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Una visa cambiará tu vida (hasta si no lo quieres)

Maria McDonald Quezada

Gazing outside the airplane window, I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the shift my life was undergoing - as vast as the Atlantic Ocean I was soaring over. As I left my whole life behind and all that I knew, a complex combination of special commemorative childhood memories of events flashed before my eyes like a movie reel of special moments. In my mind, I imagined a Rolodex with pictures of the faces of the people I would probably never see again: friends from school, neighbors, school bus drivers, my 4th-grade teacher Doña Luz, and Sunday school friends.

I was born in Santiago de los Caballeros, at the Clínica Bonilla, on a rainy Monday morning in May of 1977, and although throughout my childhood we moved to and from other towns in the Dominican Republic, Santiago was my hometown; Santiago was my heart; it’s home.

My childhood feels far away; it feels so long ago, like a past life—I spoke a foreign language and experienced a different culture. Even my personality in English is less assertive, if not timid. I was very outspoken and head strong back home, pero aquí no; aquí no me siento como bien segura de mi misma. Aquí estoy “acomplejada.” Here, I am “soft-spoken.”

If it were up to me, I would have never left my country. I don’t like change, pero en el año pasado que me pasé con la familia dicen~dique~ que yo me porté mal y que había sido ~dique~ malcriada y entonces por eso me tuve que ir. Como la canción de los adolescentes, Persona Ideal, así estaba yo también. Me tengo que ir was the vibe at the time.

Y te digo que ni siquiera sabía hablar bien el Inglés y tampoco quería mudarme para “los países” pero tenía solo 13 años y no tuve ninguna opción. Mi mama se fue primero y después me vino a buscar a donde mi Tío y nos mudamos a Pennsylvania. Ella decía que la situación económica se está poniendo muy mala aquí con los apagones, las cosas políticas y el peso que ya no vale pa ná.

I hadn’t heard of Pennsylvania in my entire life. The United States, a.k.a “los paises,” consisted of two places: New York City (Nueva Yol) and/or Miami. Pennsylvania to me rhymed with Transylvania, a.k.a Dracula, and that is how it felt back then, like I was on my way to Dracula’s hometown, unknown territory, my sense of dread felt heavy on the plane, my spirits downcast.

In Southwestern PA, the Hispanic population is less than 1%. Yes, less than one percent. Why couldn’t I be one of the lucky ones—the ones who, in the Dominican Diaspora of the ‘80s, ended up in NY or Miami? I don’t know. Why ask why, right? And at this point, I don’t think it matters much anyway. Except to further solidify my view of two distinctly different lives lived.

It was 1990, and I remember feeling lost and alone when I first arrived in Pittsburgh. I couldn't find any information about the town beforehand, and it quickly became clear that this place was different from my old home. My mom led me to a small and unremarkable room, and as I sat on the bed, I couldn't help but feel a wave of disappointment wash over me. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, feeling more disheartened than ever before.

I opened my eyes, took another deep breath, and looked around my new room. That’s when I noticed that the alarm clock on my nightstand had a radio; I instantly sat up and, filled with curiosity, started tuning into different stations. What better way to figure out the vibe of this town than checking out the radio stations? I tried between the stations and the static noise but couldn’t pick up on anything familiar. I went all the way up and down and found no Spanish stations, zero.

The next clue came when we couldn’t find a store that sold plátanos to save my life; instead, mashed potatoes here came in a box, in flakes (!?), and after following the instructions to the letter, what I ended up with was not mashed potatoes but something borderline blasphemous to the entire genus of potatoes, if that is even a thing—Nada de nada.

On the phone with my grandma, I complained about this new place; she said the Pittsburgh Pirates are a really good baseball team. “Si, Abuela yo sé, los piratas juegan bien. Pero no es lo mismo aquí, no es como allá. Es bien diferente y no me gusta. Quisiera volver pero no tengo a donde me pudiera quedar.”

After a few months, I was enrolled in high school. The school I went to had designated English as a Second Language class; there were kids from all over the world in the class. Egyptians, Laos, Asia, Arabia, etc. The children of Graduate University students like my mom. They were all in their little world, dazed and confused most of the time (like me), and although we had so much in common in the class, it was hard to connect, being that we were from all over the place.

I understood why my mom moved here for more opportunities and a better life—una visa for her American Dream. I reflect on my life and wonder how things might have turned out differently if I had never moved away from my true home, the Dominican Republic. As a child, I was kind of a “nerd,” a teacher’s pet, constantly raising my hand first and trying to answer every question. Even getting a B on a test would bring me to tears in fifth grade; I dreamed of attending university and pursuing a career as a doctor or architect.

It is now 2023, and believe it or not, I still live in Pittsburgh; I’ve adapted and built a life here (es que no me gustan los cambios). In Pittsburgh, my first year was challenging emotionally, but it was a transformative experience that helped me grow and become a better person. Despite my initial hesitations, I have grown to love this city and consider it my second home, even if I still feel like an outsider most days, forever one of the “ni de aquí, ni de allá” group. Despite the difficulties, I am grateful for the lessons and proud of the person I have become and the life I have built in this city.


Maria Cristina McDonald, a wordsmith hailing from the land of the Dominican Republic and currently dwelling amidst the lively tapestry of Pittsburgh. By day, she dons the hat of a store manager, orchestrating retail symphonies with finesse. But when the sun dips below the horizon, she transforms into a dream spinner and a maestro of words. Maria embarked on the creation of her debut literary masterpiece, a collection of short stories. A dedicated mother, Maria seamlessly weaves the threads of her dreams with the responsibilities of parenthood, proving that every chapter of life can be an adventure. Maria Cristina McDonald invites you to join her on a whimsical journey where stories come to life, dreams take flight, and the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary. Email her at

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