As Hispanic Heritage month comes to a close, I reflect on my experience as a Hispanic American and the moment I first realized it was something that set me apart from my peers.
My first day of preschool I didn’t know how to speak English. My parents had rehearsed with me at length how to say “I want to go pee pee.” They didn’t want me to have an accident at school. Apparently, that’s the most important thing to prepare for at preschool. Not, “I’m hungry.” Not “this kid is bullying me.” Not “I want to go home” or “I don’t want to take a nap.’’ Not, ‘’I’m scared,” “uncomfortable” or “I don’t understand what you are saying.’’ Just, “I want to go pee pee.” Bless their hearts they did their best.
I’m guessing I never actually used this phrase because I have a distinct memory of peeing my pants and not being able to express that to the teacher. Luckily I was resourceful and I found a friend named Jessica who seemed to understand Spanish enough to help me tell the teacher that I needed to change my clothes. Never underestimate the capacity for empathy and altruism in very young children. They are perhaps even better at this skill than most adults.
But back to my first day of preschool, rather, my actual first day of school ever. I remember understanding many things despite not knowing the language. This may be due to the way we process memory. It’s possible at the time I didn’t understand English but as I learned the language my brain has somehow filled in the gaps to the point where my memory tells me I understand what happened.
For example, I remember not understanding the point of the Pledge of Allegiance. I often wonder if Anglo-American kids even understand the concept of the Pledge of Allegiance when they are in preschool. I sat on the floor clutching my naptime pillow and blanket. They made me feel safe in this unfamiliar setting. Just when I started to relax, the teacher asked me to stand up. “No. No thanks I’m good where I am” I somehow communicated. But she wasn’t taking no for an answer. As the teacher grabbed my hand and motioned me to stand up, I quickly understood that this activity wasn’t optional. And I was not happy about having my comfort disrupted. If I’d had a larger vocabulary at the time I probably would have been thinking “Why the fuck do I have to stand up for this shit? I was perfectly fine sitting down with my pillow and blanky. Also I wasn’t bothering anyone, but now you’re bothering me.”
As a kid, we’re conditioned to do what grown ups tell us to do because that’s just the way it is. It took me a long time to understand the purpose of this ritual of standing in front of the American flag with my hand over my heart mumbling things that made no sense to me.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America” got it. We live in America and we’re supposed to be proud.
“And to the Republic for which it stands…” What’s ‘the republic’’? And there’s a witch I guess? I can see her standing on the edge of a cliff with her black dress, black and white striped stockings, pointy hat and purple hair….on top of ‘the republic’ which must be what’s below the cliff.
“One nation under God..” Oh I see! The republic is the nation that’s underneath God because God is in the sky and God is big. So…still not sure why there’s a witch, but she must be standing somewhere underneath God too.
“Indivisible…” That makes sense. God is invisible. I’ve never seen God. So that checks out.
“With liberty and justice for all!” Everyone’s sure excited when they say this, so these must be good things that we all get to have. Also we’re done! I can sit down now.
Looking back, I realize it was my first amendment right to stay seated with my nap time blanket and pillow and not have to salute the flag, but that’s not something that’s convenient for authorities to tell you. Or maybe the authority figures weren’t aware of it being a choice.
At the very least schools could have taken into consideration teaching the concept of the pledge to pre-schoolers to help them understand why they would want to show a display of patriotism, instead of teaching them to recite it “because that’s just what we do” and have them later understand why.
All this, to say that my experience of being Hispanic in American culture was smothered by the need to fit into a white society. I didn’t have any representation of non-white Hispanics in my life. I grew up in a Latin American household but I’m white. 66% European ancestry according to 23andMe and only 12% Native American. My parents are white. Most of my grandparents were white. Our close family friends who are from Argentina, and speak with a different dialect are even more white looking than myself and my family. As a people pleaser I wanted to succeed in school so I looked to white people for social cues on how to behave, think, and feel. Perhaps I looked to white people because I saw myself in them. Had my skin been darker or that of my parents I would have gravitated to people who looked like me and those in my circle.
Had this been the case maybe I would have felt a little more Hispanic than what I felt growing up.
I’m painfully aware that, in many ways, I grew up with white privilege. None of my friends had any idea that I was Hispanic until they heard me speak Spanish to my parents on the phone for the first time. I secretly delighted in their shock because I felt superior in some way that I spoke an additional language. I had something special that set me apart from them. I could be different without the repercussions that often come with being different.
At the same time being raised with Hispanic values meant I couldn’t spend the night at friends’ houses, my parents had to meet my friends’ parents, I couldn’t have boyfriends, and we ate different food. When my friends came over and didn’t make an effort to say “hi” to my parents they would tell me how rude that friend was and scoff at American values, all the while not considering that perhaps it was that child’s family that didn’t teach them those social rules of engagement.
My childhood relationships were always challenging and I was often viewed as weird. I tried so hard to fit into American culture never knowing that if I’d had Hispanic friends I may have felt more comfortable. Instead I was caught between worlds. I suppose that, because people thought I was white American, I attracted white friends and not Hispanic ones. Or maybe the other white Hispanics were having the same isolated experience and we somehow missed each other. It wasn’t until my last year of highschool, when I took a Spanish for Spanish Speakers class to fulfill my language requirement (thinking it would be an easy “A”), that I actually started to develop relationships with other people who grew up in a household with similar values as mine. I had deep regrets for not discovering this sooner.
After graduating highschool I went to live in Colombia with my aunt and grandma for a year. It was here that I got clarity about all the different shades of Hispanic that existed. Colombia certainly doesn’t pass for being an inclusive society, in fact there is a visible division of race and social class in the country, but I was finally able to get a better understanding of my background and normalize my thoughts, feelings and the experience of how I was raised. The funny thing is, that I also discovered just how American I was when compared to my Colombian peers. So I learned to create balance between my Hispanic heritage and my American upbringing.
Today California’s largest ethnic group is Hispanic. If I was school aged today my experience might have been completely different, but this is something I will never know. I can only hope that when I have children of my own I can take what I’ve learned and teach them about the rich background they have, how their differences might create a challenge, and how it will give them an edge in society.
And I will definitely make sure that they understand that if they feel safe sitting on the floor with their blanket and pillow, that they are allowed to say “No” to anything that feels like it’s forcing them away from their safety.