Stories of Resettlement: Natali Betancur

Published on September 14, 2023

Natali Betancur posing with mother

Born in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, to a single Colombian mother and raised in her family’s hometown of Santa Rosa de Cabal, Natali Betancur’s journey to the United States began when she was just nine years old. Though she was young, she can still recall her childhood in Colombia—gathering at her great grandmother’s house, making arepas in the kitchen, listening to friends and family as they strummed guitars, shared stories, and played cards in the living room. She remembers how close everyone was and how much everyone hurt when her grandmother passed. 

Natali's grandmother became ill when she was just a baby, while her and mother were living in The Netherlands. Her illness was what brought them back to Colombia, and her passing was ultimately what lead them to Kissimmee, Florida in 1997. 

We recently sat down with Natali to learn more about her journey from Colombia to Charlotte. The following responses come directly from Natali, and while they showcase important moments throughout her life, they only represent a fraction of her experience. 

Adjusting to Life in America 

Betancur with her childhood dog in Florida

Betancur with her childhood dog in Florida. 

Where did you first arrive in the United States? 

So, my mother had one particular good friend of hers that was already established in Kissimmee, Florida. And so, as she was trying to figure out where to go and what to do, her friend was like, ‘Come here. I will help you get settled in.’ Which is usually, you know... Most people have a friend or a family connection somewhere. So, we ended up there, and it was great for a period of time. At the same time, she probably wasn’t as familiar with the systems here, so it was difficult for her to kind of show my mother the ropes at that point. It was a time period where we were kind of trying to search for that connector, that person who would really help my mom understand what the system was like and how she could move ahead. 

Were you able to find that in Florida?

We found that! We were lucky enough to find a couple of Peruvian friends that eventually became really good friends with my mother, and they were great. There’s this instilled fear in some individuals, and my mother had been told she couldn’t even put me in school at the time, since we were still going through the process and didn’t have all the documentation. So, I was not in school yet when I first came. It took a good like six to nine months until we found this Peruvian group of people that were incredible, and they were like, ‘What do you mean? No, we’re taking her to school. Let’s go.’ So, they kind of helped my mom find that and find work. She started working at Burger King and cleaning hotel rooms, and through that we started to build a little bit. 

Betancur with some of her Peruvian friends in Florida

Betancur (left) with some of her Peruvian friends in Florida. 

Do you remember your initial impressions of the United States? How was it different from Colombia? Were you excited? 

I think it was mixed feelings. I think at the beginning, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to Disney World!’ You know? Like, the only thing I could think of was Disney World, because it was Kissimmee and I had been to Disney once before through my mom’s travel things. But then, when I started school, reality set in. So, back then, this was 1997, they didn’t have specific ESL (English as a Second Language) programs. They didn’t have something where you would go to a different classroom that was Spanish speaking until you were able to get English and then transfer you. They wouldn’t have somebody that was with you 24/7. So, I was dropped in a classroom, and it was English. And I knew no English. So, for the first few months, it was very hard. It was very hard, because I had one teacher that would come in for a couple of hours, and then it was kind of self-taught. Like you sink or swim at that point, right? And not only that, but then the culture around me... It was different. You know, I was used to going to school in the morning and going home for lunch, and then sometimes I’d have school in the afternoon or not at all. And that wasn’t the case. I was at school the entire day. And I was used to having or making friends a certain way, looking a certain way, and we’re just coming here and my clothes are different. So, all these things. All these realities started to set in. 

How long did it take for you to learn English? 

I think it was like nine months. Nine months was what it took me to really learn English. And in those nine months, when I first got here, they called my mother and were like, ‘We have to bring her back a grade, because she doesn’t speak the language.’ Then, within nine months, they not only placed me in my correct grade, they brought me up a grade. So, within nine months, sink or swim, that’s what happened. 

So, now that you’re in Florida, what did you miss most about Colombia? Obviously your family, but what else? 

