the U.S. citizenship test.

I was there to teach her. Many of the adult students at Centro Romero, an organization dedicated to serving Hispanic immigrants on Chicago’s North Side, knew little about American history or laws. Cristina was no exception, although her English was fairly good and she learned quickly. She was especially eager to find out more about then-President Bush, whom she adored for his “cuteness.”

Our discussion that night shifted away from the material on the flashcards. I disagreed with her feelings about the president, and tried to argue with her in mangled Spanish. Once she joined the debate, her shyness evaporated. She met me eye to eye instead of looking down at the undersized desks or the concrete floor. We touched on immigration policy, then her Colombian heritage, and finally I asked about how she came to America.

The response I got was not what I expected.

Cristina fled Colombia alone as a young adult more than 10 years ago, hoping to start over in America. She left behind an abusive, controlling boyfriend who beat her regularly, she recounted. After months of planning her move, she finally left Colombia for the U.S. and felt safe for the first time in years. Now, she just wanted to vote, she told me, and give back to the country that brought her out of a dark, traumatic time.

Cristina told her story nonchalantly, occasionally interjecting questions about my trip to Colombia in 2007. She had clearly recovered and was now concerned with the current, brighter chapter of her life in America. I didn’t know what to say because part of me couldn’t believe she had truly healed from her horrible experience. Doesn’t it still bother you? I wanted to ask. I never did, though, because I knew what her answer would be. She had moved on completely. She was strong.

Later that night, I related my own experience in Colombia. It was nothing like hers, but she seemed to be curious. I wanted to show her I at least knew the place she was coming from, if not the situation.

I stayed with a Colombian family in the seaside city of Cartagena. The food was delicious and the music was beautiful. I danced, ate, drank, played the guacharaca and spent one week there acting like a typical American tourist. I almost always felt safe, except for one time when a group of thugs offered me a bag of cocaine.

Cristina listened carefully, patiently correcting my oft-flubbed Spanish. When my story ended, class was almost over and it was time to leave. By the time I bundled up and walked into the freezing winter air, I wondered just who had been student and who had been teacher that night at Centro Romero.