While spending some quality time with two good friends of mine the other day I was confronted with a rather odd exchange. My friend, Erika, told my new roommate Emilo that he needed to teach me Spanish so I could be a real Latina.
“What?” Emilo said with a disapproving look on his face, “just because she doesn’t speak Spanish does not mean she’s not a Latina.”
“Well, then what else would make her Latina?” Erika responded.
I was silent the whole time. In my gut I wanted to respond, but I didn’t know how. My immediate, fiery reaction (as all my reactions to Erika’s comments tend to be) was, “what do you mean I’m not a Latina! Language is not that only thing that makes someone a Latina/o.” To my surprise though, that didn’t come out of my mouth. Even after Emilo’s comments, I still had little to say. I didn’t know how to respond to the situation, because part of me felt that Erika was right–not so much about the language, but that I was not a Latina.
I have only recently gotten into the habit of calling myself Latina. It is not a term I grew up identifying with nor is it readily written on my face. Within my heritage, yes, I am Latina, but in my encounters in the world and in the classroom I have learned that this term means so much more than where my parents were born; this makes me hesitant to use the term and the ethos it evokes.
Calling and considering myself a Latina is way to mark difference. I always felt that there was something about me, something I had no words for, that was dissonant to the worlds I lived in–and that I there was a group that shared this feeling with me. Calling myself Latina was a way to demand people’s attention of my difference, making public that there was more to me than meets the eye.
Saying Latina to exclude or distinguish myself from the majority was one way I used to term towards ascertaining a better understanding of a distinct self and history, but I also used it as an inclusive term as well. When surrounded by other minorities or marginal groups, I called myself Latina as a sign of shared experience, common ground to share with these ‘othered’ communities. It was a term of inclusion and solidarity.
I’m musing on this subject right now because I am interested in how identity categories are adopted and put to use in articulating the self in accommodation to our environments. Erika’s comment revealed to me the dissonance between what my core internal understanding of who I am is, and the social terms I use to code or mediate my interaction to the outside world. By questioning my ability to call myself Latina, Erika exposed me the fluidity of this identification–the vulnerability and power it contains when it is evoked. Her comment forced me to confront the dichotomous fullness and emptiness of the term.
But then there was Emilo, who immediate salvaged my legitimacy, rising to my defense before I had a moment to think. Yes, she is a Latina! She is. And I want to be. I want to be in agreement with the terms I use to define myself, but I get caught up–worried that my efforts to distinguish myself might be narcissistic at their core rather than genuine in my soul.
A few weeks ago there was an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile. My father called me from a town somewhere between Lima, Peru and Santiago, Chile. He told me that he was fine, leaving his Chilean cell phone number on my voicemail. He spoke to me, as he always does, in broken English.
In my search for knowing better my version of Latina, I came across a blog-post about Chilean poetry that lead me to a list of Chilean poets. From there, my 20 minute internet search of translated poems yielded this one–a poem that found me. It is composed by David Rosenmann-Taub:
On the shipwreck day of my most beautiful boat,
I climbed up to its highest mast
to look at the sea.
There was no sea: there was not even a trace of it:
there was not even the void of that final day.
There was only looking.
I looked at the looking toward the sailing that I
I guess I must still be waiting for the response to Erika’s question to emerge from inside me. Still examining Latina from the outside in, I continue to try it out like a new item of clothing, trying to match it to the rest of my wardrobe in innovative, yet functional ways. So what does it mean to be Latina? Does it mean listening to Ozomatli walking through the intersection of Broad and Market in downtown Newark on a Wednesday night? Or does it mean waking up in a renovated loft in West Oakland on a Tuesday morning and putting on a Simon and Garfunkel record while having tea with my half-Mexican (questionably Latina) EPA-working friend? Can I still be Latina if my automatic reaction to someone speaking to me in Spanish is French? I must still be looking.
In Chile we have learned how to use the metaphor and to weave everything between the lines.
-Catalina Parra, interview with The Brooklyn Rail