I was born and raised in Puerto Rico to a Cuban father and a blonde, blue eyed, half-American mother (it’s very I Love Lucy-esque). My childhood was no different than any American’s. I grew up in a fully bilingual household and learned both English and Spanish around the same time. I spent my childhood watching tv in English, with the exception of The Simpsons and Pokemon, which I could only watch in Spanish because their time slot was in the afternoon (Pokemon in Spanish is just as funny and weird as you imagine it to be— or more). I learned to read in English before learning in Spanish and it was extremely difficult for me to even finish a book written in Spanish during my grade school years. I always excelled in anything related to English literature but had some difficulty with my Spanish classes. I also am a horrible dancer (I dance like a stereotypical dad) and have absolutely no interest in Latin music (I loathe bachata with burning passion and I don’t really like salsa).
I have always felt like I didn’t belong in Puerto Rico and strongly desired to study in the states. When I decided to go to college in the US, I thought I’d be able to fit in because I speak proper English, I do not have issues with grammar or spelling, I grew up with American culture, and I’m not the Latina stereotype. Many Puerto Ricans decide to study in the states because we have American citizenship and it is not a huge cultural change. I thought I would be easily accepted.
I decided to study at Goucher College, where my mother and her two sisters studied. I have been traveling to the US since I was only a few months old and was familiar with Maryland. I have family there and I spent my childhood going to the harbor, eating crab cakes from Phillip’s, and visiting family in Reisterstown. I didn’t consider it a huge change. It was an area I was familiar with and I didn’t think it would be a big deal that I was from Puerto Rico.
To my surprise, professors and students would make sure that I knew I was a foreigner to them. People loved to point out that I had a slight accent (which is not even Puerto Rican, it’s the mix of an American accent with a minor speech impediment, which makes me sound Russian more than anything, to be honest) and would ask me to speak in an “American accent.” “What is it like to come to America?” was asked frequently.I often had professors point out that English is not my first language—even if I had said numerous times that I grew up in a bilingual household. It was obvious that they doubted my ability as a student and writer.
I was also referred to as a “student of color” in more than one occasion. If I was a woman of color, I would proudly embrace it as part of my identity but the truth is I’m not. I am Caucasian and Latina. My ancestry is German, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, English, Cherokee, and Cuban. It’s not too different from any white American’s. Some of my friends have asked me what I identify myself as and whenever I say I’m a “Caucasian Latina,” they look at me as if I had a third eye. Their responses are typically “you’re not that white” or “you can’t be white if you’re Latin.” Latina is an ethnicity, not a race, and it’s surprising that people do not understand this. It’s tiresome to have others identify my race, culture, and background when they don’t even bother to listen when I discussed my actual culture and upbringing.
I instantly felt like it was more difficult than I thought it would to fit in and feel accepted, not because living in the states was a culture shock but rather because I felt like my identity was taken away from me and had others trying to define who I was. I know I am not the only person who has experienced this. There are plenty of other Latino students who move to the states and have to deal with the same bullshit, with questions such as “Do you only eat burritos and beans?,” “Do you know what Thanksgiving is?,” “Why does your voice sound different?” and—my all-time favorite—“Why are you white?”
Asking questions about a culture and a country that you know nothing about is fine; it’s encouraged, actually. I don’t mind if you want to know more about what it’s actually like to live in my island. There’s a thin line between ignorance and racism and some people cross it. They may not realize that these things are racist and offensive, but it’s important to make sure you’re being accepting instead of following cultural stereotypes.
Many of my American friends admitted that they didn’t know much about Puerto Rico. Most of their perceptions of it come from the media, which often portrays Puerto Ricans as trashy, loud, uneducated people who are lazy and party a lot. We are not uneducated nor “Jenny from the block.” My life is not West Side Story. We have American citizenship, we use American dollars, we speak English, and our spelling and grammar is not any worse than a typical American’s. Don’t ask me to speak in an American accent; that’s disrespectful and straight up rude. Don’t use stereotypical words or phrases to describe me such as “sassy Latina,” or “spicy.” It’s definitely not appreciated.
One thing I wish would change is seeing anyone who is foreign as inferior or less educated than you. While it may not be someone’s intention to be hurtful when they ask me to speak in an American accent or having a professor worry about how I am adapting to this new environment and the use of a “different” language, it is important to listen to the person who is talking about their experiences instead of creating your own version of their identity. I am tired of being seen as inferior due to where I am from and being reduced to being seen as the “token Latina” instead of who I am as a student and person.
My experiences in life are not limited to where I am from and my ability to succeed is not defined by it, either. To change this, dialogue about culture is needed. You can ask someone questions about their culture and identity without sounding ignorant. For example, instead of asking me if I know what Thanksgiving is, ask what are some of the Puerto Rican traditions during certain holidays and if they are celebrated in similar ways to those in the states. That way, instead of making the person uncomfortable while discussing their culture, you are having an intelligent, educational discussion.