INTERVIEW: Immigrating from Colombia


An Interview

Male – “I first came to Canada in 1989, when I was about twenty-six years old. I stayed here for about four years, then I went back to Colombia again. I stayed there from around ’93 until 2000… then back here.”

“I was born in Chile, and lived there until 1970. Chile was in really bad shape then – the Communist party fighting, the Right wing, Left wing… big revolution there.

We lived in Santiago. Big city, beautiful city, but I don’t recommend visiting it for more than three days – the smog is going to kill you. You can feel your eyes start watering after the second day, and your throat – coughing all the time, as if you have a cold.

You have big, big mountains right at the edge of town; they surround the city, so the smog can’t get away. Just stays and stays. About eight million people, and almost every family has a car. Some families have three, four. Can you imagine? Eight million people.

But that’s just in Santiago; if you travel out of the city and go north or south, it’s smog-free.”

“My Dad had to work in Colombia, so we moved there in 1970. The air is fairly clean there. It’s a little high, (elevation) three hundred metres, and it’s windy, the ocean is close. There’s no mountains, so if there’s smog it gets blown away.

Pollution isn’t too bad because it’s fairly windy. Which is nice because I do windsurfing, it’s my passion. It’s one thing that I miss here in Canada (having year-round windsurfing). The water is colder here; it’s warm in the summer, but after that you need something… a dry-suit.”

“I’ve been to the ’States many times; northern Colombia is pretty close, only two hours of flying to Florida. The flight used to cost only about $300. I used to have friends, relatives there, so I could visit, stay quite cheap. I went mostly to Florida. I went once to New York, I didn’t like it.

It’s pretty easy to immigrate to the U.S., fairly easy. You just needed to know people. There were people (Colombians) getting visas, even resident visas, no problem. It’s really easy to get a green card (a ‘green card’ is the name of the work permit foreigners need in order to work legally in the U.S.) from Colombia, if you have some kind of Latin connections in the U.S.. Even now, if you want to go to the U.S., get a green card, it’s quite easy from Colombia.

Once you get to New York (or other cities with large Latin populations), you hang around with Latin American people… they know shortcuts. You stay there, make a few friends, they help you. They say, ‘You can get a green card, you do it this way, you don’t even have to get married’.

So it could have been easy for me to go to the U.S., but I never had my mind on going there. I don’t feel safe. Bottom line – I feel much safer in Canada, South America, Asia, anywhere. I feel a hundred, a thousand times safer coming here. Though I went to Seattle for two days last December, and people were friendly.”

“Colombians love Canadians, much more (generally) than Americans. They’re afraid of Americans.

Canadians, mostly on charter trips from Montreal, go to Cartagena (a resort) for vacation, usually for one, two weeks. It’s close to where I lived, only about forty-five minutes drive. It’s a tourist area. Beaches, the ocean… like a little Jamaica.”

“Tourists go mostly to Cartagena where the beaches are, it’s very safe there, like Canada. They don’t go much to inland Colombia – they’re afraid to get kidnapped, or something. It’s not that safe for them (they feel), but I would say… it’s not that bad. Except outside of the city… there you’re at risk of getting robbed, kidnapped.

As long as you stay away from the mountains, you should be okay. You don’t want to go hiking, you should stay in the city. You could get kidnapped in the hills, if you’re a foreigner. Tourists dress differently than locals – shorts, t-shirts, camera.

It’s not so dangerous for bandits (thieves), just (about the same risk) like anywhere else in the world. But for kidnapping… if you’re from Colombia, the kidnappers look at your history, your last name, family – if you own big factories, you have millions of dollars… (you’re at risk).

If you’re just doing okay, nothing’s going to happen. There are real extremes; you’ve got your very, very rich people, like anywhere in Europe or North America, and then you’ve got really poor people. My parents are middle-to-high (income/lifestyle), not rich enough to get kidnapped, but not poor.”

“It’s tough to go hiking there. It’s been like that for a long time. From the little towns and villages, you could see the guerrillas, the rebels, walking through the mountains.

I would take the risks. I met them once; I was really scared. They told me, ‘Don’t ever come back here anymore.’ I was lucky. Right now, if that happened, they would have kidnapped me. But ten years ago things were much easier. I was lucky… nothing happened.”

“They (the guerrillas) need more money now, they have problems with the drug business – they usually support themselves with the drug business, but it’s not that good (lucrative) anymore. Most of the drug business is run out of the U.S., together between the U.S. mafia and the Colombian mafia. But most of the big dealers are in jail now, or dead – from the army, and from fighting each other.

I’ve never had any run-ins with dealers. I’ve been in areas where I knew they were, but always… God was with me, taking care of me. I was pretty lucky. Nothing happened. The chances of being kidnapped are usually not bad. You’ve got to be really rich, be in the wrong place at the wrong time… but still, there are probably two thousand kidnappings a year there.

