Most people don’t believe I’m half-Colombian until they meet my mom. With Polish features and a White-sounding last name, I’m White-passing. Despite growing up mostly with my Colombian mother, I have never felt confident enough to even write down “Hispanic/Latino” on a job application. I constantly hear, “Why didn’t your mom teach you Spanish?” or “You don’t look Latina.” I’ve been continuously pulled away from claiming my Hispanic Heritage since I don’t “look” Spanish enough or I don’t speak Spanish fluently. Without these elements, I feel at times that I’m lying about my ethnicity. I’ve been given an identity based on how others perceive me rather than the one my mother gave me.
Since my mom only spoke a little English when I was a kid, she never had the opportunity to teach me Spanish. Living in a predominantly White neighborhood, my mother felt the pressure to learn English fast and assimilate into American culture. She aimed to gain citizenship and navigate a new society that ultimately turned against her for her roots. My sister and I helped her study for her citizenship test and practice her English. Regardless of the language barrier, my mother’s culture has played such a huge role in my life, especially as an adult.
Despite my deep appreciation for Colombian culture, I still have a disconnect with my mother. We are so different despite sharing the same blood. My mother could not finish college due to my grandfather’s beliefs that women shouldn’t be educated. On the other hand, my mom has supported me in pursuing a degree financially and emotionally. She grew up raising her six siblings while juggling school and work, whereas my parents have set me up with resources to succeed. I didn’t have to walk miles to school daily or care for my sister; my mom did her best to let me be a kid. Growing up, I watched men sexualize my mother for being Latina, mock her for having an accent when speaking English, or take advantage of her because she was clearly not from the U.S. Multiple times, my mom has been called a “gold digger” and questioned for loving my American father because “Women in Colombia are only looking for a green card.” The pain and discrimination my mother has endured will continue to anger me, but it has never directly affected me. My White features give me privileges in life that will never allow me to comprehend what my mother and others have gone through. I am privileged by a system I did not establish or desire to be a part of, yet I am still privileged.
These differences have always instilled a certain amount of guilt in me. It’s made me feel like a fraud. I’ve never wanted my Latino friends or family to feel I was taking away the validity of their hardships. However, as I mature, I realize my White-sounding last name or my paleness does not change my heritage. That identifying as Latina involves the duty of supporting and advocating for Hispanic communities regardless of color. To recognize my differences and use my White privilege to combat White supremacy. I choose to listen and amplify Hispanic voices. My appearance does not make me less Latina, but it does if I choose to comply with the society that sees my family as less.
I grew up dancing Bachata, eating sancocho on the hottest days, and waking up to Selena on cleaning days. My mom has always talked to me in Spanish, surrounded me with Colombian music and food, and tried her best to involve her family in the U.S. in our lives. Even then, I was still seen as the gringa who couldn’t speak Spanish, while simultaneously never fully connecting with my American side. When my sister and I didn’t have a dark complexion, my White grandma was relieved. She was ecstatic that we resembled her. The disconnect grew, and I continued to feel uncomfortable: Would she have loved me less if I had darker skin? Being in between identities is a hazy experience. I grew up feeling confused and detached as an individual. When political conversations arise, it’s almost as if individuals choose to disregard my Hispanic background because it’s easier or more comfortable for them to say “build a wall” to someone like me. How can I feel connected to my American Identity if those around me oppose my Latin identity?
This year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, I choose to give myself grace. Growing up with a mixed background can cause you to lose touch with who you are. Finding your identity is not an easy process. Even with everything I’ve said, I’m still trying to figure out who I am. But I’ve learned that heritage is more than language or your skin color. To let go of all the identities people have given you and establish who you are by yourself. I’ll always be incredibly proud to be Latina. I have been forever shaped by the beauty that my Colombian heritage has brought to my life, and that sole appreciation makes me enough.