The Heat of the Melting Pot

One of America’s greatest strengths is our ability to celebrate the many different cultures that come together and make this country what it is. The diversity of our nation is celebrated and each individual is encouraged to form their own identity around their roots. Yet for some of us, that is easier said than done. 

September 15th to October 15th is National Hispanic Heritage Month. According to the Library of Congress, it is a month that “traditionally honors the cultures and contributions of both Hispanic and Latino Americans as we celebrate heritage rooted in all Latin American countries”. It was begun in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson — who originally designated a week to the celebration — before being expanded to a month by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. For some, this time is a reminder of all the beauty of their cultures and can help to strengthen those bonds. However, some of us are often reminded during this time of our struggles to connect with our roots. 

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I come from Mexican heritage on both sides of my family, all of whom have filled my upbringing with aspects of our culture. Spanish was spoken, traditional foods eaten, and mariachi music played. I cherish my memories of tamales being made by the dozen at Christmas time and monstrous pots of menudo being consumed at get-togethers. Though sometimes, I feel as though it isn’t enough. I cannot speak Spanish fluently — and when I do, it’s with an accent — and I have never visited Mexico. In certain situations, I feel like a fraud, like an outsider to my own culture.

However, I have never felt fully “American”, either. Growing up, I had very few Hispanic friends to share my ethnic experiences with. When asked where I was from, I was met with awkward responses of “no, I mean your family” when I replied with Los Angeles. I couldn’t talk about my family dynamics with my friends who couldn’t relate to the long parties with lots of family members that I always seemed to be attending. My Hispanic origins are obvious with my brown skin, curly hair, and last name Lopez always on display. I am immediately marked as Hispanic by strangers at first glance, some going as far as to ask how long my family has been here. 

My life has been a constant identity struggle from the moment I realized not everyone was brought up the same as me. I’ve often felt as though I am not enough for either side of my identity, and find myself trying to prove myself to both. As said by Edward James Olmos in the 1997 movie Selena about the late Tejano singer, “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!”. That is a feeling that resonates with many Americans trying to find their identities. 

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There is a constant tug of war between our cultures, our home lives feeling very different from our lives out in the world. There is an expectation to assimilate, to blend in with the “normal American” culture. Some individuals end up feeling the need to push aside one in order to feel as though they have found their identities, but this needs to change. We have to put aside our tendencies to hide our first languages and refusal to partake in traditions. 

Some call America a melting pot, but I believe that has a negative connotation. We do not need to blend our cultures to the point where we are not sure what our own cultures really are. Hispanic Heritage Month is a reminder of how beautiful the many cultures celebrated within it are. We each need to take these moments to learn about our roots and recognize them for how incredible they all are. We should not feel embarrassed or ashamed to show off our cultures or feel the need to hide them in order to appear “normal”. America is filled with people of all different backgrounds, each one just as rich and lively as the next. It has been a difficult process, but I’ve learned to love my heritage and incorporate it into my daily life. Once I learned to love myself for who I was, I began to truly appreciate just how amazing being Hispanic is.