Our Latino Heritage: This Uruguayan Fell In Love with U.S. Midwest

by Esther J. Cepeda /  / Updated 

This is part of our Hispanic Heritage Month series, "Our Latino Heritage," where we are profiling a U.S. Hispanic from each of our Spanish-speaking Latin American and Caribbean homelands.

Just as a dash of salt makes sweet things sweeter, so does some strife and hardship in the process of becoming a legal permanent resident make finally having long term stability all the more gratifying.

When Andrea Catarivas won a Fulbright Scholarship, enabling her to study in the U.S., living here was but one of many options available to the talented Montevideo, Uruguay native.

She arrived in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2003 to study human resources development and earn an MBA at Western Michigan University and proceeded to enjoy the experience of being in a totally new place.

“I had attended an English school all my life in Uruguay, so the language wasn’t a big issue, but what hung me up was just how different things are here than what I was used to, it was such a challenge,” said Catarivas.

Andrea Catarivas, originally from Uruguay, has had to endure many hardships in the process of becoming a legal permanent resident of the United States.
Andrea Catarivas, originally from Uruguay, has had to endure many hardships in the process of becoming a legal permanent resident of the United States.Courtesy Andrea Catarivas

“For instance, the educational system here was so completely different that I found myself completely shocked at what I didn’t know. When I first arrived, I was talking to my advisor and I was asked ‘Did you enroll in classes?’” Catarivas recalled. “I said ‘What do you mean?’ You see in Uruguay, you don’t get to choose your classes. There, you start a career and all the classes are chosen for you and you take them in a predetermined order, so I was glad I realized it in time.”

Out in the community, too, Catarivas was surprised – at how welcoming people were.

“People in the Midwest are so friendly and so nice!” Catarivas said. “I was shocked how nice people were. In Kalamazoo I would stop to ask directions and they’d say ‘Oh no, please just follow me, I’ll take you.’ You stop to ask for information and people will ask you to stay for lunch! People were just super nice.”

People were so sweet that Catarivas didn’t have too hard a time forgiving the inevitable flubs people made because Uruguay flies so far under the radar for most people.

“It’s funny, I have a lot of anecdotes about stereotypes,” Catarivas said. “There is a stereotype where people think that everyone who speaks Spanish eats tacos. At school someone once told me not to worry about missing my food because there was a Taco Bell in Kalamazoo.”

“Others just have no idea at all about Uruguay, I once was asked if I had driven here from Uruguay,” Catarivas recalls.

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Once she graduated, Catarivas moved to Chicago to work in the IT sector and in short order fell in love, got married and realized that sorting out her immigration paperwork wouldn’t be as simple as she had assumed.

Because she came into the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship, her visa carried a requirement that she return to Uruguay for two years before applying for permanent residence.

And there was no wiggle room or hope for a waiver.

In fact, the U.S. is quite strict with Uruguayans. According to the Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, 2014, tighter security measures after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks made U.S. officials aware of an increased number of Uruguayans who were working without a permit or overstaying their ninety-day limitation.

This led to a revocation of Uruguayans from the Visa Waiver Program. According to Uruguay's Office of Welcome and Returns, in 2011 thirty Uruguayans per month were deported from the United States.

With her eyes on the prize of building a lifetime with her husband, who is of Brazilian and Swiss parentage, in the United States, Catarivas began commuting to Uruguay for weeks at a time, working toward fulfilling the requirements.

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“For almost four years I went back and forth because the two years didn’t have to be consecutive,” Catarivas said. “I went in chunks to complete two years of residency requirements, staying for six to eight weeks at a time, sometimes staying with my mom, sometimes renting a place for myself. But I made it, I finished in March and I’m in the final stages of adjusting my status.”

“My ‘American Experience’ so far is that I love it here. I’m very grateful that the U.S. gave me a ton of opportunities and I’m very grateful for the wonderful people I’ve met here,” Catarivas said. “It’s a very organized country, things work really well here. People criticize the U.S., but if you go spend some time in Latin America you’d realize how well things work here.”

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based nationally syndicated columnist and an NBC News Latino contributor. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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