Marco Baez is a senior criminal justice, international studies and history major. He aspires to go to law school and eventually work for the federal government in the foreign relations area to help the U.S. improve its relationships with other countries.

When I first got to the United States from Venezuela, I was immediately shocked by the new culture. One of the first things I remember is that when people asked me where I was from and I would say Venezuela, their response was usually the same: “You mean Minnesota?”

At the beginning, I used to get very angry that people did not know where I was from. However, after some time had passed, I became accustomed to such comments. I remember a time when a girl asked my friends and me where we were from, and I told her “South America,” to which she responded, “Like Texas, South America?” We were so familiar with such comments that we chuckled and just kept talking as if she had not just made that comment.

However, there was a time when someone was not only ignorant of my origin but also disrespectful of it. I went to Ocala, Florida, and I wanted to put gas in my car at a gas station. I walked in, like at any other gas station, and asked the cashier to put $20 on pump two, and he did not reply at all. The man at the station refused to serve me solely because of my ethnicity.

I was aware of my Spanish accent, so I tried to pronounce words better and requested the same thing one more time. But the guy just stared at me and did not say a word, and when I was about to ask for gas a third time, two more guys came out of the back of the store and stood next to him. Now there were three guys with crossed arms looking at me in a very intimidating way. I quickly drove away from there. As I drove away from the gas station, I saw a poster on one of the houses nearby that said “KKK Territory.” Once I read that poster, I understood what had just happened at the station.

This experience opened my eyes in many ways, and from that moment on, I realized that I wanted to do something to educate as many people as possible, not only about where my country of origin is, but also about other foreign countries. I believe that racism starts with ignorance and a lack of attachment to the person being judged.

If people start feeling more attached to people who are different from them in either race, religion or nationality, this country will be a better place. I often question what kind of education we are giving our students, and having some geographical understanding of the world is the first step to creating a more accepting society in the United States.

I often try to educate people that I am not from “Minnesota” or “Louisiana” or “South America.” I do not try to sound rude when I do it because I understand the source of their confusion, so I try to tell them the world is a bigger place. I try to break the mental boundaries we place on our perception of what the world is by providing information that some people have never heard before. The fact is, there is an exciting and beautiful place just south of here known as Venezuela, where I was born.

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