Definitely family! I think, also, there was an ease to life.  As a child in Colombia, because we had such a support system and I had my grandmother, I was spoiled. I’m going to say I was spoiled, right?! Because I would wake up and my grandmother would bring me my breakfast in bed and she would help me put my socks on, even until I was nine years old, and she would make sure my hair was done and I got to school. And then, it’s like the complete opposite where my mom’s having to work two, three jobs. I’m on my own. I remember I was riding a bike to school, because my mother had to work, you know. There was no other way for me to get there. And it was three flights of stairs, and I was bringing my bike up and down these stairs in heat. This is high humidity, high heat in Florida. So, I think I missed the ability to have that ease. Because all of a sudden, it’s like you’re fending for yourself. You don’t have that support system. You’re having to adjust.

More Diversity in Charlotte 

Betancur posing in Romare Bearden Park shortly after arriving in Charlotte.

Betancur posing in Romare Bearden Park shortly after arriving in Charlotte. 

You eventually moved from Kissimmee to Naples, but now you’re here. What ultimately brought you to Charlotte?

I think it was a combination of things. Deep down, I knew that I didn’t want to stay in Naples, Florida, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or when. And I have a daughter, so that played a role. However, around 2017/2018, I had a friend that moved up to Concord, and some of her family was originally from the North Carolina area or had been pre-established in North Carolina before. I had already, through the years, come up a lot to North Carolina and Tennessee, and I knew that somewhere around here was where I wanted to put some roots down. For a couple of reasons. One is I love the outdoors and I love hiking. And Florida is flat, so it didn’t provide a lot of opportunity for that, which was kind of my way of keeping myself sane and was a stress reliever and a hobby of mine. So, I was already coming up to Tennessee and North Carolina. I knew that I wanted this area. Then in 2018, my mother got really ill, and she had retired and gone back home [to Colombia]. And I had to go and take care of her for a few months. So, it just so happened that in that timeframe, my friend had moved up here. She was settled, and she was like, ‘Hey Natali, there’s this job opportunity. I know you were taking a break, taking care of your mom, but if you were interested it might be a good transition time.’ So, I applied for a job with Mecklenburg County, and I got the job. A few months after that, I was packing everything and moving up and was really excited to move to Charlotte. It’s the perfect location too, because I come from the beach. So, if I ever get beach sick, I could head that way for a few hours. Or I could go hiking in, you know, less than an hour. 

What was your initial impression of Charlotte when you first got here? How was it different from Florida?

You know, one of the things I usually say is diversity. Naples, Florida is a very small town, and it’s not very diverse in nature. And so, I remember... My mother is Catholic, my whole family is Catholic, and so when she would come, she’d come for a few months. And she came up with me to help move me, so it was like, ‘Well, we have to find her a church.’ So, in our quest for finding her a Catholic church, every church that I would walk into, the diversity was just so impressive. All kinds of people walking in and out of this church, and it just made me feel like there was this comfort level there. Like, I’m in the right place. Because if there’s diversity when it comes to something that’s religious, of this kind, then it’s got to be across the board. And I love that! I love the opportunity to be able to experience that, because throughout my career, I’ve experienced a lot of the opposite. As a Latina woman, I just experienced a lot of that. You’re not good enough to get to that place. So, being able to find somewhere that’s like, okay there’s so much diversity that that’s not going to be the case was really comforting. 

Has your opinion changed at all, or do you still feel that way about Charlotte?

I still feel that. I mean, I’m in digital equity. I’m in the equity field. So, more now than ever. I’m truly passionate about that, and I truly feel that 100%. Yeah. 

Falling in Love with Digital Equity

Betancur during a Digital Navigators event.

Betancur (second from right) during a Digital Navigators event with the CDE. 

Since you mentioned your field... Can you tell us a little bit more about your role as the Deputy Director of the Center for Digital Equity at Queens University and what that means?  

