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.
Angelica Ruiz was in middle school when she walked into her neighborhood beauty parlor and assertively handed her hair stylist a printed out picture of who she wanted to be once she exited the salon doors. The image at hand was of Ruiz's then role model-millennial superstar and Hollywood it girl Ashlee Simpson-clad in her trademark jet black hair, razor cut layers and fringe bangs.
Instead of leaving the salon rocking a new rock star do however, Ruiz left with an everlasting realization.
"They were like 'Honey your hair is not going to look like that,'" Ruiz retells.
She was explained that her natural roots, curly and voluminous from her Mexican, Black and Italian background, would never accommodate to Simpson's style. Even if the cut was attempted, Angelica would never turn out looking like Ashlee.
"That always kind of stuck with me," said Ruiz. "That, that is not who I am, that I'm a different person and I can't want to look like [that]."
There are over 50 million people who identify as descending from Latino origin in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center's 2010 Census.
Over half of that amount is made up of Latina women like Ruiz. Unlike the United State's Census Bureau however, Ruiz and like-minded mixed Latinas like her, don't feel as if they are quite so easily categorized through society's eyes.
Society's perception of a Latina, according to freelance artist Kiana Englehaupt, 21, is blonde and buxom.
"[They think] Sofia Vergara. They think Eva Mendes. They think JLo. They think, you know, all these girls that are very, very light, basically look white and have an accent. And a lot of times [others] and I get dismissed as Latina because we're not immediately identifiable."
Englehaupt, whom is Puerto Rican, Black, German and Polish, always related to her Latina identity even if those around her could not quite connect the dots due to her lighter skin combined with her rambunctiously curly head of hair.
"My hair was always such a source of dread for me. People would always like pulling my hair asking, 'Why don't you have bangs? Why don't you look this? Why don't you wear your hair down? Why don't you do this?' you know from all the other little girls and I'm sitting here looking around like 'What's wrong with me?'" said Englehaupt.
The cultural disconnection is not solely felt through only darker skinned Latinas however.
For Cuban-American dance instructor Michelle Rodriguez, 20, her fairer complexion separates her from feeling a part of the Latino community.
"Most times people think I'm some sort of Caucasian-European, and it causes people to look at me differently," said Rodriguez.
"I've come across Hispanics who don't consider me Latina and shun me for not being darker skinned. So at times my skin has made me feel disconnected with my Hispanic community, yet has allowed others to accept me but [only] through a misconception of my ethnicity."
For journalist Nyki Salinas-Duda, 25, who writes almost exclusively about Latin America and it's corresponding social and cultural issues, American society's misperception of Latinas is unquestionable. When asked to describe America's viewpoint on Hispanic women, she responds with a mere eye roll and a laugh, but soon after settles her smile to discuss the subject at hand.
"Right now it's such a hard time to be a person of color," said Salinas-Duda. Similar to Rodriguez, she also feels as if she retains special societal privileges because of her complexion. Salinas-Duda, who is the daughter of a Mexican mother and German and Polish father, refuses to allow her light hair and freckled face to camouflage her culture.
"If you choose to pass as white, you're part of the problem," she adds.
Latinas in a sense, are valued and upheld in parts, whether they're being regarded for their hair, face or body. The overarching stigma that follows Latinas everywhere is the society assigned responsibility of being sexy.
"Men either treat [latinas] as exotic or too brown to talk to-too indigenous looking or too whatever to be sexually attractive. There's a spectrum [of latinas] and society is such a generalist about it. If you're Latina and you're not sexual or overtly sexual then what purpose do you serve?"
According to Kiana Englehaupt though, the days of perceived personalities and sexual stereotypes for Latinas are slowly but surely disappearing due to mixed heritages resulting in ambiguous individuals within the world's Latina population.
"As human beings, the easiest way for us to figure out something about people is to categorize them," said Engelhaupt. "Whether it's how they dress or how they look or their skin color-it helps you know what this person's background is or what they're interested in or what to say or what not to say in front of them, and with so many people being mixed now people are having a hard time categorizing."
"Being able to identify with so many different people simultaneously," Englehaupt said, however, is what makes living such a daily heterogeneous life so rewarding.
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