I didn’t realize I had lost it until the man next to me asked me where I was going, why, what nationality I was. (if there is a creepy person on a plane, I will somehow manage to sit next to him or her). The scene was a cramped United flight. We were escaping a snowstorm that was going to strand flights that left a few hours after ours.
You speak Spanish?
Yeah, I like the Latin women and the Latin rice.
There it was. A random passenger suddenly reminding me of what I had forgotten over the past semester. Yes, I am Mexican-American. I was returning to our quasi-capital, Los Angeles. Suddenly, I felt the Spanish in my throat. I hadn’t eaten Mexican food in months (food is over-exaggerated as the center of my culture but it does serve as a gauge of the diversity of one’s neighborhood). The masses I had attended had all been in English. I could remember the Russian word for sister but “hermana” eluded my mind; my conversations with my mother had increasingly become harder because I stumbled over Spanish. And above all I felt cold, in that flight, escaping the harsh New England winter, I felt so, so cold.
Misplacing your identity is a common college obstacle. Whenever I read college packing lists, they never mentioned to pack some sign to remind yourself who you really are. The first weeks, you never really know whom you are encountering or whom you are presenting. There’s social posturing, we over emphasize some qualities, omit others: I am quiet, I have never encountered a gay person in my life, I don’t drink, I am X, I am trying to figure what Y means to me. The first month I was reserved, where other people were friendly I was a little standoffish. I didn’t want to scare anyone away (I’m really excited to be here! You’re so cool! I’m kinda scared! I’ve never met anyone who speaks Portuguese!) so I just chose to say nothing.
In the blur of orientation, we want to stand out. We want people to remember our names. As a Mexican-American woman living in Los Angeles, I was assured of my identity. I was a Spanish-speaking Catholic in an area heavily populated by people similar to me. And I could simply look at the food to know where I was. So as a transplant to New England, I suddenly lost a background that I had never been totally aware of, that had supported me. Besides the feelings of alienation and insecurity, I felt superficial. What kind of person relies only on location to identify themselves? What kind of person forgets that whole part of themselves?
After a summer back home, I returned intent on becoming more involved in the school but also rediscovering my “Hispanic” identity. I joined La Causa. It was a way for me to actively reflect who I really was. I had always been insecure in my Mexican culture: I was fair-skinned. I didn’t play soccer. I was reserved. I was a terrible cook. I simply, for the life of me, could not properly roll my rrrrrs, in that seductive Latin way. In the blur of adapting to college life, of becoming a person with the constant presence of my parents and my friends, I had forgotten the part of my identity I felt I lacked the most.
It’s an answer that I will always struggle to define. It’s more than a language, a temporal location, or a large party. Soy Mexicana. I am, I simply am.