Yeah! So, what we do. We are focused on making Mecklenburg County the most digitally equitable community in America. That’s audacious, and we know that. And the way that we do it, we don’t do it alone, right? We do it by creating a collaborative—by bringing together public sector, private sector, and community members to really co-create solutions around digital equity. We do that through a community council that has five working groups or focus groups, and each of those have a different area. So, we talk about devices and connectivity, and what are the solutions around that? How can we ensure that there’s equity in the way that we have and include those resources for individuals? We talk about policy and advocacy. How are we going to look at this long term? Everybody that walks into affordable housing, shouldn’t they have what they need to able to participate in today’s society? Yeah, they should. What does that entail? How can we make sure that happens? We talk about digital literacy. That’s so important. I mean, the fact that not only is it just handing somebody a device or getting them the internet; it’s like, ‘Well, now how do I leverage this device to really participate in society? How do I leverage it to get resources and services and things that I need?’ And then, the most important one for us is really the connector across all those, and that’s our Digital Navigator service. All of Mecklenburg County has access to a Digital Navigator at no cost to them. So, anyone can dial 311, press any key, and ask to speak to a Digital Navigator. Or they can go on our website and submit a form. And a Digital Navigator is the connector to all the resources across the sphere that we just talked about. So, if somebody needs an affordable laptop... Well, who defines affordable, right? Through a connection with our Digital Navigators, they’re able to help them define what affordable means to them. Like, ‘I need a free one.’ Okay, we will find you a free device to get you where you need to go. ‘I need a class that’s teaching me basic computer skills.’ We will find that for you. So, that’s really what’s at the core of what we do here.

Betancur (right) is passionate about digital equity in the Charlotte community.

Betancur (right) is passionate about digital equity in the Charlotte community. 

It’s clear how passionate you are about this. Where did that passion come from? 

You know, it came from a lot of my personal experiences. Through the whole process of getting to the U.S., when we were in Kissimmee for about a year and then after that in Naples—which is where some of our extended family was—we went through a lot of trials and tribulations. We were home insecure on several occasions. We lived with a family that took us in that was the true American family, like they lived in a double wide, so we lived with them. We then lived with a Haitian family that took us in for a little bit. So, I learned through each of those experiences that I wish we had some guidance and support, as far as services. Living those experiences, living with those families helped me understand. But I always wanted to do more, so I always got involved. I started to volunteer in the little time that I had. I know that I had to struggle. I was a single mom myself, eventually. I struggled through an abusive relationship. I was home insecure. I had been through the gamut of the experiences, so I just started to volunteer and really wanted to give back and be that guidance for someone else. So, that’s why I’m passionate about this work, because it’s the opportunities. It’s about guiding someone through the resources. It can be the difference. Like, even a Digital Navigator. We hear stories where they could be the difference between ‘Hey, I'm homeless. I’m living in my car. I don’t know how to get out of this.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, let’s get you connected somehow to a computer so that you can start to apply for services that can get you a home, that then can get you to some training, that then can get you a job. Let’s walk through this pathway together.’ And so, I think that’s where my passion comes from.

A Welcoming City

Betancur (left) enjoys the Charlotte skyline with her daughter.

Betancur (left) enjoys the Charlotte skyline with her daughter. 

Part of Charlotte’s commitment to equity is its formal designation as a Certified Welcoming city. Based on your experience living in Charlotte, what are some things you’ve noticed that make this city feel welcoming? 

I mean, a lot of the resources. I worked very closely with the Latin American Coalition, and I’m always impressed at how they will go to whatever extents they need to go to, whatever they need to do, to help those first coming in. One particular example is something as small as an ID, a photo ID that some newcomers don’t have. It’s such a barrier for anything and everything you can think about, right? I was actually collaborating with the [City of Charlotte], and that was one of the things I brought up. So, the Latin American Coalition provides people an ID. It’s got a photo. It’s got an expiration date. It’s an ID. It’s a form that they can use to identify themselves. But in many instances, we’ve built services that are like, ‘It must be government-issued. The ID must be a government-issued ID.’ So, I had a conversation when I was partnering with the city on another thing, and I was like, ‘Hey, do we need to have it be a government issued ID?’ And they’re like, ‘No, we don’t.’ So, I was like, ‘Great! Can we change that?’ Because that would mean that anyone that has an ID from the Latin American Coalition has an opportunity at this initiative or this resource that they wouldn’t have otherwise. So, I think it’s those. It’s the opportunity to able to collaborate with someone like the city. To say, ‘Hey, can we think about it differently?’ And them being able to acknowledge that and say, ‘Definitely,’ and agree to it. It’s the Latin American Coalition and organizations that are out there saying, ‘You need clothes? We don’t really do donations of clothes, but we’re going to go out and create donations. And we’re going to create this ID service.’ That makes it truly welcoming. 

