“What are you?” Demetrius, my fellow sixth-grade student and keeper of my pre-pubescent anxiety, had asked me randomly one day. It had been a good day because I hadn’t had a panic attack on the school bus that morning. Any day that started out with successfully avoiding a full-fledged anxiety meltdown in my twelve-year-old body was a good fucking day indeed.
I had glanced at him, unsure and nervous. Unsure because I had no idea what he meant, nervous because a person was talking to me.
“Huh?” was my calculated response.
He looked at me like I was as idiotic as I felt. “What are you?” he enunciated each syllable as if that would help me understand. When I didn’t respond, he grew impatient. “Like, are you mixed? You look like you got somethin’ in you.”
I didn’t know how to answer and didn’t really feel like it since earlier that day Demetrius had made fun of my arms, as middle school boys are prone to do to anxious girls. I ignored him, but his question lingered for a bit.
What was I?
I mean, it was easy enough for me to understand. I was mostly Puerto Rican, a little Italian, and a hint of German. The trinity of my blood, what I’d been told forever, what I’d written school projects about in grade school when teachers tried to make six-year-olds understand what things like “heritage” and “culture” meant.
If your middle school experience was anything like mine, it was horrible and terrifying and comparable to an insane asylum. Along with the crazy girls trying to set my hair on fire and my avoiding kissing boys because “I wasn’t ready” (words I said out loud to humans with full conviction), there were the phases.
I went through many of them.
There was my colonial phase, where I begged everyone to call me “Martha” and I wrote all of my school assignments with an inkwell and quill pen (LOL.) There was the phase where I so badly wanted to be Molly Ringwald and forced myself to mimic her handwriting from Sixteen Candles when she’s taking the sex quiz about Jake Ryan. Then there was my faux punk phase, where I dyed my hair black and wore a studded belt and thought pasty-pale, lanky boys were the absolute fucking greatest.
All of these were the phases that I thought made up me. So when Demetrius asked what I was, I didn’t know how to answer. I had shrugged him off but his question resonated in my confused little brain.
That’s the thing about my experience being a second generation Latina. My dad’s first language is Spanish, my Abuela and Abuelo barely speak English, but I was raised in a household where everything was separated and compartmentalized. And it makes sense—my dad was beaten up when he was a kid for being a Latino, so why would he want to teach his children about a culture he was trying to assimilate out of? Being Latina was reserved for when I visited my dad’s family. It wasn’t for any other time because that’s what my dad believed was best.
Fast forward to 26-year-old me and I still feel as confused as ever. Am I allowed to identify with Puerto Rican culture, even though I don’t speak Spanish and I have no idea how to cook my Abuela’s pasteles? My entire relationship with being Puerto Rican has always felt as if I’m on the outside looking in. As if being Latino was this cool club that I could never really be part of. Which is insane, since it’s in my blood, but also it’s not something to be fetishized. It’s not some trendy thing, like wearing thick-rimmed glasses or vintage clothes.
It’s who I am.
It’s why when I heard that Gina Rodriguez was getting a bunch of flak for not being “Latina enough”, I had a very visceral reaction. I panicked. It was me! They were actually talking about me - I’m not Latina enough. But her response was nothing short of perfect:
“You want to tell me I'm not Latino enough? Why don't you stop speaking and look in the mirror and speak to yourself, because you're telling me something that you actually probably feel about yourself. Because hurt people hurt people. ... I am as Latina as they come. And I am not defined by anybody's definition of Latina. I don't actually sit in a definition. I walk in my world, happily and confidently.”
You know what saddens my heart, is when you try and celebrate an accomplishment with those that have helped you achieve it and no matter what, someone, anyone, has something negative to say. Whether it was from the way my toes curled under to the way I typed my spanish. We desire to project our own insecurities and hatred on another. When did we decide social media was for hating, for putting others down rather than lifting them up. I refuse to participate in that kind of world. Before you write a comment today on anyone's picture or anyone's page ask yourself would you want others to say that about yourself? What am I getting out of being mean to another person I have never met? Yesterday I shared my joy for the cover of @peopleenespanol and I was blown away at the immediate hate projected on my page. My question to you today is this, do you know the power you have in this world and do you desire to use it for good? I do. #NoToKeyboardCourageADVERTISEMENT
Ummm, yes. A thousand times yes. I read this and turned into a living praise-hands emoji. Who is anyone to tell me what I am or am not? Who am I to project my insecurities onto others, to assume they’re judging me or hating me or rolling their eyes my way because I don’t speak Spanish? Who am I to feel fear when calling myself a Latina? The fear of people rolling eyes in my direction and shutting me down is stupid because no one is doing that but me.
I am so grateful for women like Gina Rodriguez, who use their voice and their pop culture status to speak up. To show that being Latina in 2016 isn’t the same as it was ten, fifteen, twenty-five years ago. It’s constantly changing and morphing shape and it doesn’t look the same for every person. In fact, the beauty is that it looks different.
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Nina Concepcion is a writer and comedian in Los Angeles. In 2014, she wrote a book of comedic essays, "The Good-ish Girl," which you can buy on Amazon, iTunes & iBooks. She is a performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade, where she is a member of the Harold house team, Zoo Zoo. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram or her website.