Existing in Two Spheres

Maintaining a connection with one’s culture whilst living in America is an arduous task. It is easy to lose touch when we are surrounded by whiteness and racism, but it is crucial that we continue to embrace ourselves fully despite the adversity we will face.

I conducted interviews with three Latinx students at NYU, two who are first generation. They are currently taking Spanish classes because they don’t speak the language well enough to fulfill the requirement. While they each have had different experiences, they all shared that as their ability to speak the language increased, so did the level of connection they felt to their family and their culture. One of the students described this as an “empowering process.” I don’t believe that people need to be able to speak their native languages in order to be close to their culture, but I think having the ability to is helpful. As a result of increased language skills, there is an increase in connection to people within the family that only or primarily speak that language.

I know this is true for many cultures, but especially for Latinx culture, it is frowned upon to be incapable of speaking the language. We are called gringas and gringos by our own families which is confusing considering the fact that they are the ones who were unsuccessful at teaching us the languagea point that one of my interviewees made. He is Puerto Rican and said that whenever he visits the island he “always felt out of place. Like an outsider because [he] couldn’t speak the language of [his] culture.” We already experience various forms of oppression and marginalization, we can’t do the same to our own people. That same student explained that because of the color of his skin, he is targeted by others, especially the police. He shared stories of how on several occasions he has been subjected to “random bag checks” on the train; he takes the same route to school every single day. My heart broke hearing his story. This is the reality of many of our lived experiences.

It is so difficult to exist in both spheres. My first semester of college I wrote a short story titled Too Spanish for White People, Too White for Spanish People. My understanding of what being Spanish means and who that represents has changed since then, but the point remains. Many of us feel we are not enough for our families, but too much for America. We struggle to find our niche. I have been fighting my way back to my culture, but I think that as a people, we need to be more accepting of each other.

It’s also an arduous task to relearn the language, especially in a classroom setting. Two of the interviewees pointed out that the Spanish we learn in class is quite different from the Spanish spoken at home. We are taught the “proper” way, meanwhile many of our families speak in Spanglish or with slang they don’t teach in a textbook. Even if we take the classes in school, we still stick out because it is easy to tell we learned it from the book. For many, it begins to feel like we’re trying to win a stuffed animal from one of those rigged claw machines we’re playing a game we can’t win.  This is why we need to be more supportive of each other. Reclaiming our language and culture is an empowering process and we must aid others in it.

The three students I interviewed still don’t speak Spanish perfectly, but they all said that even the minor improvements in their ability to speak it have increased their levels of confidence and happiness. A Puerto Rican and Dominican student said she “feel[s] more connected talking to [her] mom because she loves to hear [her] try.” Having support while learning the language often means the difference between success and failure. When our family and friends support us speaking Spanish and tell us how to fix our mistakes instead of laughing or ridiculing us, it creates a safe space to practice and ultimately better our skills.

But of course there’s more to being Latinx than just our language; we have our music, our dances, our food, our myths. I grew up listening to salsa, bachata and merengue and being spun around by my father as he taught me the dances. I ate arroz con gandules y tostones with mayoketchup and I had Café Cubano afterwards. I was scared of the dark because I thought the Coco was going to get me and I believed that saying sana sana colita de rana si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana would heal any wound. I had this stripped away from me in secondary school, but through family, friends and education I am taking it back.

College often exposes us to more than we have ever seen. Two of the interviewees explained how through this exposure, they learned more about other cultures as well as their own. None of them knew the difference between identifying as Latinx and Hispanic until I told them; I didn’t even know until this last year. An Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican interviewee described this learning process as both touching and joyful. I think it’s been empowering. 

Once I arrived at college, I realized how colonized our history truly is. I went to El Museo Del Barrio during the second semester as a trip with our mentees from the World Changers Program. I stood in front of a lithographic print titled Felicidades – El Museo Del Barrio by Dominigo Garcia. The Statue of Liberty’s face stared right back at me with a Puerto Rican flag wrapped around its head. I smiled and thought how powerful. Then I read the blurb next to it and it shook me to my core. In 1977, thirty Puerto Rican nationalists protested at the Statue for the freedom of four militant nationalists. They actually draped the Puerto Rican flag on the Statue of Liberty’s head. How did we never learn about this? We learned about Christopher Columbus for years in a row and put on plays celebrating him in school, but we didn’t learn about this? Los Desaparecidos was another collection in the museum that told the story of the lost onesthe thousands of people who were kidnapped, tortured, killed and “vanished” in Latin America from the 1950s to the 1980s. I was able to visualize the torment they experienced… that I had never once learned about. I realized the intensity of the vast history that has been untold on that dayour history that has been stripped away from us. I vowed then to avidly learn as much as I could about our people and our history and to share our stories. 

 

 

Finding my way back to my culture has been a powerful process. I and two other interviewees have experienced increased levels of confidence. I stand up for myself now, and I love my culture. I love my skin and our history. I love my language and our food. I love and accept everything that makes us different. The Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican student expressed this passion for his culture as well. He said:

I love everything about myself unconditionally. Having pride in what I am is something I will never feel ashamed of, no matter how many people are against it. I will admit that it is disappointing and discouraging to know that there are people in this world who choose to hate and make others uncomfortable by shaming their culture. The one thing that gets me through is the constant reminder to myself that love has to win in all forms because I refuse to believe that the hatred that floods the American systems will be dominant.

We instead must flood American systems with acceptance, love, and knowledge. And we must begin to share these with ourselves. I don’t have a physical home, but I have found one now in my culture.

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By Jaelynn Grace Ortiz

Jaelynn is a rising sophomore at NYU majoring in Journalism and Social and Cultural Analysis with a focus in Latino studies and is minoring in Creative Writing. The list of her hobbies is almost as drawn out as her majors are. She writes poetry, essays and stories, she dances, mentors high schoolers in the Bronx and often plans environmental events in NYU Residence Halls. She has a poem published in the introspective study Inside My World by the Live Poets Society. Despite vehemently condemning social media, she ironically has instagram which you could follow her on. 

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