This week on CNN, there was an interesting segment by Soledad O'Brien. What does it mean to be Latino in America?
I asked myself this question and it was very difficult to come up with a coherent answer.
As a child, I made it clearly known that I was Puerto Rican, "Boriqua", Latina, Hispanic. I took pride in my culture, music, food and customs. Every year, I went to the Puerto Rican Day Parade and waved the Puerto Rican flag. My grandmother would comment, “Nosotros somos ricos hoy,” (We are rich today). It was the one day in which we were economically prosperous since the parade was, and still is, held on Manhattan’s posh Fifth Avenue. Consequently, it was a cultural wealth versus a monetary wealth.
Interestingly, as an adult, I still hold on to my roots but I don't flaunt the fact that I am Latina. I feel that it is one part of me that should be apparent without my having to proclaim, or wear a tee-shirt saying “Boriqua,” that I am Latina. Whether at work, home, on the street or simply shopping in the mall, I know that my ethnic background is a big part of how I perceive myself and also is the critical lens through which I see the world.
A significant part of our identity as Latinos is our food. Food is more than just sustenance to us. Cooking and preparing food is a way for the family to get together, talk, relax and reconnect those strong familial bonds. It is a way for us to feel accepted, loved and comfortable in a safe haven.
I remember visiting my grandmother’s house on the weekends. Novelas, Spanish soap operas, would be blaring from the living room’s television. I could smell the sofrito, adobo, sazon and various other Spanish seasonings, sizzling in the kitchen. The radio in the kitchen would be playing a song where Tito Puente kills it on the drums. My mother would be smoking a cigarette and moving her hips to the rhythm of the music. Kids would be running back and forth in the hallway and some adult would yell at them, threatening a beating. This is just a glimpse of what it means to be Latino in America.
Music is very important to us Latinos also. Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Bolero, Tejano, Reggaeton, the list goes on and on. Our music is the part of our identity that connects us to our ancestors. We are of African, Native American and European descent. The rhythm of the drums links us to our ancestral tribes. Again, it is a way for the family to connect. It is also a way for sending a message. It is part of our sexuality and gives us a release from our every day toils.
Spanish, our language, is another facet of our identity as Latinos. I found it interesting that in the CNN segment, there was an American woman, who felt that all Latinos should learn English. I do not dispute that in order to function in today’s American society, the learning English is essential. However, many of us who are not economically well off, must work. Some Latinos work twelve-hour days and then go home to take care of their families. It is very difficult to find time in the day to learn a new language when providing and caring for the family. The family was considered more important than the individual.
Another interesting issue, which I can closely identify with, is the generational barrier between those who have just immigrated from a predominantly Spanish speaking country and those who are born here in the United States. The CNN segment stated that there is a significant rift between Latino mothers and their daughters. One reason is the language assimilation of the children to that of the American culture. I found that my grandmother and all of her children experienced this same conflict. My mother only spoke Spanish with her mother. My mother would speak English the rest of the time.
There is also our religion, Catholicism, which defines our character. My mother never really pressured me to go to church. At the age of seven, I asked her if I could go Sunday school. I went alone and completed my communion, second of the seven holy sacraments. Next when I was sixteen, I completed my confirmation. My saint name is Catherine. However, as an adult, I broke away from the church. I discovered that the people who attended that particular church were very hypocritical and required my then rebellious adolescent self to conform.
With adulthood and logical reasoning, I “came out” of the closet and told my family that I did not believe in their version of a benevolent God. Well, needless to say that I was a pariah, blasphemer, and every other name they could throw at me. Abuela (Grandma) would start quoting scripture in Spanish. My aunt would scold me and tell me “Don’t say that!” or I would get “You don’t really believe that.” So, I did what every other Latina would do in my case, I lied and said that I was just kidding, that I did believe in the Roman Catholic God. It is very difficult for my family; I will not speak for other Latino families, to consider that there may be a different reason for our existence here in this universe. Perhaps God is really change. Perhaps there is some supernatural force out there that does not care whether we believe in it or not because IT just IS. I don’t know, but as a Hispanic female in a fanatically religious family, I choose not to speak about religion or just disappear whenever the topic comes up.
Will I really ever know what it truly means to be Latino in America? Perhaps not. But I can definitely delineate what it means to be Latino in New York City.