Growing up I never really felt secure with my racial or ethnic identity. It wasn’t really on my mind until I was a preteen and issues involving race and politics were discussed more. Descending from a multiracial background, with a Puerto Rican mother and a half-Indian, half-white father, I struggled to find my identity. Seeing other mixed kids only choose one race or ethnicity to stick by increased the pressure from my end.
You would think it would be easy to just identify with what I look like the most. While I am considered more Hispanic by the general public, my family thinks I’m more white. To make matters even more confusing, I have a Punjabi last name. For the longest time, I have always asked myself this: do I listen to society, my loved ones, or my surname?
With this dilemma hanging over me for the past few years, I’ve been trying to learn more about my ethnicities and their respective cultures. Each one has been a delight to learn about, witnessing all of the colors and variations that they have to offer. For now, considering that it’s Hispanic Heritage Month, I would like to share how I am actively integrating myself into my Hispanic culture.
Thinking back to my early childhood, there were some Hispanic influences that I didn’t fully register. With language, my Puerto Rican grandmother always used to dress me up for Disney outings and say “Que linda.” My Venezuelan stepmom also told me simple commands in Spanish, such as “Apaga la luz” (turn off the light) and “Cierra la puerta” (close the door). However, I wasn’t fully taught the language since I didn’t talk a lot as a kid, and my parents weren’t sure if I was retaining anything. Thinking that I was confused with both talking in English and Spanish at the same time, they sealed my fate as a “no sabo kid,” a term used for Hispanic people who don’t know or barely speak the Spanish language.
My surroundings also played a somewhat significant role in bringing out my Hispanic heritage. While I had a wide diet at home, a good portion of it consisted of Caribbean foods: plantains, rice, fish, and more. I also had an exceptional amount of arepas, quesadillas, and empanadas. With media, I watched plenty of “Dora the Explorer” and I projected myself onto every fictional brunette character I saw. I even sneaked a few peeks at some telenovelas, or Latin soap operas, that would occasionally be on in the house, but I never quite understood what was going on.
As I got older, I made more of an effort to immerse myself in my culture. I started taking Spanish classes and learning the language little by little. While my grammar isn’t the best and I don’t know every Spanish vocabulary word, I am now able to understand the general gist of Spanish conversations, which is a huge improvement for me. I always try to practice speaking Spanish with my family, and occasionally at work when I encounter a Spanish-speaking customer. Due to my appearance, I’m frequently asked if I speak Spanish, which I try to respond to honestly, usually saying, “No mucho, pero yo estoy aprendiendo” (not a lot, but I’m learning).
Surprisingly, parties have also been a way for me to embrace my culture. Living in Florida and knowing a lot of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, there’s always a gathering to go to with lots of food, music, and fun. While my dad isn’t Hispanic, he always wants to salsa or bachata with me, which are traditional Hispanic dances. I’ve also attended a handful of quinceaneras, and I was even a dama at one point, a member of the quinceanera court chosen to accompany the party girl throughout the day.
While my journey is still continuing, I have made substantial progress over the years in engaging more with my Hispanic roots. Sure, I’m not fluent in Spanish and I don’t really care to eat beans, but that doesn’t make me any less worthy of embracing my Hispanic culture. With recent attitudes of gatekeeping cultures and “being enough” to participate in said cultures, it’s hard to feel fully comfortable as a mixed person. Despite these hurdles, I will still continue to explore my background and take it all in, as they all have made me the person that I am today.