In March last year, I attended the Global Student Leadership Summit (GSLS) at the University of Minnesota for the 5th Annual Diversity Abroad Conference. Fortunately, I was nominated for my diligent volunteer service during my semester abroad in Ecuador. Being that I am a am a college senior with no job whilst trying to configure a plan to live in New York City after graduation, I thought, “What’s the harm in attending a leadership summit? Maybe I’ll find some luck in life there.” By the end of my time at the summit, however, I acquired something more profound than scoring a couple of business cards in the hopes of landing an entry-level position. I finally confronted the inexplicable ambiguity I have felt towards my identity all my life and was able to conceptualize who I am not only as an American but also as a person. This conference revealed to me the privilege I have to relish in my uniqueness and live free of the mental prison of classification.
Like many multi-ethnic or mixed race people, I too, have struggled with my identity all of my life. As the daughter of an Afro-American mother and Cuban-American father, I have actively pursued a dual identity as far back as I can remember. That duality was severed though, when my parents separated when I was 9 years old. In effect, I grew up with my Afro-American mother in rural West Virginia, where black culture was the one I was primarily exposed to, and therefore claimed.
Despite my identification with my black culture, my physical characteristics, ethnic name, and metropolitan accent (from where I lived in the suburbs of Maryland), caused me to be ostracized. With my Afro-American friends, I was never considered “black enough.” As a result, I fled to the refuge of my white friends but with them more than anyone, I was reminded that I am not one of them. I had one Mexican-American friend, but our relationship did not ignite a newfound understanding of my Hispanic heritage. We essentially related on the fact that he felt like an ethnic outcast, as did I. By the time I came to New York for college, I moved to the Bronx, where a considerable percentage of students at my school are Hispanic/Latino. Living in a predominantly Hispanic community for the past four years has opened me to my Hispanic heritage by exposing me to its plethora of diverse cultures (chiefly Dominican and Puerto Rican cultures, the two main peoples residing in the Bronx).
However, with this new world came new challenges. Where I was not naturally bilingual like my friends, I could not express myself with ease in my Spanish classes nor in the streets. Moreover, when I spoke Spanish I didn’t have a Caribbean accent so even though I look Latina, my peculiar pronunciation and frequent misunderstanding of phrases caused people to think otherwise. It was the most frustrating experience because I felt like a failure. Resentment would often build in my heart as I asked myself why my father never spoke Spanish in the house, or why my mother had to drag me and my siblings to West Virginia where my dual identity was destroyed. Once again, I was an orphan, lost in the ambiguity of my Americanism.
Despite all this,I did not give up on my quest to understand my heritage. During the spring semester of my junior year, I spent a semester in Guayaquil, Ecuador, participating in a service-learning and language immersion program. Although my family is from Cuba, I could only choose to study in certain South American countries, so I chose Ecuador. Even if Ecuador is not part of my heritage, the opportunity to practice Spanish, live with a host family, study and volunteer there was more than enough for me to get closer to it. Nonetheless, in Ecuador too, I experienced displacement. Being that I am not a natural Spanish-speaker, I felt more like an American. Although I was never ostracized for my lack of knowledge of my Cuban descent, having an American upbringing established more of a line between me and other Latinos, as opposed to the sense of familial acceptance I was searching for.
Now, unlike the other students at GSLS, I did not experience racial issues abroad, and for that I felt guilty—like my experience may have not been as profound. Due to my bi-racial or ambiguous appearance (although I am not biracial ), I was often assumed to be from other South American countries known for their vibrant, racial brews and blends of people, like Colombia, Venezuela, or Brazil. Besides everyone’s assumption of my background, I never necessarily felt my color. At the same time though, I do not remember being exposed to any situations where race was seriously considered, like applying for a job, dealing with the police, or whatever else. If anything, I confronted personal issues at the conference. As I discovered the variety of cultura and linguistic backgrounds that more students came from, the more insecure I became about mine.
For example, I met a girl whose mother is from France and father is from Germany. Somehow, she grew up speaking both of her parents’ native languages in the house, in addition to learning English (from school, of course). I also met another student who is Dominican-American who studied abroad in Brazil. Since she already speaks Spanish, she picked up Portuguese fairly quickly, adding a third language to her belt. Then, there was me, a confused girl who had to go to Ecuador to play “catch up” with her Hispanic heritage at 20 years old. By the last day of the conference, my tolerance with identity, race, ethnicity, nationality, culture or anything that had to do with any sort of classification was done. I wanted nothing to do with it.
It was the second to last block session that saved my sanity on the infinite conversation of identity. The session was titled,“Putting Your Intercultural Competence to Work,” where we explored the meaning of intercultural competence and the different theories related to this idea. During our discussion, the speaker sparked my attention when he brought up the term, ethnorelative, which is when one is comfortable with a variety of standards and customs and has the ability to adapt to an array of interpersonal settings. Ultimately, it is where a person can achieve an identity in another culture in addition to their national and ethnic background. It was through this term that provided me with an understanding to my behavior and emotions but also reflect on how my growth has been hindered for so long. All of these years, I have been chasing the intangible goal of searching for myself in other people’s perceptions of me, whether it’d be straightening my hair in high school to feel a sense of aesthetic congruity with my white girl friends, trying to learn Spanish to develop a palpable connection to a culture I was never adequately exposed to, or forcing myself to listen to more rap music, ponder the colors of my friends, or adjust my accent to prove to myself that I am “black enough.” In the end, I just kept running myself further into the ground, plowing through an abyss of aimless redundancy.
The reality is, as an ethnorelative person, I connect with each culture I encounter and my passions are found in an assortment of cultural avenues. Moreover, despite my frustration with the density of topics we covered about identity, the sessions throughout the summit helped me to finally confront the shadows of my identity that I have been battling for years. Spending those few days hearing the international experiences of other minorities revealed to me the multiplicity of identities we share in this country and that I am essentially not alone in my journey of conceptualization. For the first time, I felt a sense of freedom.
The most important thing I have learned from this journey though, is that before anything, I am a person; a creation; a result of love who fundamentally owes nobody an explanation of what specific blood runs through my veins because I have all types. Secondly, just because I do not necessarily feel fully drawn or narrowed to one culture or feel that I do not fit the objective mold of either of my ethnicities, it does not mean I deny being a woman of color. Being physically, spiritually, artistically, and emotionally associated with a strong, resilient, vivacious race (globally speaking, not just in the US) is something in which I find undeniable and infinite beauty. However, I will not be confined by it, meaning that I will not live by the expectations of what an Afro-American person should look, speak or act like.
I occupy more facets to my life other than my race or ethnicity--I am a traveler, belly dancer, aspiring novelist, short-story writer, avid yogi, language seeker, foodie, wine-taster, and hiker--even though I am not that good at hiking and often end up falling behind the group. The point is, I am who I am--someone who sees myself in whatever I find agreeable and if my beliefs classify me as “other” then that is the box I feel proudest to check. With that said, I will always learn and strive to educate myself and connect with my respective backgrounds but I will no longer allow myself to be enslaved by the pressure to be the manifestation of how my backgrounds are perceived, separately and dually. Above all, my experiences are what compose my selfhood and those I will never stop chasing.