For Eric, Angel, and the kids like us
I named my blog “Como Se Dice Hippie” which translates to “How do you say Hippie” in Spanish. Well, it’s actually the same word in both languages. I have spent a long time struggling with my cultural identity, feeling out of place in American spaces which tend to be white-dominated, and feeling even more isolated when with other Latinos.
Here are some of the facts: My Maternal Grandpa was born in Puerto Rico and came to the United States as a kid, settling in New York City. My Maternal Grandma was born in New York. My Grandparents spoke Spanish first and learned English young, leaving their English without a Spanish accent. My maternal grandparents met each other at Coney Island which is New York as hell. Both of my parents were born in New York City, learning English and Spanish simultaneously, becoming fluent as they came into adulthood. I was born in Buffalo, NY in the mid 90’s to my parents roughly at age 25. When it came to my brother and me, my parents spoke Spanish as a secret language to have some privacy. I never really saw my parents speak Spanish in public but that may have more to do with being a brown person in America post 9-11.
In the past few years, tolerance has grown around speaking more than one language in America and now you can even monetize it. Both my brother and I have taken Spanish in school. My older brother studied Spanish more in college and moved back to the City. In addition to ordering a bacon, egg, & cheese in Spanish at the bodega everyday, he has become pretty comfortable with conversational Spanish. I am the opposite; Spanish makes me uncomfortable. I know it sounds silly, but Spanish makes me anxious.
As a kid, many of my adult relatives would speak to each other in Spanish. I would always try to listen to bits and pieces desperate to know the latest family gossip. While I wasn’t taught to speak conversational Spanish, there are words and phrases I have always used. For example, when talking to my Grandparents a conversation was always started and ended with “Dios te bendiga” from them. The reply from us was always “Bendicion” from us. When I was a kid I didn’t know what the translation was but I felt the sentiment of it. Dios te bendiga means God bless you, and bendicion means blessing. It’s such an early memory that I used to always think of straws because of the ‘bendy’ sound in bendicion. If we ever watched Telemundo, I couldn’t follow the dialogue but Spanish TV is very exaggerated so I could still watch. A reality for me was that if I wanted to see people of color on TV with audio I could understand, I’d just watch BET.
When I was in middle school I was a bit of a nerd, I always did well, I had more favorite books than friends. My middle school Spanish teacher was disappointed when she found out I was Puerto Rican but not fluent in Spanish. I still did well in her class, but because I would study with flashcards to remember word meanings and conjugations. One day I got back a test, and I was really proud of the sticker adorning it. Then one of the white boys in my class with blonde hair and blue eyes leaned over and said “You only did good because you’re Spanish.” In the grand scheme of things, it shouldn’t have mattered but it did. It was the first time anyone had discredited my work because of assumptions they had about me. It was at that moment I stopped trying to learn Spanish.
Around that time I went through a phase where anytime anyone asked me what I was, I would say “Puerto Rican American.” I wanted people to stop bothering me, and this seemed to answer the two questions they actually wanted to know: what kind of brown I was and if I was born here. When I got to high school I started to see that kids who speak 2 languages are only impressive if they are wealthy and usually white. Although I had given up on Spanish, Spanish had not given up on me. I only learned what would get me by in class, but people still looked at me and expected Spanish to come out. I felt a pressure building on me of what I was supposed to be and that’s a heavy burden to be placed on a kid. I don’t say Puerto Rican American anymore, even with its redundancy racists will always fail to understand in the current system Puerto Rico is currently a part of the US.
I graduated from the University of Buffalo with a degree in Environmental Studies, which was pretty much all white men in camo. Brown women are so rare in the major that I befriended a majority of them with 2 friendships. We loved our major, it got us outside, identifying flowers and trees. Even though you might imagine white women with dreads when you think of hippies, we were still the girls that learned how to can food, make soap, preach sustainability and want to stop climate change. The hippie identity never looked like me and I’ve been told countless times that people of color don’t camp. Even if I’m not the poster child for all things outdoors, I still love all the things I learned for my degree. Pushing past who I was supposed to be and places I wasn’t supposed to go, a week after my college graduation I drove from NY to intern for the Forest Service in Bozeman, Montana.
During my months in Montana, I ended up on a date with a guy, nothing abnormal. While we were holding hands walking down the street a white man came up to us and stopped. “¿De dónde eres?” he asked in Spanish, Where are you from?” In English, I replied “New York.” He switched to English and said, “No, where are you really from?” Yup, this is my ‘No Where Are You Really From’ story! Well, stubbornness is a trait I inherited from both my parents, I replied “Buffalo, NY.” He then realized his friends were still walking, he said “I gotta go… I love what you’re doing here” as he shook his finger back and forth between my date and me. My white date and I. It hurt again. It hurts always being seen as the other, as a progressive option. Even worse I knew my date didn’t see a problem with what just happened as he carried on business as usual. There wasn’t another date. If you can’t see the harm done to us, can you see us? Interracial relationships require a lot of learning and not everyone is willing to do that hard emotional labor.
