My parents got divorced when I was a toddler. I lived with my mother in Queens, yet saw my father regularly and visited la Isla del Encanto over alternating summers and December breaks. My Spanish had an obvious Colombian accent, and I used Colombian idioms.
Yet my mother’s side chided me by pointing out that I looked Puerto Rican. I guess that meant I didn’t look European like most of my mother’s family. My father’s side poked fun at my Colombian expressions and that I didn’t know that “chavos” meant money, “jartera” meant you were full (in Colombian Spanish it denoted boredom), and that “guagua” was a bus. They loved and cared for me, but their comments made me feel like an outsider.
When you’re born to parents from different countries (or in my case, one country and one US territory), who are you? My Puerto Rican father was proud of his heritage, and my Colombian mother spoke of the beautiful country she left behind to migrate to the US. All my cousins were fully one nationality or the other. I was the lone wolf. Although I spoke Spanish until I learned English in public school in Queens, I felt like the gringa who didn’t fit in.
My relatives were oblivious to my hurt feelings. They were joking around. But, as they say, there’s truth in jokes. Why couldn’t they embrace both sides of my ethnicities?
The first time I was asked to choose – was I a Colombiana or a Puertorriqueña? – was when I was in school. I was bused to a majority white school. My schoolmates questioned what I was. To some of the white kids, it all seemed the same. After all, both of my sides were Catholic, Latinx, and spoke Spanish. When I’d return to my predominantly Latinx neighborhood, my Haitian, Colombian, and Chilean friends also asked me to pick a side. I had secretly thought about that question, yet never aloud. Couldn’t I be both?
It wasn’t until college where I met so many other Latinx students struggling with the same identity question that I realized I wasn’t alone. I took African Studies courses and eventually joined a Latina sorority, Latinas Promoviendo Comunidad/Lambda Pi Chi Sorority, Inc. It was then when I realized how lucky I was to be multicultural. I got double the culture, double the history, and double the attitude. I finally felt comfortable in my Colombiana/Puertorriqueña identity (always in alphabetical order). In fact, I became a student activist and helped lead a successful student protest.
Going to college in upstate New York made me bond with other Latinx students. They were Dominican, Ecuadorian, Mexican, and multicultural like me. We connected as first generation students whose parents had come to this country to better their lives. We laughed over the fact that so many of our relatives had insisted on driving us to school and disinfecting our dorm rooms with the cleaner Mistolin. We couldn’t believe we still partook in childhood traditions like leaving grass or hay – most of us in our shoes – on the eve of Three Kings Day. It’s also the day most of us received our presents, not on Christmas. Go figure.
I wish I hadn’t wasted so much energy worrying if I was more Colombiana or more Puertorriqueña. Turns out, I’m a perfect combination. When I meet younger kids who are of mixed Latinx heritage, I tell them they’re lucky to get the best of both cultures. I get tamales and pasteles, aguardiente and rum, and cumbia and salsa. Now I realize I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Over the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to visit both of my parents’ motherlands. These trips were important to me, as I lost both of them in my early 30s. My relatives poked fewer jokes, and I didn’t take the jests so personally. More importantly, I was also able to verbalize how blessed and special I felt to be a Colombiana/Puertorriqueña. And my family heard me.