It took several trips to Peru, where my abuelita lived in Lima, to truly find self-acceptance and throw any self-doubt caused by those external reactions out the window. Peru is a gold mine (literally, if you know anything about Incan history) of art, culture, and gastronomy, and my mom and dad would make a point to travel around different parts of the country, in addition to spending time with familia in Lima.
It was during these travels that I witnessed countless personality traits and values that were far more common across the Peruvian population than a one-size-fits-all appearance. Looking back, many of these principles were instilled in my upbringing, and I still strive to emulate them regularly in my adult life.
As a light-skinned Latina, I used to feel the need to defend my heritage. While I know better than anyone that there is no single physical trait that defines Latina women, the surprise I was met with when I told my peers and strangers alike that I am 50 percent Puerto Rican and Peruvian made me feel like I had something to prove.
Whether it was overtly speaking Spanish to my parents in public – especially when traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, so everyone around me was aware that I could understand them – or shouting the lyrics to any reggaeton songs that came on while out at bars with my friends, I wanted to nip any third-party uncertainty about my heritage in the bud.
Familia Is Important, No Matter the Distance
Outside of my parents, siblings, and a few cousins, both sides of my family live across different oceans – my mother’s family being in France, and the majority of my dad’s family being in Peru. Abuelita, in particular, lived in Miami until I was about 6 years old, then decided to move back to Lima, where most of my great-aunts, uncles, and a wide assortment of cousins still live to this day. This meant that many birthdays, holidays, and other occasions were spent apart from my paternal grandparents. I learned very quickly about the value of phone calls, handwritten cards, and photo albums – small tokens of expression that brokered proximity, even if Abuelita and I were thousands of miles apart – and that I didn’t necessarily need to be in the same place as someone I loved in order to feel close to them.
This was hugely beneficial when I went away to college and moved away from home after school finished. Any bout of homesickness could quickly be cured with a quick dialing of a number and hearing a family member’s comforting voice on the other end of the line. Being so far away from my grandmother all of those years only made our visits to Peru that much more special, where I could tell her in person about my friends and relationships over alfajores and pan con mantequilla, but it would feel like we hadn’t missed much given the frequency of our phone chats.
Always Dress Up and Show Up
Abuelita was a firm believer in always looking put together. Even in her later years, as her health started to deteriorate and she moved into a nursing home, she’d always take the time to put together an outfit and apply some makeup, completing her look with a spritz of perfume. She took pride in her appearance and encouraged my sister and me to do the same. I think of her often before a big presentation or meeting and appreciate what taking the time to put together an outfit and style my hair and makeup does for my confidence.
On a larger, cultural scale, Peruvians have displayed resilience for thousands of years – if you travel to Cusco, Puno, or Nazca, be prepared to be awestruck by the landscapes and structures that have withstood centuries. The civilizations that created these wonders of the world displayed unequivocal advancement in science, technology, and medicine. On a personal level, both sides of my family emigrated from South America to the United States – my French grandparents first going from France to Argentina, where my mom was born, and my abuelita and abuelito from Peru and Puerto Rico, respectively.
Both sets of grandparents wound up in New York, where my parents were ultimately raised, and while they set off to work and provide a better life for both their families, they held steadfastly to their cultural values and traditions. That allowed my siblings and me to grow up in a multicultural household, fusing an American upbringing with Latinx and French elements. We learned to work hard and create opportunities for ourselves, while always being open-minded and never forgetting our roots.
I feel incredibly lucky for the eye-opening experiences around this amazing country where my family is from. Traveling around Peru has shown me that being Latina is more than a physical trait. It’s my values, my sentiments, and my perspective. Both Abuelita and the people I’ve met along the way inspire me to infuse various Latinx traditions and cultural norms across all aspects of my life, including home, work, food, music, and socializing.
While I may never look like a curvaceous, beautifully bronzed lady in a telenovela, my Latinx culture is an influential part of who I am, and that doesn’t warrant justification or proof to anybody.