CNN Interviews Quilian Riano
Juan Carlos López, CNN

Éxito (Success) – Quilian Riano is architect and winner of the Vilcek Prize for his input as immigrant to the United States.

Juan Carlos Lopez: And in our segment of Éxito today we are going to present a Colombian architect. He immigrated to the United States when he was 12 years old. He studied architecture, works in programs of environmental design and was recognized by The Vilcek Foundation. A foundation created by a foreigner, a scientist that decided to recognize the input of immigrants to the US. Quilian Riano is our guest in Éxito.

Quilian Riano: It wasn’t only one project, but they were many. There were projects in Colombia, in Nicaragua, Tijuana, and here in the United States: in the more “immigrant parts” such as Chinatown in Boston and in Corona, Queens, which is a very Latino part, very Colombian, very Ecuadorian and Mexican. Eh, and this was mostly because of the way that I work in these projects because I work closely with communities, making projects that allows them to participate, and trying always to create spaces for communities to talk of topics that they usually can’t talk about.

Juan Carlos: Well, Quilian arrived –we mentioned- 22 years ago. He was 12 years old. He arrived from Bogotá to Hialeah in Florida. And for the ones who don’t know, Hialeah is the city with most Hispanic population in the United States. Most of them are Cuban. How was that transition of arriving during pre-adolescence and starting a new life in the United States?

Quilian: (Smiling) It was very interesting, to be honest. It was always a little… Here in the United States, they always call us “Latinos,” a word that tries to talk about various countries, lots of places, lots of things. Eh… but Hialeah showed me the different ways in which you can be Latino. Eh… I can… I learnt to recognize Latino accents, now I know where each of them are from, eh… If you tell me some words in Spanish…

Juan Carlos: How was the transition: first, the language, second, to finish high school, and third, being able to study Architecture?

Quilian: Eh.. In concrete, you know, in Hialeah people speak Spanish. So I kept speaking Spanish for a long time until I became a volunteer of the US Air Force. I went to South Dakota, where I served for four years, and then I was admitted in the University of Florida. After the University of Florida, I did my masters in Architecture at Harvard University, from which I graduated a couple of years ago, many years.

Juan Carlos: What can you say to young kids that in these moments are in Hialeah, in Miami, in San Antonio, in Los Angeles, and that don’t have a defined idea of how their future will be? Quilian knew he was going to be an architect? Quilian knew that he would end up in Harvard?

Quilian: No, never. The truth is that you can imagine… an immigrant kid. The truth is that I never imagined those things. But I always was interested in topics surrounded me. I was interested in thinking how to, why the cities –here in the United States- are so segregated. Why the infrastructure of some places is not as maintained as others. So after asking myself all these questions, and after always thinking where I came from, my community, I started to also thinking about other ones. I have worked with indigenous groups, African Americans, with a lot of people… so that we can start thinking of these conditions.

In summary, I never imagined, to be honest, that I was going to be an architect but asking myself questions about my surroundings I have come to where I am now.

Juan Carlos: Let’s talk about those differences that sometimes are very evident. Is the difference of infrastructure of the immigrant zones and the poorest places so big, compared to the rest of the urban development that you have seen in the United States?

Quilian: Eh… yes, the truth is yes. Here, especially in New York. New York is not a city but a number of different cities that play together. Here in where we are is a little different, for example, to Newark, where there are lots of Brazilians, or Queens, where there are many Latinos, Sunset Park… In general, in these places you see less investment in public infrastructure. It takes way more time to get to work. One can see that jobs and the environmental quality - that is very important when you talk about cities - is not as good. So yes, you can see it very clearly and also what the Latinos bring, which is a change to the city. You can see it in Corona or Sunset Park: how it starts to change into a more social space because we bring the things that we were raised with: the plazas, the life to the public space.

  • A Message from Jan and Marica Vilcek

    Our founders arrived as penniless refugees over fifty years ago, but with the kindness and opportunity they received in the United States, they went on to accomplish great things in biomedical science and art history. Read their statement on the recent executive order imposing a travel ban.