A little, or a lot, about me.

cropped-dsc_13221.jpgMy life was encompassed by the pride I had of being a Latina woman, although then I didn’t know what that meant. Growing up in a predominantly Hispanic/Latino enclave in Newark, NJ I was accustomed to my peers looking like me and speaking the same language I did …except for the handful of Blacks and token Asians. Spanish was my native tongue and seemed to be there when English failed me. The first syllables and enunciations that leaked from my mouth were en Español. At the bodegas, the owners would always treat the Latinos with more respect and friendliness because we were all the same. We were all in the same struggle. Still, I didn’t know what that was either until I got older.

It annoyed me how the white teachers would always mispronounce my name and give it this ugly sound. They made my name sound distasteful and not beautiful. In Spanish it was so poetic and enchanting to me. During my adolescence I always wanted to change my name to a more American name – something simpler. Why couldn’t I just be named Ashley or Jessica? I’ve attended award ceremonies and have had my name mispronounced while the other kids just laughed. It really took a toll on my self-esteem when I was younger. I think my mother caught on because she asked me if I even liked my name. As I gained maturity and lived through more experiences, I realized my name was a part of my cultural identity and gave me this infinite membership to the Latino community. My name is my culture.

It was only in high school where I was exposed to different cultures and ideas. My classmates were from all over the world – Portugal, Spain, China, Brazil, etc. They were the ones who were so nationalist and proud of their countries and didn’t care if they were not culturally American because they had another country they could return to. The way a person looked was important as well. My curly hair was never deemed as beautiful and was a big insecurity of mine for quite some time. They laughed and mocked saying that my hair had African qualities because it was so bad to have associations with Blackness, which I didn’t really understand either. Ever since middle school, I always wanted to straighten my hair and my mom wouldn’t let me. She’d yell at me for trying to damage such beautiful hair. I was so jealous of the people of European descent who inherently came out with straight, uncomplicated hair. As an ethnic person, you don’t know what you’re gonna get in the hair lottery. The way I learned to love my name is the way I learned to love my hair. I couldn’t let these oppressive ideas win.

As a child, I was ignorant and felt safe in my little, Latino bubble. This bubble would also deem me as un-American, whatever American meant anyway. My entire life I struggled with my identity, as do many immigrants or the products of immigrants. Siempre estaba confudida.[1] I was born here… in the United States. But even if I wasn’t, if I was born in Puerto Rico like my parents, I would still technically be born in the United States. That’s the more confusing thing though. Puerto Ricans are only Americans when it’s convenient, and then we’re ‘foreigners’ when it’s convenient too. Although we have automatic citizenship in the United States, it does not mean we do not encounter racism, discrimination, and other forms of oppression. We have suffered here, too.

All immigration experiences are different, though. I learned that throughout the years.  I cannot fathom the statement that a human being is illegal. I didn’t understand the concept of ‘illegal’ and ‘legal’. Those classifications anger me. High school exposed me to a lot of things I didn’t know existed. When my best friend pulled me aside to tell me she was in the process of getting her green card, I was so dumbfounded. She explained it all to me. I was confused because I could never consider her illegal or have her deported one day. Her parents arrived here legally with working visas and overstayed their time here. My parents just caught a plane here and were fine never worrying about deportation or trouble with employment that required a social security number.

Before I entered high school and learned about different cultures, identities, and immigration experiences, I went to Puerto Rico for the summer. I was so excited to be with the people I proudly associated myself with and was ready for what Americans portrayed Puerto Rico as on the television and internet. When I arrived in my mom’s barrio, I couldn’t help but notice all the poverty. Now I understood why people left such a beautiful island, what is deemed as paradise by tourists. It was a great summer and I left with the label – gringa. It upset me that my cousins would label me as white and American when I was like them. Damn my extremely light skin when all my cousins were caramelized by the sun. I’M PUERTO RICAN damn it! They weren’t only referring to my skin color though. It was this other language I had, my style of dress, my materialism, and “wealth”. I was obviously not wealthy but they really believed I was because of my Americanness.

That’s when it hit me – I was neither one nor the other. I was both. I was a part of this assimilated group of people that classified with two cultures…two identities. As I got older, the more I embraced this dual identity. It was sorta empowering to pick and choose when I would be more of one or the other. In certain situations I could pretend I didn’t speak Spanish to benefit me or I could utilize my Spanish and pretend I didn’t know English. It’s like the characters in “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” utilizing English in the Dominican Republic to gain respect and power.

The immigration process is a difficult thing to understand, especially since people like me do not have first-hand experience. I’m just a byproduct of immigration. Every group goes through a different process and no migration process is alike. One thing I do know for sure is that we all struggle here somehow trying to strive towards that American dream. We are all trying to do better than what our ‘homes’ can give us. I have done my share of assimilation and picking with cultural traditions I want to follow according to the day or event. My name is Keishla, pronounced Kay-shla. Let your tongue let go of the L gently, not abruptly. I am a light-skinned Latina woman with curly ass hair that throws people off. They sometimes think I’m Greek or Spanish or Lebanese. I say I’m not either one of those things…I am a Puerto Rican woman from New Jersey. So, maybe, just maybe, identity shouldn’t be as problematic and self-conscious as we make it. Instead of struggling to choose one, maybe we should choose both because in reality we are neither here or there. “Mi corazon esta ni aqui ni alla”.

[1] Translation: I was always confused.

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