Hispanic Heritage Month will wrap up on October 15th and with that I've decided to tell you about my personal experience being a Latina.
I was born in the borough of Queens, New York and was raised in a neighborhood called Forest Hills. It was a wonderful place to grow up and live for 31 years until I got married and moved to New Jersey. My childhood was a happy one and I always had what I needed. I was raised primarily by my grandparents - - a Colombian grandmother and a Cuban grandfather. I went to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs from first through eighth grade and went onto high school at The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates, also in Queens.
Being Hispanic is something with which I've always associated. It's part of who I am, just like my name. I was born that way and nothing will ever change that. My grandmother always spoke to me in Spanish because she wanted to make sure that I spoke the beautiful language she grew up with so I would have more opportunities in life. If anyone in the family spoke to me in English she would get very upset and would make them speak to me in Spanish. Granted, she knew little English (she still doesn't know too much), but she knew that being bilingual could only help me. It would come to serve me well right out of college, but that's for later in the story.
Many who meet me don't see me as a Hispanic because I don't look like the "stereotypical" Latina. I'm as white and pale as a vampire, have blue-green eyes, and speak with no accent at all. I prefer to speak English and relate only to the American way of life. I don't know what it's like to live in another country and consider the USA the best country in the world despite all of its problems. I'm 100% American, my blood is Hispanic.
When people discover that I'm a Latina, they never believe me. People ask me to "say something in Spanish" and then when I start speaking their eyes widen and they can't believe it. I feel odd sometimes but it's always the same experience. When I go out with my husband to a Spanish or Latin American restaurant, I always get spoken to in English and he gets spoken to in Spanish. It cracks me up. Sometimes I play along and I'll either ask hubby for a translation or speak really poor Spanish. Sometimes I just answer in perfect Spanish and the server is always surprised.
Why the stereotype? Are Latinos only supposed to come in shades of brown? People from many South American countries are light-skinned but here in the states, people (even other Latinos) think that only brown tones are Hispanic. We come in all colors and shapes!
Going to college was fun in that people could never guess I spoke Spanish nor had a Hispanic background. Most assumed I was Irish or had roots from another European country. Now for full disclosure, my hair was various shades of blonde from golden to completely bleached so I know it made it more difficult for people to make a conjecture associated with anywhere Hispanic. If you could guess my background I would have given you a million dollars. I was able to say that with full confidence knowing no one would guess - - no one ever did. Good thing I didn't have a million dollars! Not that I do now, but I digress...
During the college years I didn't relate to the Hispanic world except for when I was with my family. I never listened to music in Spanish and never watched television or movies in Spanish. I hate to admit I didn't really like it or live it. I was American and that's it. I was a metalhead and just didn't relate to things that were Hispanic. I definitely didn't look like a Latina at all. People would speak Spanish in front of me and sometimes they would say something about me and I'd understand completely but I'd never let them know I understood. I never heard anything bad, but it was always interesting how people would talk about me and assume I didn't understand. I heard all sorts of gossip. Crazy stuff.
Maybe it was my rebellious streak but at that time I didn’t appreciate fully the richness, the beauty and history of my culture.
Here’s the irony and the way Spanish helped me. When I finished college, my first job was at (drum roll, please)…Univision! The number one Spanish-language television network in the country! Had I not known Spanish, I wouldn’t have gotten a job there and would never have met the man I call my darling husband. I had no idea about some of the stories that were being reported because I hadn’t really developed a “relationship” with my culture at that point, other than the fact I spoke Spanish. I quickly had an awakening and took in everything I could and soon became well-versed in the culture. After I left Univision I was offered an on-air position in New York City in Spanish language radio! Is that crazy or what? Speaking Spanish only helped me and continues to open doors to this day.
My grandmother and grandfather have always taught me to embrace where I come from. Now that I’m an adult and about to become a first time mom, I see why I should be proud of my Hispanic heritage. I will raise my daughter the same way, allowing her to be herself while also ensuring that she finds a place for her Hispanic heritage somewhere within.
Gracias a mi nana y papito por todo que me han enseñado. Los quiero mucho.