Earlier this month I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Latism conference held in Chicago. Latism simply stated, is the largest organization of Latinos in Social Media transcending not only borders but more importantly uniting all Latino cultures. A challenge we as Hispanics know is not easy to do. And therein lies the beauty of Latism, our rich culture and determined efforts to improve the lives of all Latinos and subsequently the entire nation.
Interestingly enough, I found myself getting nervous as the conference date drew closer. Sure, I had participated in several #Latism Twitter chats and conversations and even developed a wonderful friendship with Latism’s Chicago representative Elma Placeres Dieppa (@mzelma). Despite my online engagement with the community and friendship with Elma, I still felt like a fish out of water. I’d like to take a moment to provide a little background in an effort to better explain my fears but ultimately what proved to be a wonderful experience on a number of levels.
As a 1st generation American-born Latina of Costa Rican heritage, I never quite felt I truly belonged to either the Costa Rican nor the American culture. I grew up in Queens, NY in a primarily Irish/Italian neighborhood and contact with other Latino kids was practically non-existent. Couple that with Castro’s brilliant decision to load up ships full of “undesirables” around the same time and once again Latinos all over the US were looked down upon as uninvited guests. The fact that we hailed from different parts of not only Latin America but the world and were established citizens of the US for quite some time had no bearing at all as to our valid existence on American soil.
Meanwhile, back in Queens, NY I was a 10 year old girl dark-skinned girl oblivious to what was happening outside of our community let alone on a global scale. I didn’t understand the increasing number of taunts and bullying from the other children telling me to “go back on my banana boat and return to where I came from because I wasn’t wanted in the U.S.” Yes, I was of Costa Rican descent and spoke Spanish fluently but I was born American just like those same kids taunting me. My father had fought in the Vietnam war and swore to defend this country that was now turning it’s back on us. Try to explain to a child the injustices of the world and you’ll find that it just doesn’t compute.
On the other end of the spectrum, practically all of my extended family had since moved to Miami which was obviously changing demographics in record speed as a result of the mass exodus from Cuba. Most of my cousins were born and raised in South Florida and were immediately a part of the growing Latino community. I however, wasn’t exposed day in and day out to this community and was referred to as the “Americanized cousin” when visiting them from NY. Interestingly enough, this dichotomy continued throughout my life. If I said I was American I was given a strange look by Latinos and if I said I was Costa Rican I was given that same strange look from Americans. The result: I never quite felt like I fit in anywhere.
Fast forward to December 11th, 2011, where I’m walking alone into a conference filled with Latino men and women. I honestly didn’t “know” anyone and immediately saw most attendees were already part of a larger group. That and the fact that they spoke Spanish in record speed intimidated the heck out of me. Initially, I made a few attempts to introduce myself to some of the people I had traded tweets with during Latino chat sessions but those moments proved to be more awkward than anything else. I remember deciding to just keep a low profile, observe and learn as much as I could from this seemingly tight-knit group of which I did not belong. Surprisingly enough and much to my delight, I began to see faces of me among the people at the conference. Identifying with others helped me put my guard down a bit and take part in conversations with like-minded individuals. I remember being so thankful for the opportunity to be able to see Latism through a very different lens. Yes, we came from very different backgrounds, our ages ran the full spectrum from young to old and we represented a myriad of Latino culture but ultimately we were/are a community of Latinos determined to make our voices heard and our existence here in our United States known and respected. We want better lives not only for our own families but for all families. And isn’t that in itself part of the American dream?
I am a Latina and an American and I embrace both cultures with open arms and I look forward to the day these cultures will fully embrace me.