OCCUPATION: VR PRODUCT Designer, Facebook
Years in the us: 13
Can you tell me your name and where you're originally from?
My name is Gabriel Valdivia. I'm originally from Cuba, but I grew up in Costa Rica, and I lived in a few other places after that.
Can you tell me a bit about where you work and what you do?
Sure. I am a product designer on Facebook, specifically on the VR team.
Tell me a bit about your path to the United States and eventually Silicon Valley.
I grew up in Cuba until I was eight. That was a short stance there, but I remember it as a pretty vivid part of my life. Then, through chance, I had relatives in Costa Rica that claimed me and my family, my brother and my parents, and grew up there. Costa Rica is also a third world country, but it felt like Disneyland compared to Cuba. I lived there for another eight years. Then because we're Cubans, we were able to join "The Cuban Adjustment Act", which said that, if you were Cuban and spent a year and a day in the US, you were eligible for a work permit and eventually residence and then citizenship.
We got on the plane and came here as tourists. We were held for about four or five hours, asked why were we here and what our intentions were.
Yeah, we just said that we were here visiting with no intentions of staying, even though we were theoretically applying to something legal. We came here as tourists and were given a six-month tourist visa. During those six months, we just lived here totally legal, totally fine, and then for the remaining six months, we were illegal until a year and a day later, we were magically legal overnight.
WE GOT ON THE PLANE AND CAME HERE AS TOURISTS. WE WERE HELD FOR ABOUT FOUR OR FIVE HOURS, ASKED WHY WERE WE HERE AND WHAT OUR INTENTIONS WERE. I WAS 16 AT THE TIME, AND I HAD JUST LEFT MY LIFE BEHIND. WHEN YOU'RE 16 AND YOU MOVE ACROSS COUNTRY, IT'S A PRETTY BIG DEAL.
Wow, that's such an interesting policy.
Yeah, it's still in place.
Tell me about what it was like adjusting to life as in American.
For me, coming here, it was kind of like a come-to-Jesus moment, right? Having lived in all those countries, everywhere I lived people thought their country was the best country in the world. They were completely sure about it, especially in Latin America. The native culture of those countries is very intense, and it defines a lot of how people think define their pride.
In the US, at least from my perspective after spending some time here, it felt like there wasn't that pressure to defend your roots because really the story of America is fairly short. It felt more of like a place where people could come together with a common cause, and that's what brings people together, right? Not necessarily their history or their roots, but that sentiment, the "American Dream."
I was 16 at the time, and I had just left my life behind. When you're 16 and you move across country, it's a pretty big deal. I came here without any friends, barely speaking English, junior year in high school, one year away from graduating. It was a pretty delicate time, and I just had to learn to adapt pretty hard. I moved to Tampa, Florida, which is a very different city than San Jose, Costa Rica, where I came from. I needed a car, things were super far away, Wal-Mart was a thing I needed to understand. Everything that meant ... social life. Like, I came in as a 16 year old, two years away from being able to drink at 18, and then I was five years away from it. Everything kind of changed at that time. I had to just cope with being an outsider once again.
What have been some of the challenging parts of living and working in the states?
Whether it's white or black, Hispanic or American, Muslims or Christians, whatever it is, there's always this tribalism of, "We are right, and you're wrong." Just seeing that kind of resurface from the subconscious to the outspoken has been pretty eye opening, and I think it makes America, as a country, pretty vulnerable. It starts exposing what it's like in many parts of the country, like in Florida and other parts of the south. A lot of people are outspoken about that. In places like California or New York or whatever, you're able to ignore that because you live under a different context, and that has been interesting to see.
Let's talk about the last few weeks and the immigration ban. How has that affected you and your family?
Sure, yeah, I think the most interesting part for me is that I can no longer be complacent or apathetic about it. Growing up in a communist country, or Latin America in general, there's this underlying sentiment of, "The government doesn't represent me." My role to survive as an individual is to figure out a way to go around the government, and that is pervasive in Latin American culture.
Maybe because I grew into the Obama administration, and things started to make a little more sense, I became more complacent, and I was like, "Oh, yeah. Well, maybe they do represent me.". It's been eight years of that. Eight years is a long time. Now I can't do that anymore. I'm back at thinking, "Oh, yeah. Well, the government and people are two different entities that don't really relate to each other. They don't represent each other."
