The only thing standing between me and dual citizenship was a short elevator ride up a Chicago skyscraper.
I nervously tapped my foot on the polished floor, waiting for the elevator doors to open. The high ceiling of the lobby was intimidating, and I nervously locked eyes with my mother. This was a moment full of meaning, a day I had anticipated for years.
My heart raced as the elevator light illuminated and the doors rolled open. My finger pressed the button for the 19th floor. The doors slid shut and the elevator began to glide upward.
My entire life has been a struggle for belonging. Ever since I was a toddler, I have had to navigate two languages, two religious traditions and two very different cultures. I’ve had my American citizenship since birth, but my connection to Costa Rica, my mother’s home country, had never been represented on paper. An early afternoon appointment at the Costa Rican consulate in Chicago was about to change that.
Second floor. The automated intercom voice announced the elevator’s first stop. I tried to remember what life was like at the age of 2, but all I could gather were secondhand memories based on old photos and my parents’ stories. They say that navigating cultural differences was natural for me as a toddler – I would know which people to speak to in which language, when to abide by certain cultural norms. My early childhood was full of reminders of my mixed heritage: macaroni stirred with seasoned beans, conversations riddled with Spanish and English, Costa Rican holidays celebrated among falling autumn leaves. I was immersed in an environment that attested to who I was, where cultural exchange was the norm, where I never had to doubt that I belonged.
Fifth floor. The elevator creaked to its next stop. At the age of 5 I started kindergarten, walking every day to an elementary school with a very low Latino population. There I found that one half of my identity was embraced and cherished, while the other half was seen as strange and foreign. Our class learned to sing “Yankee Doodle” but not the “Himno Nacional,” school lunches came with pizza and chips but no tamales or gallo pinto. Half of me felt out of place. I learned that I was different, or rather that I was half different.
As the elevator propelled upward, I remembered how over the years I learned to code switch, to display parts of my identity in certain situations and drop them when they were inconvenient. I dreaded that narrow liminal space of being both, where by embracing my full identity I would run the risk of losing touch with both sides of my background.
Fourteenth floor. When I was 14, my strategy of fitting in stopped working. Going to school in Costa Rica for the first time, I sat in a homogenous classroom where I was the exception. I tried everything I could to escape standing out – speaking exclusively in Spanish, packing classic Costa Rican snacks – but I was always still the American: the boy with imperfect grammar and the point person for questions about Donald Trump and “Stranger Things.” But my classmates’ attention was not negative; they spoke to me with intrigue and curiosity. They listened to my stories with captivated interest. They had questions. I realized that my background, those parts of my identity that would be inconvenient if my goal was to fit in, equipped me with answers.
Seventeenth floor. The robotic intercom voice drew me back into the moment as the elevator churned to one more stop. The consulate was two floors away. Here, at 17 years old, I was ready to acknowledge the wholeness of my identity as a product of two cultures. I had left behind my fear of not blending in. I would no longer be Costa Rican in some situations and American in others; I would be both, honestly and boldly, even if it set me apart.
Nineteenth floor. I walked out into the hallway with confidence in my step. It was time for me to embrace liminality, to encapsulate the beautiful complexities of my identity with the brush of a pen. From that moment on, I have carried two nationalities on my shoulders, proudly displaying each as an integral part of who I am.