They don’t keep them all, they keep only the people who have lots of money. They release people all the time, kidnap people by mistake, tell them they’re sorry, made a mistake. They don’t treat them (the victims) bad, unless you’ve been a very bad person – like someone who worked for the government and stole money, or did bad things to the country. Then they would treat you bad.

But if you’re just a human being, a normal tourist (or a rich local), it’s just a business with them. Nothing personal. They just think, if the government’s taking that money (taxes) from you, giving you nothing in return, using your money to buy nice houses…” (then it’s okay for they, the rebels, to take some of your money, too – to fund their ‘government’)

“Deciding on Canada… just happened. It wasn’t a decision I had to make – I always had been looking at movies, at books of Canada, nature. It’s only Canada I was looking at.”

‘The United Nations recently gave Canada the top rating for best places to live in the world.’ – Quote on Immigration Canada website, 2004.

“It took me two years. They send you a lot of papers in Colombia. You have to write, send them all kinds of paperwork. It’s not easy. You’ve got to be healthy, no criminal record, got to have some kind of vocation. You should be able to speak English. Actually, when I came, I didn’t speak English. I knew basic stuff, how to get by, ‘How are you, where can I get the bus’, basic stuff, just not conversation.

You have to have some money.

I have an aunt in Vancouver. I needed seventy points, and because of her (because he had a relative who was a citizen of Canada) I had ten points already. For example, you can get many points for your age, age is very important. If you’re forty or older, it’s tough to get in. Back then you needed a minimum of seventy points. Maybe now it’s lower…

I think it’s the same number of points for men and women.”

There’s a ‘point’ system used for determining eligibility to immigrate to Canada. Various criteria in your life are judged, awarded a certain number of points according to how ‘beneficial’ they are, and the total is added up. Point totals differ according to which method you are using to gain residency in the country. For example, to immigrate to Canada as a ‘Skilled Worker’, some of the points you can ‘earn’ are (as of 2004):

  • For high school diploma you’ll be awarded 5 points; other education points vary in range up to a maximum of 30 for a university diploma.
  • Your fluency at speaking English can be judged and awarded up to 24 points.
  • If you’re between 21 and 49 years old, you’ll receive the maximum of 10 ‘age’ points.
  • There are a half dozen other categories you’ll receive points for, including having local relatives, having a spouse or dependents, your prior work earnings and achievements, etc.

The minimum total points needed to gain residency to Canada as a skilled worker was lowered in 2003 to 67, down from 75 previously. The general aim of this system is to try ensure that most new immigrants will be contributing to the country’s economy, rather than, say, arriving old, sick, and in immediate need of receiving Social Assistance, housing, medical care, etc.

“I first arrived in Vancouver, and stayed there for a week. Didn’t like it too much. Though I went to one place close to Vancouver – Bowen Island – that’s heaven. Very romantic place. I’ve since then been to other places in B.C., and in general the people are a little more aggressive in Vancouver, compared to here (Penticton).

I went to Toronto once, but did not like it. I left after two days. There’s something about little cities like Penticton… here it’s really easy to find a smile on the street.”

“I heard there were good opportunities planting trees around Prince George area, so I went there, lived around there for awhile, doing forestry work, tree-planting, a little forest fire fighting, slash burning, cone picking.

I did all that for about four years. Once every six months I would visit Vancouver. I always liked to hike around Stanley Park, always loved Granville Island market. And I used to walk around Granville Street.

It wasn’t steady work in Prince George, I would go to work in Smithers – beautiful little town – Hazelton, Terrace, all that area up north, moving around doing the forestry work. I worked here in Penticton, too. I was working at the ski hill here for the whole winter, as a janitor. Went tree planting in the spring.”

“One winter I was doing slash burning (piling up fallen trees, then burning the huge piles), was working in snow up to my knees, it was minus twenty-five degrees (Celsius), it was just freezing… and the money was really bad… and I had to rent the chainsaw (pay for it out of his earnings).

The noise, the work hours… I thought, ‘I’m going back somewhere warm for awhile’. So around 1993 I flew back to Colombia.”

“I was only going to stay a year, relax… but then I met a girl. That relationship became strong. I thought, ‘I’ll give it another month…’ Then another year. After seven years we got married.

We got divorced, too. Didn’t work out. No kids. (Only hers, from a previous marriage) I was working with my parents. They owned stores, I was taking care of one of their stores, I made it (the business) a little bigger. It was nice, there was freedom… you don’t have to wake up early every day, don’t have to worry about getting fired if you don’t show up at 7:00 a.m. the next morning.

I could take off any day, for four, five days, keep in touch with the office. Just a little store, easy to manage.”

“I was feeling kind of out-of-place in Colombia. Everybody’s driving fast, busy, traffic, noise, heat. So I came back to Canada around 2000. I feel really at home here. This is the only area where I feel really at home.