Now, as an adult, eight years later, I feel a responsibility to partake. I can no longer say, "I'm not into politics." It seems irresponsible to say that now, especially given where I am in the position of privilege and the targets of this administration. It feels like there must be something I need to do, and I can't check out. It's just impossible. For me, that's been the biggest emotional change in how this has impacted me.
There are some specific changes like for my family in general. Like I said, I'm in a pretty privileged position now in this shelter that we call Silicon Valley, but now that my family is here, and they all speak Spanish, I need to be able to stay in touch with that side of my culture. Every family member that's not my parents or my brother is not in the US. They're in Cuba or around the world trying to escape Cuba.
Specifically, I have a cousin who is in Colombia right now who was trying to abide by this law called "wet" feet, where if you're Cuban, and touch American soil, you're immediately given political asylum. That prompted a lot of people in Cuba to kind of find ways to make it to the U.S. That's why you hear stories like people swimming to the US or coming in rafts and things like that.
That was recently canceled, and it was done overnight. There were people that were in transit towards the US that now have nowhere to go. If get to the US, they'll be deported, and if they go to Cuba, they'll be imprisoned because it's illegal to leave. They're literally in the middle of the world without anywhere to go, without any sort of option.
I have a cousin who is a doctor. He doesn't kind of fit the bill of an immigrant. He and his wife were finding a way through Colombia to make it to the US. Because this has been around for a few years, a lot of countries have systems to help people make it through. Now he's in Colombia trying to figure out what he's going to do. It's uncertain because he had left Cuba before this law was canceled, so he's in this limbo state where it is not quite sure what will happen. That's happening right now to a cousin I grew up with in Cuba.
I HAVE A COUSIN WHO IS IN COLOMBIA RIGHT NOW TRYING TO ABIDE BY THIS LAW CALLED "WET FEET", WHERE IF YOU'RE CUBAN AND TOUCH AMERICAN SOIL, YOU'RE IMMEDIATELY GIVEN POLITICAL ASYLUM. THAT PROMPTED A LOT OF PEOPLE IN CUBA TO FIND WAYS TO MAKE IT TO THE US. THAT'S WHY YOU HEAR STORIES LIKE PEOPLE SWIMMING TO THE US OR COMING IN RAFTS AND THINGS LIKE THAT.
THAT WAS RECENTLY CANCELED, AND IT WAS DONE OVERNIGHT. THERE WERE PEOPLE THAT WERE IN TRANSIT TOWARDS THE US THAT NOW HAVE NOWHERE TO GO. IF THEY GO TO THE US, THEY'LL BE DEPORTED, AND IF THEY GO TO CUBA, THEY'LL BE IMPRISONED BECAUSE IT'S ILLEGAL TO LEAVE. THEY'RE LITERALLY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WORLD WITHOUT ANYWHERE TO GO, WITHOUT ANY SORT OF OPTION.
I can't even comprehend. How do you casually go about your day-to-day when you have family that are legitimately in danger?
I think people just find their happiness. America is a great place because you have the choice of being free, and you have the choice of doing with your freedom whatever you want. But, even if you don't have that, you usually find a way to cope. The people in Cuba, even though they're very oppressed and they lack very fundamental things like toilet paper, they find happiness. They find a way to be happy and enjoy the life around them. Maybe that's ingrained in my genes or something, but I try to be as optimistic as possible. I see this as an opportunity for Americans and the world in general to be more introspective and kind of like take their demons out of the closet and really confront them.
A lot of people see America as a haven, that everything will work out here. This American Dream is, once you're here, pretty obvious that it's not what it is promoted to be. I see it as an opportunity for somebody else to take that position of haven somewhere else, not really fall in love or idealize any sort of country or location or even a way of life and just find their own road to happiness.
Do you personally feel any fears about your own safety in the future?
Yeah, I mean, we are taught to respect these institutions and "labels", for lack of a better word. For example, We think that because we have a license, we can do certain things, and the DMV is a thing. I have a citizenship, so I think that grants me certain rights, but overnight, people with a green card were no longer welcomed to be in the country. Who knows? All these things that we take for granted that we think are like a foundation of security, all those things might be stripped away overnight.