I’ve been told to go back to where I came from. I was told I only got into colleges because I am brown and a woman. I’ve been called a spic. I’ve been told a lot of things about me by people who don’t know me. I gave in to the feeling that maybe they knew more about me than I did. Fighting for yourself takes a lot of energy and I will admit I was really tired.
For the majority of my life, I never knew many Latinos outside of my family. The folks I did meet all laughed loudly and joked in Spanish. I would listen and search their body language desperate to be in on the jokes. I finally got to meet more Latinos in the same range as me in college, the great land of self-exploration and debt. I would end up being called whitewashed by a Spanish-speaking peer in my History of Cuba class because I wasn’t fluent. It made my insides squirm. I felt ashamed. The same year when I was giving a Latina friend a ride home and when she saw I drove a pickup, she said “Man you really are white.” She knew my love of outdoor things and comics, so I guess driving a truck made me add up to white, I guess I didn’t carry the 1. I was so desperate to be cared about by a community that didn’t seem to want me.
These moments of rejection by other Latinos take me back to the Selena movie when Edward James Olmos as Selena’s father says “Being Mexican American is tough. … We’ve gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else. We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting!” I found some comfort in the fact that Selena, the Mexican American Icon of Spanish music in the US was not fluent in Spanish either but people still loved her.
About 2 years ago I met Angel Rosado and Eric Maldonado. These men are the first Puerto Ricans I ever met that were born in the states and didn’t speak Spanish either. They gave me a gift I didn’t know I had been looking for all these years: validation. Two conversations I had with Eric live in a special place in my heart. We talked about how being Puerto Rican itself makes you feel like you don’t fit the right mold. We are Puerto Rican, the indigenous population of Puerto Rico were the Taino natives, then the Spanish Colonizers came over and brought enslaved Africans and the Spanish language with them. Puerto Ricans as we know them are a mix of these people. Since we are a mix we don’t align with the expectations of any group, we aren’t considered Native, Spanish, or Black. Let me add that I can’t call myself mixed either, both my parents are Puerto Rican and in America mixed means something else entirely. Once again, it really is exhausting.
I called my Mom a few weeks back telling her about my trip to El Buen Amigo, a Latin American novelties fair trade store right here in Buffalo, where I had a conversation with the owner Santiago. We established that Santiago’s English wasn’t very good, and my Spanish wasn’t very good. I will say Santiago speaks English way better than I have ever spoken Spanish. When he found out I was open to improving my Spanish he launched into the conversation trying to be slow and more clear. I was anxious but I tried to engage, comforted by Santiago’s resemblance to my own Grandpa. Despite the terrible Spanglish I spoke, I didn’t feel judged by him. He would follow up with what the questions meant in English when I wasn’t sure, and I would still try to answer in Spanish. This was the first time I ever tried to talk to another Latino in Spanish and didn’t feel genuinely embarrassed. It was the first time I was free from judgment and I was able to try. If you are wondering, yes, Santiago at El Buen Amigo does run Spanish classes. I hope to enroll.
While I was telling my Mom how much this simple conversation meant to me, my older niece started crying about something at school. I drove to my parents on my way home. My beautiful intelligent niece is in a school program where her courses are in Spanish and it is supplemented in English. Since her primary language is English, some academic words in Spanish are unfamiliar to her. When she asks her teacher to explain work, her teacher whose first language is Spanish often doesn’t want to help. A little boy asked my niece in front of her entire online class why she was in a bilingual class if she isn’t bilingual. The teacher said my niece was in the program by parent request. My niece felt embarrassed and as she spoke to me I felt pangs of familiarity hit my chest. I validated my niece as best I could. I’ve felt embarrassed before too. We hugged. We talked about how what the teacher did wasn’t right, but what I stressed most is, it’s ok to try and it’s ok to be learning. Maybe my inner child got some healing too.
I hope that I can keep my niece from losing her desire to learn Spanish. I’m so proud of that kid, she’s still in middle school but she speaks better Spanish than I do. She speaks it with a loud happy passion. We need to build access to each other and our cultures instead of gatekeeping it. The next generation shouldn’t have to carry burdens of shame we made up.
I met English Speaking Puerto Ricans my age, at a ripe 24, and they felt out of place too which was extremely validating. As an adult, I have extreme pride in my Puerto Rican Heritage and have been on a journey learning about our history. All the things that brought me to today. I still want to improve my Spanish to better communicate with some family but that’s a journey that belongs to me. People don’t get to dictate my identity anymore. Calling me whitewashed for speaking English, is ironic when it comes from people speaking another European language. Taíno was the native tongue of the Caribbean and is now considered an extinct Arawakan language.
Every day I wake up with skin like caramel, brown eyes so dark they look like black pools you can fall into, and brown almost black hair that bronzes in the sun. I live the experience of a young brown woman. I eat and cook cultural food with my Mom. No matter how much I camp, how many comic books I read, or the weird animals I have, I am no less Puerto Rican. My ancestors set in motion a story that will take us to many different places but no matter where we go, it started with a small island in the Caribbean.