Is there anything you’d like to see that you think would make Charlotte even more welcoming? 

I think it’s already kind of happening to an extent. For one, it you go down to Southeast Florida, there’s an overwhelming amount of restaurants. And so, that has always been... When I first got here, that was one of my big pain points. It was like, ‘Oh, there should be more Spanish restaurants.’ But that has already naturally occurred. The other thing that’s naturally occurring is the city and others getting involved in ensuring that when some of these resources are built, they’re keeping some of those barriers in mind. I think we could continue to do a little bit more of that. And I think the other thing is affordable housing is an issue across the board. I think when new people come to Charlotte, being able to find affordable housing would make it a little bit more welcoming, especially for newcomers and immigrants of that nature. But yeah, I mean, more Spanish food would be great. 

Okay, I have to ask. Have you found any Colombian restaurants here that remind you or home? 

Yes! There is one in particular, in the Pineville area, and it’s called Los Paisas. I’d recommend that to everybody. I usually always talk about it. Every time I’ve been there and I’ve had a meal, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, this reminds me so much of home!’ 

So, now that you’ve settled here in Charlotte, would you consider this city home? 

Definitely. I bought my first place on my own here, and so that was my way of saying... My mom was like, ‘Are you sure?’ And I was like, ‘Yes. I’m setting roots here.’ I’ve been highly encouraging my daughter, she’s a senior in high school, to apply for schools here so that she can stay here with me locally. So, yes. I would.

Advice for New Residents

Betancur (left), her daughter (right), and a friend enjoy Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood

Betancur (left), her daughter (right), and a friend enjoy Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood. 

What advice would you give people who are just arriving to Charlotte?

One of the things that my mother taught me through all the experiences... My mom started working at Burger King and cleaning hotel rooms, and she was able to train herself to become a certified nursing assistant. And through it all, it was perseverance. Perseverance and having the strength to say you want better for yourself. And you’re going to have to push, right? This isn’t a system that things are just readily available and handed. So, I think it’s very important for anyone that comes to this country or to Charlotte or anywhere really to understand that you’re going to have to have perseverance. You’re going to have to want to figure out your journey and figure out that path and talk to people and ask questions and push yourself through. And you’re going to have to work hard. Ultimately, the results are there. I, myself, had three jobs and was going to school at night and had a daughter to take care of, and it was that perseverance and getting that from my mother that really took me all the way through.

Lastly, is there anything else you want people to know about your journey from Colombia to Charlotte?

I mean, it’s an everlasting journey, right? I still have things I want to accomplish. I think for one, it would be that adapting to new places is not easy. So, for me personally, being able to overcome different barriers, whether being an immigrant or not, it’s... It’s definitely been a journey, and I’m grateful. I should say, we should be grateful for those experiences, because it’s what helps us truly be our best selves in the next iteration. Listen, if I got through coming to this country, learning the language in nine months, having a child at an early age, an abusive relationship, if I got through all that, I think anyone can. And it’s hard, and I would not have it any other way.

Natali Betancur’s full interview is being donated to the oral history archives at UNC Charlotte’s J. Murrey Atkins Library. You can also view the interview in its entirety on the City of Charlotte YouTube Channel. Additionally, if you would like to learn more about the Center for Digital Equity and other helpful organizations around the Charlotte area, please visit our Welcoming Charlotte Resettlement Resources.