By Darla Shelden
Writer and photographer Constantino Diaz-Duran soon expects to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming an American citizen. A year ago, he decided to celebrate his eligibility by walking and chronicling his journey from New York to Los Angeles.
His tour, titled “Walk like an American” also provides research for a book he’s writing on what it really means to be American today.
Before heading out across America, Duran was a freelance writer based in Manhattan. A fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University, Duran is submitting regular dispatches about his experience for ASU, along with postings on facebook and his own website at cddny.com. He is funding part of his trip with a grant from ASU.
The 32-year-old native of Guatemala moved to New York in 2001. He was granted political asylum after he received death threats for his opinion pieces on Guatemalan government corruption written for the Siglo21, a newspaper in Guatemala City.
“I grew up very Americanized,” said Duran. “I watched American TV in the mid nineties. The networks we picked up were from the Denver area. We traveled to the U.S. frequently. I have a sister living in Wisconsin and my grandfather was a doctor who did his residency in New York.
“We always had connections to the US. I went to a bilingual school and grew up studying American history. I always knew this is where I wanted to live.”
He is a regular contributor at The Daily Beast, and the Encyclopedia Britannica blog. He has written for the New York Post, the Dallas Morning News, and the Orange County Register, and has been a guest on MSNBC and NPR. He holds a degree in American studies from Columbia University.
Having traveled through New York, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, Duran, running low on travel funds, put the tour on hold for five months while he took a construction job in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“I wanted to spend some time in the South and find out what it’s all about,” he said. During one of four interviews on his trip so far with CNN, he said, “I’ve been in the United States as a legal permanent resident for 11 years and I’m now eligible for US citizenship, so I’m doing this primarily to celebrate becoming a US citizen. And I want to find out what it means to other people to be American.”
During his trip Duran has never had a problem finding a place to stay, whether connections came through local churches, CouchSurfing or referral from people he had met along the way. He believes warm and generous hospitality is an American trait.
Duran said, “The book is not about my journey. It’s about being an American. In Philadelphia, I had dinner with a lady who had been in Auschwitz. She was 12 (years old) when her family was killed and at (age) 15 she came to the US. Now she’s an American. Just from talking to her you would never guess the horrors that she lived through. And that’s what the book is about. This country has people from so many different backgrounds.”
Duran walked from New York to Texas, and after arriving in Houston he made a decision that changed everything.
On Memorial weekend Duran posted on the ASU Zocalo Public Square website, “I have written before about some of the ways in which this journey has changed me. When I left New York, I expected to return a better man. What I didn’t expect was not to return. Yet now it has become clear that I won’t. I am moving to Texas.”
He says the decision is a financial one. “New York is expensive. Everybody knows that. I expect to finish my trip to Los Angeles in July. After that, I’ll be making my home in Houston.
“This decision is not one I took lightly. New York is my home, and always will be,” Duran said. “Houston won out over other Texas cities because it has a strong economy with a healthy job market, cheap rents, opera, and Major League Baseball.”
Duran loves baseball and is an avid Yankees fan.
After miles of ‘lonesome walking’ Duran realized another reason to settle in Texas. He has decided that he wants to be a father. “I’m going to be 33 this year and I don’t have any type of real biological clock, but I want to enjoy my grandchildren,” said Duran.
Oklahoma City residents Luis Saenz and Kevin Hammond opened their home to Duran when they received a request from “CouchSurfing,” the online travel networking website.
“Hosting Tino was not only a good experience, but his take on life talks about a person who is in the process of transitioning into being a more mature and responsible human being,” said Saenz, a professional photographer. “During his stay, he made decisions that will impact the rest of his life. As he said, being on the road, he had a lot of time to think about these kind of things; so these decisions were not made lightly.”
“At this point I have already walked almost 3,000 miles from New York to Texas,” said Duran. “Now it’s more about my mission to meet Americans and hear their stories. I could spend three weeks, maybe even a month walking across Texas and not really meet a single person, or I could spend a week in Oklahoma City connecting with people.”
“Although the two of us are Hispanos, and each left our countries about the same time under different circumstances, it was very interesting to see that his path for the “American Dream” has been different from mine,” said Saenz. “There was an instant connection while listening to “Rock en Español” from the early 90’s, we both had the same musical taste, again proving that music has no borders.”
Before leaving Oklahoma City, Duran bought a 60-day Greyhound bus pass and headed for Amarillo. “After Los Angeles I’ll take the bus back to New York to tie up loose ends,” said Duran. He plans to file for citizenship in Houston this August.
Duran has photographs he has taken while on his trip that can be purchased online to help support his journey. To follow Duran’s travels, visit www.walklikeanamerican.org.
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