The man in the red shirt was walking away with my passport. I had noticed him the moment I stepped into the Customs building. Even though he dressed in the same red shirts as the other TSA-like workers, he was definitely the manager. He walked with power wrapped around his shoulders. His presence gave me a familiar feeling…until my passport ended up in his hand and I ended up on a metal chair next to another American.
The female Customs agent had kept asking me something and I couldn’t understand. I thought she was asking why my visa was from the New York embassy while my passport stated Texas, USA as my place of birth. She was getting frustrated. She slammed her hand on the desk once or twice, rephrased her question, pointed at my passport, called a man over, and I was sitting down.
The one fluent Spanish speaker in the group of five new teachers that I was traveling with was with the other three. I called out to him that they took my passport and I saw a flash go across his eyes before he asked why. A teacher too, I knew that look, that-let-me-look-calm-so-the-kids-don’t-freak-out-while-I’m-really-wondering-what-the-hell-is-going-on-inside look.
I was the darkest one in the room by far. Maybe they didn’t want me here. People had told me racism in South America was like the US in the 1960s. People had told me Venezuelans did not like Americans. Did they not want me here? Would it be because I was American or because I was black (even though I know there are Afro-Latinos)? Or would it be because those two together was just too much?
My Spanish got worse as the panic increased.
The red-headed American beside me, a baseball scout, was also frustrated. I told him they had my passport. The same look flashed across his face as it had done my new colleague’s. “Don’t ever let them have your passport.”
Didn’t my Nigerian father tell me as much? He had repeated it like a chant before I left. “Be careful with your passport. Guard your passport. American passport sells like hotcakes abroad.” And here I was, not even one hour on new soil and I had allowed someone to walk away with my passport.
To be fair, I knew exactly where the man was the entire time. I have exceptional hearing (or so I’ve been told). I could pick the man’s voice out in the crowd. He was in a back corner, talking on the phone…and spelling out my last name. My ten-plus letter last name is always my saving grace.
A man in military fatigues came up to me and I spoke to him.
“Él tiene mi pasaporte.”
He nodded and walked away. He returned with a list and there was my longer than an open stretch of highway last name on the list. I pointed to it and said in my broken Spanish that it was my name and I was traveling with the others on the list. He nodded and walked away again.
A security guard dressed in shades of blue approached.
“ Él tiene mi pasaporte,” I repeated to the new man. “ Él tiene mi pasaporte.”
He has my passport. He has my passport.
I pointed him out. The guard nodded and switched to English. It was OK. He was just checking that the passport was valid. He came back twice more. Just five more minutes, he reassured.
I was sweating worry.
The man in military fatigues called the American scout over and motioned towards me.
“He was talking about me. What did he say?” I asked when he returned. The scout refused to tell me. “It was an inappropriate joke. Just be careful here, OK?”
I was getting tired of this refrain and my own reaction. I wasn’t supposed to be like this. I wasn’t supposed to be feeding into the hype. I had heard that when I moved to New York City, when I taught in two different parts of Brooklyn, and when I lived in a third. “It’s dangerous. Be careful. It’s dangerous. Be careful.” But I definitely was feeding into the hype while sitting on that chair.
The American man was cleared first and then I was called back to the same immigration officer. “Are you ready now?” she asked in Spanish. I nodded silently. Hell, I thought I was ready the first time. She stamped my passport and with a smile pushed the passport back towards me. “Thank you very much,” she said in heavily-accented English and I smiled back, relief washing over me.
“Gracias,” I responded in heavily-accented Spanish.
The scout asked me if I was OK. I nodded and thanked him.
While the other four teachers were stopped and told to open their suitcases, I collected myself and people watched. A woman addressed me in the formal/respectful tone of Spanish, a crowd with homemade signs cheered as teens returned from Brazil’s Catholic World Youth Day, and I relaxed. Eventually, I saw the security guard in blue again.
“Gracias,” I called out.
“No se preocupe,” he responded with a friendly nod.