In 1990, I was born with what took 20 years for my Colombian-born mother to attain—U.S. citizenship. But in my predominantly Latino neighborhood in Queens, New York, where Calle Colombia, or Colombia Street, was just a few blocks away from my house and where I ate pan de queso instead of bagels for breakfast, I didn’t know I was an American. When people asked where I was from, I’d say Colombia even though I’d never been to the country. Some pitied me when they learned this, as if it were a shame the only impression I had of Colombia was my neighborhood storefronts draped in banderas and smelling like cilantro and beans. I wondered if what I knew of Colombia was as limited a representation of the country as the New York, New York Hotel in Las Vegas is of New York City—in other words, a spectacle.
I was the only Latinx person.
I applied for a Fulbright teaching position in Colombia my senior year in college, and when I received the email announcing my acceptance, I was so excited that I cried. However, I became disappointed when I saw the names of the other accepted students. There were 30 names on the list, and from what I could tell I was the only Latinx person. My previous study abroad experience with white people, when I was a junior in college, was not ideal. I traveled to South Africa with girls who, before they got off the plane, announced they were looking for “black boyfriends” and sported blond cornrows our second week in Cape Town.
I was pleasantly surprised, initially, when I arrived in Medellín, Colombia, and met the other Fulbrights. In the three days of orientation, I didn’t hear jokes about Colombia’s reputation for drug trafficking or comments about Latina women as “hot and spicy.” I might have been the only Latinx student in the program, but at that moment I appreciated that my white peers weren’t displaying bigoted attitudes and behaviors. Still, I was less interested in making friends with them. Six months into my Fulbright grant, I made a solid group of friends from Medellín, people who graciously took me into their homes, served me meals, taught me to speak better Spanish, and provided real friendship on days that otherwise would have been intolerably lonely.
I was blown away when one of my travel companions called Colombian women “vain” and “brainless.”
But none of my new friends had the time or interest to take the touristy, backpacking trips I wanted to do. A few months before my grant ended, I resorted to contacting two other Fulbright students. After months of thinking in Spanish, I was relieved to meet up with them and finally laugh again at English jokes. Although the more time I spent around them, the more annoyed I became, especially because everyone was so nice and welcoming to them, almost as if they were famous.
First, there were the complaints, which I ignored. For example, when Colombian folk songs (called vallenatos) played on the radio, one person commented, “Vallenatos suck.” If there were only beans to eat for a meal, they would say “Colombian food is the worst.” Then the stereotypes began. When the van that took us on rafting trips arrived late, they remarked, “Tipica Colombians”—typical Colombians. I was blown away when one of my travel companions, Eric, called Colombian women “vain” and “brainless.”
I couldn’t join in on the Colombia-bashing, especially because so much of it felt like home. Vallenatos reminded me of my grandfather. Eating beans made me think of my mom’s dinners. Because I was so far away from the people I loved, these things filled me with nostalgia, not loathing.
They had never taught me Spanish because they feared it would put me at risk of being ostracized.
After a few weeks of traveling together, we departed to our assigned cities but remained in touch. Eventually, we returned to the States. Shortly after, Eric contacted me to say he was visiting New York City for the first time, and asked if he could stay with me. I was still living with my parents, and even though I was hesitant, I felt obligated to say yes—after all, since I never confronted him about his offensive comments, we hadn’t left off on bad terms. But when the time came to pick him up from the airport, it dawned on me that Eric would be meeting my family—a Colombian family that did “typical” Colombian things.
On the night Eric arrived, my parents were having a party. He was met with Spanglish praise when he used my family’s native tongue. “He speaks Spanish perfectly,” my mother commented three times. “It’s amazing he chose to live in Colombia for a year!” my cousin exclaimed. Someone asked him, for the fourth time, how he learned Spanish so well. And just like in Colombia, Eric became the blue-eyed, blond-haired celebrity gringo all over again. I was livid; they didn’t know what he really thought about them.
When I told my mother the next morning that he’d referred to Colombian women as brainless, she laughingly responded, “He seems nice to me.”
After Eric left, I tried to figure out why my parents’ warm embrace of him had made me so angry. They had never taught me Spanish because they feared it would put me at risk of being ostracized, the same way they had been ostracized for being unable to speak English as children. This meant that like Eric, I struggled to learn Spanish and make friends in a country I’d never been to. But it was Eric who impressed them, not me. In Eric’s presence, it was as if my parents became children again, longing for acceptance from white schoolmates who teased them for having unpronounceable Latino names. Finally, they seemed to think, a white person was able to pronounce all the words of their first language the right way.
I am more discerning than my parents are of white people my age.
But for me, a first-generation Latina who has been to parties where frat boys dressed in sombreros and others in Border Patrol outfits, I am more discerning than my parents are of white people my age, who may not be as overtly racist as the people my parents remember during the 1960s and ’70s. I had heard the nasty things Eric said about Colombia and the people who lived there. I couldn’t help but think that what Eric was doing to my parents was “Hispandering”—a tactic that includes speaking Spanish to win over Latino voters, and used by everyone from George W. Bush to, more recently, Tim Kaine. These important white men, our representatives, rely on the assumption that Latinos will construe speaking their language as caring about them, but, of course, it isn’t that simple.
Even though I am a citizen of only the United States, I’ve spent my whole life identifying as Colombian American, and I always check the “Hispanic” or “Latina” box on forms with ethnic inquiries. When I showed my college professor my Fulbright application, he dissuaded me from mentioning my ethnicity. I was baffled at the time, but it makes sense to me now. For people like Eric, speaking Spanish is seen as a virtue; but for Latinos, it’s seen as proof that we don’t belong in the U.S. and might not deserve to be here.
In order for people of color to exist in this country, we are often forced to denounce parts of our identities.
At the time I was applying for my Fulbright, there was a debate in Arizona about teaching Mexican culture in schools with predominantly Mexican American students; white legislators had deemed the classes “anti-American.” How could I be a Fulbright ambassador for the U.S. if being pro-Colombian made me anti-American?
In order for people of color to exist in this country—and to be seen as fully American—we are often forced to denounce parts of our identities. That might explain why my mother hadn’t been back to Colombia in 42 years. When I refused to come home for Christmas during my Fulbright, I knew I was giving her no other choice but to return. Since then, she’s visited the country three times, and I don’t think her becoming a prouder Colombian has made her any less of a proud American. When I ask her where she would rather live, she still says, “Here in New York! Are you crazy?”
I would imagine many, if not most, immigrants feel the same as my mother—that the U.S. cities where they live are the only places they call home. Some assimilate by distancing themselves from their countries of birth, changing their names, or giving up their languages out of fear of stigmatization. At a time when hostility toward immigrants is rampant, it’s up to my generation to reject the concept of the authentic American as someone who looks and sounds white. The U.S. is not one homogeneous identity—it’s a place of our making. It’s a place we can make better for everyone, if we are free to embrace all aspects of our identities and live authentically as ourselves.