My mom never sat me down on her lap to tell me the story of La Llorona. I didn’t grow up fearing El Cucuy, and could have passed Vicente Fernandez on the street, thinking him no different from any other thick-mustached, mariachi-clad eccentric walking by. I thought that meant I wasn’t Latina.
I felt more like those girls in my class who had the pretty blonde hair, blue eyes to match, the ones who brought bologna sandwiches on white bread for lunch. Not the ones with the dark tresses that stood in line to get their free lunches or pulled out aluminumwrapped tamales and enchiladas on off-days.
My maternal grandmother likes to say that our ascendants came over on the Mayflower, like that made us some kind of special. And I thought we were. Sure, my father’s skin was dark, his mom’s darker still, and the generation of great aunts and uncles always made certain to insert some sort of ranchera cassette into the stereo while all the cousins ran around on the grass, trying to diminish the sound with their screams. But those parties were filled with blood-relatives that I didn’t know, strangers I’d see a few times a year to pinch my cheeks and comment on how big I was getting. And, they didn’t speak Spanish, not after those of the older generation were told to sit in corners with dunce caps on their heads, punished for communicating in the language that was not allowed.
For the longest time, I was the color in my family’s photos—my mom and stepdad with their fair skin, my little brother whose stringy hair was practically white. And though I didn’t look like them, with my darker hair and skin, didn’t share their last name, I felt like that on the inside. My great ancestor came over on the Mayflower, I’d tell the kids at school.
But other people noticed I was different. “Where are you from?” “What are you?” And when my brother and I were quarreling in the back seat one day, where all the sibling fights tend to go down, he said: “You’re ugly because you’re brown.” He was too young to remember now having said those words, but I think that’s about when I realized I was not one of those bologna-packing girls.
When I got hooked on Spanish in high school, it wasn’t because I was exploring my roots, trying to make my grandma proud by conversing with her in that language she only spoke at her job sometimes, checking IDs of the parents who’d come to pick up their kids from school. It was a foreign tongue to me, and I liked its sound.
As an undergrad, I was bent on spending time in some other country— Spanishspeaking, but distant, so it’d feel more exotic. And so I went to Spain, lost among conversations I didn’t understand, fueled by the newness of it all. That’s where I met my boyfriend at the time. No, he wasn’t a Spaniard. He was in it for the exchange program, like me. And like me, his great-grandparents were from Mexico. But he was different. His parents declared themselves as “Chicanos,” and even professed about the subject at California State Universities. We left a restaurant once to their comment: “We were the only Mexicans in there.” I hadn’t even noticed.
But I started noticing.
This is about the time I decided to get educated about who I was. It was a gradual process that’s still underway, but small changes began taking place. Spanish changed from “foreign language” to language of my ancestors, one that I sought to learn not only because it sounded nice, but because it was a part of my identity. That was when I took a class entitled Latinos in Education. My professor made me aware of institutional inequality that I didn’t even know existed, like the tracking system. I had been one of those honor students, had believed that I had made it to college because of my own merits—it hadn’t occurred to me that as soon as we start school, we’re organized into reading groups, then college prep classes; and those who are placed into the lesser group right from the beginning, many of whom are Latino, don’t even stand a chance. Not only was this unacceptable, but I suddenly wanted to join this community I had previously taken no part of, to do something about this unfairness we were allowing to slide.
Like I said, this wasn’t an immediate change. I spent a year of college in Mexico shortly after returning from Spain, and didn’t feel pocha, as many American-born Latinas will claim, but rather one hundred percent Gringa. I was an other—dressing differently, unadorned with black eyeliner that all the girls smudged on thickly, using mannerisms that diverged from the norm; to all those I’d met, I didn’t even look Mexican. But something about my adaptability to the lifestyle in Mexico made me feel more Latina at home.
I decided to put my Spanish to use in the classroom, becoming a bilingual kindergarten teacher. My school had created a community of Latina educators, fighting oppression every day simply by teaching in the language that had once been forbidden, by telling our kids that this language their parents spoke at home was beautiful and valuable.
More recently, I’ve undertaken the task of creating characters in children’s books that look like the kids who were in my classroom, books that are distributed in digital format. They feature characters that are strong, adventurous, and proud, because if that’s the age when the tracking begins, that’s the time to draw their attention towards books. My aim is to get them excited about reading, and about seeing someone like themselves on the pages. They shouldn’t have to wait years to be proud of who they are. I want those girls with the enchiladas in their lunch to know that they have so much to offer. It is when they realize this, more than anything, that I know I’ve done something right.