Discrimination for minority
When I entered college, I discovered I was Latina. Until then, I had never questioned who I was or where I was from: My father is a second-generation Mexican-American, born and raised in Los Angeles, and my mother was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Compton, Calif. My home is El Sereno, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in L.A. Every close friend I have back home is Mexican. So I was always just Mexican. Though sometimes I was just Puerto Rican–like when we would visit Mamo (my grandma) or hang out with my Aunt Titi.
Upon arriving in New York as a first-year student, 3000 miles from home, I not only experienced extreme culture shock, but for the first time I had to define myself according to the broad term “Latina.” Although culture shock and identity crisis are common for the newly minted collegian who goes away to school, my experience as a newly minted Latina was, and still is, even more complicating. In El Sereno, I felt like I was part of a majority, whereas at the College I am a minority.
I’ve discovered that many Latinos like myself have undergone similar experiences. We face discrimination for being a minority in this country while also facing criticism for being “whitewashed” or “sellouts” in the countries of our heritage. But as an ethnic group in college, we are forced to define ourselves according to some vague, generalized Latino experience. This requires us to know our history, our language, our music, and our religion. I can’t even be a content “Puerto Mexican” because I have to be a politically-and-socially-aware-Latina-with-a-chip-on-my-shoulder-because-of-how-repressed-I-am-in-this-country.
I am none of the above. I am the quintessential imperfect Latina. I can’t dance salsa to save my life, I learned about Montezuma and the Aztecs in sixth grade, and I haven’t prayed to the Virgen de Guadalupe in years.
5Apparently I don’t even look Latina. I can’t count how many times people have just assumed that I’m white or asked me if I’m Asian. True, my friends back home call me güera (“whitey”) because I have green eyes and pale skin, but that was as bad as it got. I never thought I would wish my skin were a darker shade or my hair a curlier texture, but since I’ve been in college, I have—many times.
Another thing: My Spanish is terrible. Every time I call home, I berate my mama for not teaching me Spanish when I was a child. In fact, not knowing how to speak the language of my home countries is the biggest problem that I have encountered, as have many Latinos. In Mexico there is a term, pocha, which is used by native Mexicans to ridicule Mexican-Americans. It expresses a deep-rooted antagonism and dislike for those of us who were raised on the other side of the border. Our failed attempts to speak pure, Mexican Spanish are largely responsible for the dislike. Other Latin American natives have this same attitude. No matter how well a Latino speaks Spanish, it can never be good enough.
Yet Latinos can’t even speak Spanish in the U.S. without running the risk of being called “spic” or “wetback.” That is precisely why my mother refused to teach me Spanish when I was a child. The fact that she spoke Spanish was constantly used against her: It prevented her from getting good jobs, and it would have placed me in bilingual education—a construct of the Los Angeles public school system that has proved to be more of a hindrance to intellectual development than a help.
To be fully Latina in college, however, I must know Spanish. I must satisfy the equation: Latina [equals] Spanish-speaking.
So I’m stuck in this black hole of an identity crisis, and college isn’t making my life any easier, as I thought it would. In high school, I was being prepared for an adulthood in which I would be an individual, in which I wouldn’t have to wear a Catholic school uniform anymore. But though I led an anonymous adolescence, I knew who I was. I knew I was different from white, black, or Asian people. I knew there was a language other than English that I could call my own if I only knew how to speak it better. I knew there were historical reasons why I was in this country, distinct reasons that make my existence here easier or more difficult than other people’s existence. Ultimately, I was content.
10Now I feel pushed into a corner, always defining, defending, and proving myself to classmates, professors, or employers. Trying to understand who and why I am, while understanding Plato or Homer, is a lot to ask of myself.
A month ago, I heard three Nuyorican (Puerto Ricans born and raised in New York) writers discuss how New York City has influenced their writing. One problem I have faced as a young writer is finding a voice that is true to my community. I was surprised and reassured to discover that as Latinos, these writers had faced similar pressures and conflicts as myself; some weren’t even taught Spanish in childhood. I will never forget the advice that one of them gave me that evening: She said that I need to be true to myself. “Because people will always complain about what you are doing—you’re a ‘gringa’ or a ‘spic’ no matter what,” she explained. “So you might as well do things for yourself and not for them.”
I don’t know why it has taken 20 years to hear this advice, but I’m going to give it a try.
Soy yo and no one else. Punto. 1
1 Soy yo . . . Punto I’m me . . . Period. (Editors’ note.)