When I left Colombia, I didn’t say anything to my parents and friends, this time I just took off. I phoned them from here, ‘By the way, just in case you don’t see me in town – I’m in Canada’. (Ha)

I didn’t tell anybody, even my friends. Just didn’t feel like telling anybody. Didn’t want anybody to ruin my plans, try talk me out of it. So I just took off. Today here, tomorrow – who knows where?”

“I came straight back to Penticton, I didn’t even think seriously of going somewhere else.

I bought my van here. I did go to Edmonton for two, three weeks, thought I’d see what Alberta was like. Went to the Rockies (the Rocky Mountain range), went to see Calgary, Edmonton. Too busy for me. Big cities.

Banff – beautiful. But crowded, crowded with tourists. But overall, very friendly people in Alberta, especially Edmonton.”

“Why did I choose Canada? That’s a good question. I keep going back and forth (between here and Colombia), I like both, actually. But the peacefulness that I find here in Canada… I don’t find anywhere else. I look at the trees, the mountains, it’s a nice feeling. It’s difficult to explain exactly.

It’s less stressful here. Space, you’ve got space. You go outside, driving or walking, you’re not surrounded by two thousand people beside you. It can be pretty noisy here, especially in the summer, but not like down there. Carnivals pretty much all year around, down there. I don’t mind Carnivals one week a year, but over there it’s parties all the time, noise.”

Carnivals there are not like celebrations in Canada; in Latin American carnivals, the whole city shows up. Parades, street vendors and temporary restaurants, music, yelling… so crowded you can hardly walk. Some Carnivals last for days.

“I like both Canada and Colombia. I just really like change, the experience of change. The newness. It’s mostly this area (of Canada)… that drives me… makes me very happy.”

“I didn’t work right away. I sent some resumes… honestly, I didn’t want to work for awhile.

I eventually got work as an electrician’s assistant, didn’t need experience for that. I’ve worked for that company for two years.

I’m just starting my first year of school now.”

“No one has treated me badly just because I’m an immigrant. Socially, they’re all really nice co-workers, with me. Everywhere – friends, school – people are really nice to me. I’ve had the same chances as everyone else.”

“Sometimes I think of going back (to work in Colombia) for a year, saving a little money. It’s been really hard the last two years, wages are low here, and my expenses are high. Rent, food, van and gas, and I have to buy all my own (electrician’s) tools. I spend more money on tools than on food.

But if I had a better (well-paying) job here, I wouldn’t even think of going back. Except maybe once a year for a couple weeks, to get some more sunshine.”

“I still like my job, it’s a good job; but I would rather be working with animals, taking care of animals… not necessarily as a profession like being a veterinarian, just being around them, helping them.

And I would like to have a windsurfing school.

I would rather do all that. But I guess… not too much of that kind of work around here. Mostly agriculture, construction, fruit.

I don’t like working in an office.”

“I work really hard (at his job, commuting both to the job locations and to school, and studying at school), but money is really tight. Just enough to pay rent, groceries, gas.

I didn’t have any money troubles down there. Money wasn’t a worry.”

Most people immigrate to Canada to have a richer life, money-wise. For him to give up having those money issues taken care of easily in Colombia, and choose to be in Canada even if that means struggling, is a testament to how much he feels it’s ‘home’ for him to be here.

“I had a lot of money there, and here I’m – I wouldn’t say poor, there’s a big difference between not having much, and being poor. Big difference. I don’t have that money here, I have a different kind of freedom. I don’t have my parents on top of me (being his bosses), society leaves me alone here, I can do whatever I want (rather than being pressured to fulfill traditional roles, lifestyle).

The freedom of being able to go hiking.”

“One of the reasons I moved up here was that I liked hiking. For some reason, now that I’m here I don’t go hiking; too much work, when I get home I’m so tired. Don’t have the strength to go out.”

Like so many, he’s trying to establish himself with a job, some stability, a way of life here. Then… freedom.

“My Mom came here once, to Penticton. For one day. She was visiting her sister in Vancouver, flew to Kelowna, I picked her up there.

She liked it here. Really nice, beautiful place, reminded her of Chile. In this area, the landscape is very similar to Chile.”

“I’m healthy. I feel much healthier, here. I got sick a lot down there, the flu, stomach ache, migraines, I felt tired. Here… you go for a run, you have energy to go outside to work for ten hours… and not feel as tired. Down there… tired.

There’s something about here… I never get sick here, never been in the hospital. My mind here works differently. Relaxed.”

“As soon as I got here (returning from his latest visit to Colombia) – I’m on the highway coming from Vancouver – as soon as I change buses in Westbank (a nearby town), start coming this way… I start feeling a special energy. Being in the Okanagan Valley. ‘That’s it, I’m home’.

It’s the kind of place where… once I’m in this valley, if the bus breaks down, if I don’t have any money… I don’t care.

I’m happy here.”


Shortly after this interview, he returned to Colombia to work at a (he thought) better-paying job. He became weak and ill right away, and the job turned out to be not so well-paying. Later his health returned, and things became better. I’ve had no recent contact with him and do not know where he is living.

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