My Story: Learning to Embrace My Mexican Identity
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“Ni de Aqui Ni de Alla”
My Story: Learning to Embrace My Mexican Identity
By Karen Anahi Palma-Ramos, HISD teacher and member of Kappa Delta Chi
September comes as a special time in the Latino community, as a time where we celebrate our heritage. A time where we teach our children about the bravery of those who fought for the independence of our respective countries. Though I understand now that I am allowed to revel in the beautiful history of my native country and my duality of culture, which was a gift my parents bestowed upon me when they fought for me to have a better life and traveled away from their home to give me another one, it wasn’t always so clear to me.
GROWING UP IN TWO WORLDS
I was brought to this country at a mere nine months of age. My parents’ greatest gift to me: the gift of our migration. Hailing from Ciudad Juarez, a city known for its rampant femicide and disregard for the law; drug cartels ran free, claiming lives left and right. Even at their youthful prime of 21, my parents knew this life would not do for their first-born baby. They made plans, stripping themselves of their own desires to remain in their country, to seek asylum in a country they knew little to nothing about. With $50 to their name and their infant, they mounted a plane and never looked back. They saved me from the violence that claimed more than 370 women in my hometown from the year 1993, the year before I was born, to 2005, when I was safe in the United States and graduating from 5th grade.
Having lived in Houston for almost the entirety of my life, I learned English concurrently with Spanish. I became my parents’ translator from the time I could read, using my bourgeoning kindergarten vocabulary to explain legal documents and medical summaries, to the best of my ability. My mother and father’s tongues that danced at home with such vibrance, rolling their r’s in Spanish, sounded stilted and forced, attempting to adapt to this new unknown language. I could see the contempt on other adults’ faces, the condescending look they gave us when my parents attempted to communicate in their broken English. How could I explain that those same tongues that stuttered and shied away were the same muscles that read me fables and fairy tales in Spanish each night? That these were the same people who sat me down each evening to do homework with me even if they couldn’t read it, urging me to never stop studying and remember why we emigrated. It was then that I knew that I had to work harder than most, that I would enunciate my syllables to perfection and erase all trace of a foreign accent.
FEELINGS OF TENSION BETWEEN CULTURES
Growing up I was an imposter, the biggest charlatan of all. A mask was applied from the moment I left my house, negating my ethnic background and blending in, always camouflaging. I shed my heritage like an inconvenient second skin, one too uncomfortable for my liking. I felt alienated. I belonged on neither side of the border and yet I belonged to both at the same time. Where was my place in the world? “Speak English” they said as my mother and I communicated in the grocery store, gathering the ingredients for our authentic enchiladas. These same people who boisterously appropriated our food and made it the main attraction of their Tuesday nights, filling their hard corn shells with what no Latino would call a taco. “Go back to Mexico” they said, ignorantly disregarding the fact that Hispanics hail from more than one country; that our heritage is woven from many more cloths. I knew nothing of the land that had birthed me, could not return to a place encumbered by the war of violence and misogyny. Yet here I was, afraid to be myself in a land I looked to for refuge.
I grew up with this cultural duality, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation that burdened me throughout my adolescence, causing me to feel small and shrink to make others comfortable. I felt the need to prove to everyone that I was an American, even if my birth certificate didn’t validate my credentials. I felt envy for my siblings, all of whom had been born in what I saw as the right side of the border. I was stuck in a perpetual state of limbo, having to manifest my colonizer status and validate my existence. I wondered if I’d ever belong.
RETHINKING MY FEELINGS ABOUT IDENTITY
The years passed and I was of age to go to college. The prestigious predominantly white high school which I had attended was traded in for a university swimming with people of different races, creeds, colors and shapes. I was terrified of it. How would I hide my roots now? Being a first-generation Latina in college, I missed the priority registration deadline and got stuck with certain classes I added on to my schedule just because of their availability. Among them was Intro to Mexican American Studies, a class taught by a professor originally from Guadalajara who stood tall and radiated pride. His voice, thick with an accent, commanded the room, and I was in awe. I had seen my whole life how cumbersome our identity as Latinos was, how much better it was to live under the radar. Yet, here was this professor, dressed in his huaraches and his linen guayabera, speaking of our ancestors with such grace and solemnity. I couldn’t help but rethink my entire upbringing. How many times had I shushed my mama when she spoke Spanish in a department store, worried eyes would accuse her? How many times had I told my father not to wear his Mexico jersey, for fear we’d be the victims of prejudice?
I knew then the problem wasn’t my heritage but my inability to embrace it. To love the language that caressed my ears with quiet comfort and the pungent food with its exotic flavors that nourished my body. It took immersing myself in a course I grudgingly enrolled in to see that I was allowed to belong to both countries, that I was allowed to utter both languages with the same amount of respect, that I could wear the colors of my native country much to the chagrin of those who disliked it. I was allowed to fully belong. I graduated from college with the highest honors wearing something I had always feared: a Mexican dress that revealed to the world my ethnicity, screaming my Aztec roots from the top of the ceiling, giving praise to the motherland to whom I owed my life. My huaraches holding steady the feet that were meant to walk two countries, rooted in both.
THIS MONTH AND EVERY MONTH, KNOWING I BELONG
Hispanic Heritage Month allows us the opportunity to partake in celebrations that honor and showcase the vibrant history of all those hailing from Latin America. It shows us we have a place in this country and that belonging to it does not mean disposing of our origins. Hispanic Heritage comes as a reminder for all of us belonging to these countries of passion that there is power in our culture. This month allows us to celebrate the differences that reside within our communities and not hide them and mimic uniformity in order to fit in. For me, the road to acceptance and pride within my culture was one of great strife, only to be transformed into great dignity and fulfillment. Now, as an adult, I celebrate this month with my embroidered cultural garbs, showcasing my native frocks to the 4th graders I teach, showing them that whatever country they hail from, whatever language their tongue dances in, whatever way their hair is worn, whatever shade of the rainbow they are: they belong, both there and here.
Kappa Delta Chi Sorority, Inc. is a Latina founded, 501(c)(7), national sorority which aims to achieve professional development, academic excellence, and graduation of all its members; an organization dedicated to community service to their local university communities with an emphasis on the Hispanic/Latino population.