Are you Hispanic or Latino? It’s a common question asked on almost every single legal document you will ever come across. A question that the world uses to identify and categorize people into statistics of demographics. Not necessarily always in a bad way, but just in a way so that we can even slightly gauge the backgrounds of people, where they come from, and the stories behind their lives that shape people into who they are.
But why did marking “yes” always feel so difficult and confusing to me growing up? I never really knew what category I was supposed to belong to. Was I Hispanic because my parents are? Or was I American because I was born in the United States? These were concepts that my seven-year-old brain could not always wrap my mind around. It was only when I started paying more attention to the people around me in school that I began to gain clarity on the answer to my internal question.
I would look around at my classmates, feeling “too Hispanic” to fully relate to my American friends and “too American” to fully fit into the Latino community. The small words I picked up on from my parent’s Spanglish at home were all that I was familiar with. Tying my hair up into a bun was referred to as a moño, not a hair tie. The little flakes you would get in your hair when your scalp was burnt by the sun at the beach were caspa, not dandruff. And the delicious smell of your mom’s cooking at seven in the morning before school was arepas con queso, not a Pop-Tart — all of which was “too Latin” for my American friends, but not fluent enough in Spanish for my Latino friends.
On one hand, I was consistently made fun of for not being able to fully speak Spanish and for not understanding all the ins-and-outs of my Colombian heritage, but on the other I didn’t relate to my American friends in everyday common cultural normalities. Suddenly, my ethnic background became an aspect of my identity I now had to prove to others that I was worthy of. It was like if I couldn’t say a sentence in Spanish that someone gave me on the spot, I was not a true Latina.
My insecurities extended beyond language, too. My friends at school would all have Lunchables, GoGo squeeZ applesauce pouches, and packaged cheese for lunch, while I would pull out plantain chips and leftover Bandeja Paisa with empanadas from my lunchbox. “What is that smell?” “What the heck are you eating?” “Ewww, that looks weird!” These were the kinds of taunts that surrounded me every day in the school cafeteria. People made me feel bad for being different, for not eating the same stale, bland cafeteria food.
But it only takes one person’s kindness to make a difference. One person that would wonder what I was eating not out of disgust, but out of curiosity. A person who embraces difference, not one who assigns shame to it. My friend Sneha was one of those people. In the third grade, she sat next to me and asked, “Hey, what are you eating? That looks cool.”
Sneha, who is not even of Latin-American descent, shifted my perspective of being a Latina in so many ways in that small moment. On the verge of a major breakdown for not understanding why I could never fully be like the other kids, my worry was put to rest. Sneha made me understand that it was OK to not be completely like the people around you. You don’t have to satisfy anyone’s checkbox for your identity. You can just embrace the fact that you can check several. You can embrace that there are several sides to who you are, and that the reason you feel like you don’t fully belong is that you weren’t meant to be confined to a checkbox. You were meant to be uniquely yourself.
So here goes nothing: My name is Natasha Cuestas. I am the daughter of two immigrant parents from Colombia, South America. A daughter born into a Hispanic heritage but within the confines of the United States. Although my parents are both originally from Colombia, they spent most of their young adult life growing up in the States to raise their children together in a small town named Johns Creek a little ways outside of downtown Atlanta, Georgia. It was an area of much opportunity for our family to grow and thrive.
My family’s heritage has shaped me into the young, brown-haired, brown-eyed, half-speaking, half-just-understanding Spanish daughter that I am today. A daughter not embarrassed of my lack of full immersion into my culture, but a daughter who embraces the opportunities I was given within the gray area.
It has led me here today to encourage all of you who are reading this. If you feel like you fall into a gray area of society, embrace every shade of gray within you. Embrace living in the in-between.