For me, I try to not stay too weak, not to soften up, and realize that everything I have could be gone overnight then try to hold onto the things that I really need which is nothing material. It's something that is probably more introspective, like the relationships you build over time. I think that will be much, much harder to strip away. Especially with the internet and social media and the countless options you have to really cultivate the things that really nurture you. I think those can be done anywhere, not necessarily in America.
I HAVE A CITIZENSHIP, SO I THINK THAT GRANTS ME CERTAIN RIGHTS, BUT OVERNIGHT, PEOPLE WITH A GREEN CARD WERE NO LONGER ABLE TO BE IN THE COUNTRY. WHO KNOWS? ALL THESE THINGS THAT WE TAKE FOR GRANTED THAT WE THINK ARE LIKE A FOUNDATION OF SECURITY, ALL THOSE THINGS MIGHT BE STRIPPED AWAY OVERNIGHT.
What are your fears and hopes for the future?
I mean, the worst part for me is that this will translate to people's actual suffering. Outside of ethically thinking "should this be right or not", or "should we support or protest this", it actually translates to people suffering and maybe even dying because of these ideas and the way they are carried through. I think, regardless of whether it gets worse or better, some people will be affected in this really intense way. I think we need to be sensitive towards that.
Personally, I try to be optimistic about this. I just think everything will kind of add up at the end and progress is never really a straight line. Maybe we need to go through four or eight years of this so that we can reject it in a really conscious way so it can no longer be in the subconscious of the country, and we can actually take action in the way that it's needed.
You talk to any minority, and they're not necessarily surprised that this happened overnight. I have worked at call centers, so I know what really deep discrimination is when there's no consequence for being a shitty human. I understand that there's this deep-rooted hatred that people have for others that behave or look differently than you.
I see this as an opportunity for that to be in the open and for us, as a collective, to figure out how to deal with it because otherwise it just gets swept under the rug more and more. Hopefully it doesn't lead to really catastrophic events like an actual war or actual massive shifts in history.
What do you wish others out there could learn from these interviews?
I don't know if this answers your question, but what came to mind when we were talking is that questioning things around you and questioning what seems like gospel from an authority figure, I think, at least in my experience, leads to improvement. Because of my background, I don't necessarily respect those institutions the way that other people do, and I think that allows me to see the world a little differently and see the role of those institutions in the world a little differently too.
I hope people can practice critical thinking, even when it comes to what the president is saying, or all these things that we trust and that we rely on, really those things are run by humans. I'll tell you myself. I work at a giant company that affects billions of people, and that is also run by humans. I could imagine the White House and all these giant things are no different.
What that means is that people will make mistakes, and people who have their own bias and have their own agendas they want to carry through, and it's your duty as a civilian or citizen or human to really internalize those things and figure out if they add up to what you believe is a better world. With the caveat that, what I believe is a better world might be different than what someone else does, it might actually be worse. We should be always open to question that perspective, right?
That means bringing people that look differently and think differently than you into the conversation and really welcoming those perspectives and doing away with these archaic ways of defining the world around us, like these geographical boundaries that we have made up. "We are from California. Therefore, we're better than people in Texas," and, "We are Americans. Therefore, we're better than people in Mexico." All these things are made up. I think we're running out of excuses to justify them, especially when we're presented with a threat like this Neo-Nazi movement seems to be. I think we're about to just have to confront it.
I always try to be conscious of how we deal with people that we disagree with. What do we do once we're right and we realize someone's wrong? That, to me, is an open question. Should they have the right to speak their mind? Do you silence them? I'm seeing people on my side of the argument act in a way that even I don't agree with. Even though I agree with their intentions, I don't agree with the way they carry them through, and it just gives the other side ammo to act that way. So, I think figuring out how we deal with our disagreements will be vital in the next eight years.
I'M SEEING PEOPLE ON MY SIDE OF THE ARGUMENT ACT IN A WAY THAT EVEN I DON'T AGREE WITH. EVEN THOUGH I AGREE WITH THEIR INTENTIONS, I DON'T AGREE WITH THE WAY THEY CARRY THEM THROUGH, AND IT JUST GIVES THE OTHER SIDE AMMO TO ACT THAT WAY. I THINK FIGURING OUT HOW WE DEAL WITH OUR DISAGREEMENTS WILL BE VITAL IN THE NEXT EIGHT YEARS.