New Language, New Culture, No Problem

Jan 26, 2015

Clemen Wilcox counts how long she’s lived in the Midwest by the number of winters, not years. This is her 13th.

Clemen Wilcox, a native of Colombia, is embracing life in Iowa.
Credit Rob Dillard

In Clemen Wilcox's native Colombia, there are just two seasons – the rainy season and the windy season. That’s one thing she misses about her home country.

“It is wonderful to know you can have a party in two weeks and it’s not going to snow," she laughs.

Wilcox grew up in Pereira, a city of about 600,000 in the foothills of the Andes. It’s known for its coffee beans. As a child, she liked to tear things apart and put them back together, just to see how they worked. She says she was naturally drawn into technical fields, even though there weren’t many other women in her classes.

“I was told growing up, my adviser in school said, go into anything but engineering," she recalls. "And I asked why, because it was my nature.”

She completed a five-year engineering degree at a public university in Colombia. Then, instead of settling into marriage and work, she decided it was time to explore. She headed off to the States unable to speak a word of English.

“I spoke really softly, which is what we do when we come here because we are afraid of making mistakes," she says. "And when we do that people say 'what.' They don’t say 'what' because they can’t understand us, but because they can’t hear us.”

She immersed herself in English by taking ELL classes, watching TV, going to movies, listening to pop songs, and paying attention to conversations.  She eventually married a guy she met in Des Moines, but doesn’t credit that event with speeding up her language learning.

“When people say, 'oh it’s easy for you because you’re married to an American,' I always say, 'yes I just sleep next to him and the English comes into my brain,'" she says. "I work really hard and I work every day.”

Her background as an engineer, however, has not translating into jobs in the U.S. She couldn’t get past the interviews.

“When I came here, on top of being a woman, a black woman with very strong looks, I had an accent and I wasn’t from here, my culture wasn’t from here, so that made it really hard,” she says.

So she started to market herself as a bridge between two cultures – American and Hispanic. She owns a company called Everything Spanish. She works to connect U.S. companies to a large market she believes business people cannot ignore.

“There are 50 million people in the United States who are self-identified as Hispanics,” she says.

It’s a new company and she says it will take time to grow. In the meantime, she hasn’t abandoned her first love – engineering. She volunteers to encourage young women to take up science and math, and offers herself as a role model.

“Just showing up with my looks and my accent gives them hope,” she says.

She tells kids nothing has been easy for her since moving to the U.S.—a different language, a different culture. But she assures them she has never let a few obstacles stand in her way.