By Lucy Ortega,

A year ago, I packed my bags, put my life in the United States on hold and moved to Spain. Prior to my move, I worked on Capitol Hill and also at a national nonprofit in Texas. I was yearning for change, for growth as an individual. Therefore, as soon as I was presented with the opportunity to pursue a Master’s in Bilingual and Multicultural Education from the Universidad de Alcala in Spain, I took it.

At the Paraninfo, a 500-year-old building, where the King of Spain gives the Premio Cervantes, awarded annually to honor the lifetime achievement of an outstanding writer in the Spanish language

I arrived to Spain without knowing anyone, but I did know that I was more than a Latina going to graduate school abroad, I was a cultural ambassador. I represented Latinas from all over the United States who yearned to defy the stigmas and statistics, such as the number of Latinas pursuing a higher education degree.

I moved to Alcala de Henares, a small town just outside of Madrid. The town is known as Miguel de Cervantes’s birthplace and for the University of Alcala, which occupies 16th century buildings, including the Paraninfo. The Paraninfo is a hall where the King of Spain presents the annual Cervantes literary prize, named after the celebrated author of “Don Quixote.”

The graduate school experience was more fun than I ever imagined. I was elected leader of my class and my classmates became my family away from home. I had an interesting self-discovery experience in terms of my identity as a Latina and how others perceived me. Spaniards often questioned my nationality. They wondered if I was Mexican or American. It was challenging for them to understand that everyone in the United States immigrated to the country from somewhere else.

My best friend (a guy who lived in Spain his entire life) told me: “To me you are an American, because that is where you have lived most of your life.” At that point, I realized that I had become used to labels because we always put a label to everyone in the U.S. His words also made me reflect on the current immigration situation in my country, with the undermining of Dreamers and of people who have lived in the United States for longer than they ever did at their countries of origin. To those outside of the U.S., they are perceived as Americans, regardless of where they were born.

This summer Lucy’s family, her greatest supporters, traveled to Spain for her graduation. (L-R) Ada (Lucy’s sister), Lucy, Anna Maria (mother) and Jose Alberto (father).

Lucy giving the commencement speech at the June 28, 2018 graduation.

Besides working on my graduate degree, I taught English at a bilingual public school in the community of Madrid. I fell in love with the people of Spain because of my experience at the school. The implementation of a bilingual education program in Spain is still quite recent, and it was beyond refreshing to witness how much the country values speaking more than two languages. Speaking two languages in Spain is not an issue of race or ethnicity like it is in the U.S., it is an issue of economics and better opportunities. I have always believed in the power of bilingualism, but my experience at the school allowed me to appreciate the value of bilingual education more than I ever did before.

My time in Spain has come to an end and I now look back at my year abroad as a learning experience. A time in my life where I was able to make a pause to a fast-paced life in the United States and appreciate who I am, where I come from and my ability to speak two languages. Should anyone reading this be presented with such an opportunity, like I have, do not be afraid to say yes! Do not be afraid to get to know yourself.

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