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March 10, 2022
El Vuelo De Cata
The total straight-line flight distance from Santiago de Chile to San Diego, CA is 5,465 miles. For Catalina Henriquez, this distance shrinks or elongates, depending on her longing for home, or for seeing the faces of her grandparents Manuel and Orietta. The life of Cata, as she has been lovingly called, was completely transformed when she and her family moved to this coastal and border city in the United States in 2017.
Life isn’t linear though. It is seldom a straight-line of temporal, spatial, or even geographic distance. Life is like art, and according to Violeta Parra, another Chilena who left her home country to experience the world, art is like a flying bird, without a flight plan, that will never fly in straight line.
There comes a time, though, that an immigrant decides that home is not necessarily a birth country, but rather, wherever one goes and makes a living, and it feels like life has settled, at least momentarily. In 2019 I realized that my life was here, Cata assured me, in an interview we conducted through a Sunday Instagram video chat.
The sunlight illuminated her living room in her UC Berkeley dorm, as she recounted her academic journey from learning her first words in English at the San Diego College of Continuing Education, and taking her first courses across the street at San Diego Mesa College. The job that really helped her language skills was when she worked the cash register at Sprouts.
It was through her work ethic, not just from her meticulous completion of her course assignments at Mesa College, but from jobs ranging from dishwasher to hostess in restaurants that Cata prevailed. Do not expect Cata to glorify nor mythologize the working immigrant in this country though. As a UC Berkeley transfer student and a Sociology major, she learned the lesson of The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills in her English 101X class not merely from an academic lens, but because she was living it in flesh and bone at the precise time she encountered it.
It all made sense to me, she recalls, the idea of how small social interactions can reflect a bigger picture of our society. The concepts of social mobility, segregation, redlining, racist structures, they all began to make sense in how I grew up. Where Cata was raised, mostly by her grandparents Manuel and Orietta, and very close to her cousin Benjamin, was a working-class barrio in the southern part of Santiago called Puente Alto.
Through sociological analysis, the struggles that her mother Carol faced as a teen mom from Puente Alto were finally understood in Cata’s mind. My mom had to do many things, she explained, juggling work, school, but always surrounded by books: she was always reading, growing, she had an unstoppable curiosity. She was a universitaria, which roughly translates to a university bound and/or university being.
Cata is now a universitaria of her own. Berkeley will bring its own challenges, as it is less diverse than Mesa and it is extremely privileged, she states. Looking back, and thinking what drove her growth, Cata reflects that it was her independent spirit, doing it all on her own, and not being afraid. She also stated that it takes a support network, in trusting others and in seeking help from others. She expects to graduate with a B.A. in Sociology and continue on her flight, letting her life dictate the course it will take.
Jennifer Nichols Kearns
Director of Communications