I'm Not Latino and I'm Not American — What It Was Like Growing Up in Two Cultures That Didn't Accept Me
I have a mini identity crisis every time I am asked. My gut reaction is to answer with “I don’t know” but that’s not really an option if I want to end this part of the conversation as quickly as possible.
I was born in Caracas, Venezuela and lived in San Antonio, Venezuela until my family and I moved to Miami, Fla., when I was six. My family is from the Dominican Republic and they moved to Venezuela 20+ years before I was born to escape the effects of the brutal Trujillo dictatorship. Since I was born in Venezuela, to them I am Venezuelan and not Dominican. This has caused a lot of confusion and arguments between my friends and I. However, my formative years were spent in the United States so I am most familiar with American culture. To Latinos, especially Venezuelans, I am not a “real” Latino. I’m a Gringa. To Americans, I am not a “real” American. I’m too brown.
Lots of insecurities and loneliness resulted from not fitting in either of these two groups. I’ve spent most of my life unsuccessfully trying to assimilate into one of these groups but recently found out I am not the only one with this problem. The inability to answer such a simple question as “Where are you from?” or feel at home with one culture are common problems for Third Culture Kids. Coined in the ground breaking book, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds, authors David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken explain the term, “A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background, other TCKs.” To try and remedy this constant conflict between identities growing up, I made the huge mistake most kids do and turned to the media for some guidance.
Growing up, I lived on mainstream television and movies. This and the paradoxical nature of Miami Latin culture greatly distorted my perception of being a Latina. The media’s hypersexualized representation of a Latina did not appeal to me. I’m not like those Latinas on T.V, I thought. I don’t wear tight fitting dresses or skirts. I’m more like that American tomboy who wears long shorts and baggy shirts so I spent most of my time trying to look and act like a “real” American as told through Hollywood. I tried getting highlights to make my hair lighter, chemically treated it [and destroyed it] trying to make it straight, pined for blue contacts but they were too expensive, dieted/not ate so many times I’ve lost count to get rid of my curves and lost all trace of my roots in my accent. No matter how hard I tried, it was impossible to hide who I was. Now, years later, I am thankful I was never successful.
The media wasn’t the only negative influence in my life. Once I moved away to college it hit me that I no longer had the luxury of blending in with the crowd. I remember going grocery shopping for the first time and seeing a “Hispanic” section in the grocery store. It was all Goya and Mexican inspired products. My childhood was reduced to a third of an aisle in my local grocery. I suddenly felt like I was taking up more space because of how much I stood out. One of my friends/crushes actually told me how much he hated the way Spanish sounds after I got off the phone with my parents. I felt so disgusting and just saw myself through his eyes. Regrettably, I said I agreed and told him that’s why I try not to speak it as much as possible. How badly I want to go back in time and tell him off and then smack myself over the head. This real life reinforcement of negative Latina stereotypes haunted me throughout college. I felt guilty for not embracing my Latin background but at the same time felt revolted of my curves, curly brown hair and tan skin. My inaccurate and offensive perception of Latinas meant these attributes not only signaled I was an “other” in my own environment, but to me they also represented poverty, lack of education, and unhappiness. I’ve always had ambitious goals for myself and growing up I rarely saw any positive Latina role models that had the life I envisioned.
I moved to NYC after graduation in the hopes of shaking off this shame and figuring out who I was instead of constantly seeing myself through others eyes. It was going well until I got into a relationship that derailed this path for a while. His family was from South America and a beautiful example of their culture. For the year we were together, I became painfully aware of how little I knew about my family and myself. I felt like a fake Latina. I spent so much of my life rejecting this part of me and here I was realizing what a massive mistake that was. How did I let this happen? How did I get this far in life without embracing that part of myself? How is my Spanish so bad even though my parents barely speak English? How do I not have an opinion about Chavez? I’ve destroyed an important part of myself and I will never get it back.
This frustration produced a lot of tears and self-loathing. This is not what I moved to NYC for! Years of tears, confusion, anger and growth later, I found myself in graduate school confronting these insecurities and trying to become a positive role model for others like me. I will never be 100% Latina and my Spanish might always be a little awkward and that’s okay. I will never be 100% American and my hair will always be curly and that is okay. Oddly, my acceptance of not being an American or Latina has brought me closer to both identities. I am now proud of both parts and the interesting combination it produces in me. Culture and identity are such bizarre concepts that affect so much of our lives. We spend so much time either trying to find them, understand them or defend them even though we can’t all agree on exactly what they are.
There were many structural and personal oppressions that shaped my journey that still exist today. Not much has changed in the representation of Latinas in the media. We are still hypersexualized and uneducated. The current xenophobia and anti-Latino/anti-immigration that is spreading in the U.S is not really helping anyone. Thankfully though, successful women of color are starting to become the norm in mainstream television. The fact that The Mindy Project, a television show created, written and starring a full-figured, successful Indian woman (and fellow TCK) exists is a huge step in the right direction. It's not perfect but it makes me happy to see her onscreen. While I can’t wait to have a Latina star in her own TV show where her accent is not a running joke, I am glad positive TCK role models are starting to pop in the media. And I hope younger Latinas and TCKs out there will embrace all parts of their identity and not wait until later in life to realize how incredibly unique and awesome we are.