That’s Me in the Spotlight, Losing My Ethnicity

My father is from New Mexico and has tanned skin and black hair, but his facial features themselves happen to be very caucasian-esque. My mother is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Vermonter. So I turned out pretty white. But my exterior persona is not the only aspect of me that lacks a Hispanic identity.

I have been surrounded by white culture for my entire life. The places where I grew up, Sudbury, Mass. and Scarsdale, N. Y., are not towns with large Latinx communities. Living in my predominantly white hometowns made my grandma’s visits the biggest Mexican event of my family’s year. Some of the only exposure to my culture I got growing up came from the songs she would sing to me. When I was just learning to talk, my grandma would would sit me on her lap and sing “Los Pollitos Dicen,” which, looking back on it, was definitely a ploy to teach me Spanish. The lyrics of the song described how baby chicks would say “pío, pío, pío” when they were hungry or cold. As my grandma would sing, she taught me to pretend to be hungry when I heard her say “cuando tienen hambre” and cold when I heard her say “cuando tienen frío.” When I eventually understood the song enough and was able to roughly translate it into English, my grandma was so proud; she finally had the opportunity to teach a child in her family to speak the language of her people.

While my paternal grandparents are both fluent in Spanish, they never taught my father or his brothers how to speak it. My parents grew up in the generation where, in order to be a proper citizen of the United States, you had to speak English…and only English. If my grandparents had taught their sons Spanish, they would be seen as anti-American. With the encouragement of my grandma, I started taking Spanish when I was in kindergarten and, due to my early exposure to the language itself, I was always pretty decent at it. By the time I got to high school, I had been learning the same language for eleven years and wanted to try something different, so I quit. I had such an insignificant connection to the language of my culture that I stopped speaking it, not because I was fluent or that I did not have time, but because I was bored. When I told my grandma, she was crushed.

Gifting me with a Hispanic identity has always been important to my grandma. I remember her always telling me how excited she was to come to my Quinceñera and how much I wanted one knowing how happy it made her. But when I went to school, no one there wanted one; no one there even knew what it was. So, when I turned 15, I had a small sleepover with my friends. There was no celebration of my culture, my family, my identity. I just wanted to fit in, and fitting in meant being white.

I have been isolated from my cultural community for so long that my identity as a Latina only came into some importance for me when I was applying to college. According to my college counselor, being biracial is an “asset”, and the fact that I was half-white and half-Latinx made my chances of being accepted somewhere prestigious even better. When I heard my heritage being reduced to a “push” to get me accepted to a place that would see me only as a way to increase diversity, and not necessarily bring anything to the community itself, I was heartbroken. My identity was so lost, it was stripped from me and commodified.

Even after that process, now being here at Wesleyan, all my friends are very white; all we do is play card games that white grandmothers tend to love, and we deem a party fantastic if they play any early 2000’s pop, like “Tik Tok,” “A Thousand Miles,” or “Party in the U.S.A.” Not to say I do not love my friends and the stupid stuff we all do, but I can see how much I have let go of the Latinx community. Yet, I am in an environment painted by the vibrancy of Hispanic culture. I can see Latinx people in classes or parties and it has made me realize how much I miss the joy, family-hood, and, honestly, the actually good dancing (sorry, guys) within the community itself.

Although I have felt my identity being lost here at Wes, I have found it peeking through me. At parties when a Latin song comes on, my dancing becomes something I cannot and will not control. I can feel my body sway like the waves my great-great-great-grandparents braved to get here. When I make eye contact with another Latinx, another ocean of heritage, they grab my hands and converge us into one motion; one flow; one people. The energy I feel from the Latinx community at Wes is one of pure passion and pride. Although I may still look extremely gringo, the feeling I get when I dance with someone like me at a party is one I will continue to seek out in all facets of my life, to rejoin the vibrant community I left behind.

 

Alexa Trujillo is a member of the class of 2022 and can be reached at atrujillo@wesleyan.edu.

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