On Learning to be Latinx

¡Matamama! my cousin had called me. I had to ask Tía what it meant. Mother killer is the literal translation, but there is no equivalent in Spanish. In common usage, it refers to a traitor, someone who believes that another country or its ways are better than their own. I had just called the sweet, multi-colored bread I bought at my local supermercado by its Mexican name—concha, shell—rather than the Nicaraguan word—cosa de horno, [a] thing of the oven. She was joking of course, but the word struck something deep inside me. A word that was purely Nicaraguan for a girl who was not, a girl whose tongue that should have been split between two languages, but had long since forgotten how to ask for pan dulce.

Growing up, I was not familiar with terms like Latinx, Hispanic, or mestizo. But the borders of my mind were not yet so well-defined. From my urban daycare, I saw my family, and thus myself, as simply one of many tiny units that made up New Orleans. There were only those who spoke Spanish, and those who did not. There was my sister and me, and the rest of the world. We knew instinctively that Spanish was meant for inside the home, to be saved like your best clothing for family. For me, Nicaragua was nothing more than a series of images: the mouths of banana flowers curling like dragons, beach sand kicked up by the tires of my cousins’ motorcycles, the green backside of a volcano.

Two indigenous gorditas perched on a windowsill. A folklorico painting of a village, with mountains like mangos at its back, hung on the wall by the back door. A wobbling clay turtle. There was no need to hold close any of this to my heart, not yet. And then the hurricane came.

As people’s homes were swept into the Gulf or deposited in ditches like toys, for me the most lasting impact of Hurricane Katrina would be losing my Spanish. We had moved temporarily to the safety of Dallas, to join my father’s family. I knew they were people who did not speak Spanish. As they watched my sister and I speak strange words to our mother, they feared the Spanish words coming into our brains would crowd out the English. My mother was asked to stop speaking Spanish to us, and by the time my tías came to visit six months later, we had adapted so well to the change that we had forgotten not just the language, but the fact that we had ever been fluent at all.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, six months after the storm I returned to a city more divided than ever. In a city with some of the worst public schools in the nation, private, Catholic schools were abundant and relatively affordable option for middle-class families. And suddenly, that demographic had been obliterated. It is an unspoken fact that due to unjust housing policies that placed people of color in areas much more vulnerable to flooding, Katrina washed away the black middle-class. But all it takes is a simple Google. Article after article discusses how this demographic was largely “left behind” or “swept behind,” but this language cannot convey the void it left in the city. When I returned to my suburban Catholic school, I found myself more isolated from my culture than ever before. I was one of five students of color in the entire school, and the only Latino aside from my twin sister. It was there that I was made to become painfully aware of the fact that I was different. Few people were openly hostile, but I simply could not connect with my peers. We ate different foods, watched different TV shows and listened to different music. We played different games and with different toys. I could not afford to have the toys that they did. And while we spoke the same language, it was of different brand. In high school I would undergo the task of relearning Spanish, and would eventually reach a greater deal of fluency and pride that I had held before, but until then I had no identity. My cultural knowledge had been locked away from me, frozen in the time before the hurricane. I became a matamama to survive, both ashamed of my heritage and my inability to connect with it. And so I escaped into literature.  

I never did find myself in a book because I was looking for a girl who used Nicaraguan words like “chavala” and “chunche,” wore chanclas, and dreamed about the day she would be old enough to use a machete to cut banana leaves for her abuela’s nacatamales. But I’ll never forget the exceptions that came close: Esperanza Rising. Tomas and the Library Lady. “Eleven,” by Sandra Cisneros. Piopolo and the Roof Dogs. Carlos and the Skunk. I could not find myself in these because these were Mexican stories, or Honduran, or Guatemalan, or Cuban, and I was Nicaraguan. I did not know yet about latinidad—the thing that held us all together, that attracted one another when we were away, away from our countries and communities.

The first time I heard the word was latino was on a documentary on television. I’m proud to be Latino, a girl said, smiling. Images of panderías and murals flashed across the screen. She didn’t say Mexican or Cuban or Honduran. Not Dominican, Ecuadorian, or even Nicaraguan. I knew that the documentary was contrived, but somewhere in there were the sounds I had forgotten how to make, the smell of birthday party food in backyards of cousins you barely knew and people who knew that yucca was not just a desert plant for poetry but food, best paired with caldo or chicharron. I don’t remember when exactly I began to use the word to identify myself, but it planted something. Deep within, something was beginning to stir. And when my cousin called me matamama, that something burst open.

At first it stung. All my life I had struggled with my latinidad. In elementary school it isolated me, but on outside, I was isolated from it. The word became both a curse and a wake-up call; I felt I had failed myself and my family, but I realized the only way to move past it was to accept all parts of my identity. Only I had the power to define my own identity, and whether or not it was something I wanted. No, I told her, no soy una matamama.   


Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5