How I Became an Unapologetic Latina
I try to play it cool, but I’m actually pretty uptight about routine. I take pride in my commitment to get to the gym at 7:00 am three times a week without fail. My body has acclimated to this schedule and wakes me up at 6:00 which gives me plenty of time and yet I’m always running late.
Last week, I rushed out of my apartment, behind per usual, eyes fixed to my phone screen as I dashed across Spring Street heading north. The city and I both still blinking into full consciousness when I suddenly heard the roaring acceleration of an engine. Before I could reach the sidewalk at the entrance of Vesuvio Playground, I turned to see that the driver of a black Suburban, seconds earlier far in the distance at 6th Ave, had zoomed around the taxi ahead of it in order to slam on his brakes and lean on his horn, inches from my face. I squealed and hopped the two steps separating me from safety. Once out of the road, l looked down at my hands, now trembling, mid ‘Happy Birthday’ text to a friend.
While there were many witnesses only one man stopped. He yelled from across the street, “Are you OK, Miss?” Stunned I faintly replied, “Yes.” “He did that to scare you because he saw you on your phone,” he explained. “Don’t let that ruin your day. You’ll be alright.” He was right, for the most part. I was not physically harmed. I turned and hustled to class unable to stop thinking about how close I came to becoming the catastrophic bystander of a stranger’s misplaced rage.
The El Paso shooter, Patrick W. Crusius, held back nothing when confessing to police his intent to target “Mexicans” when he opened fire in a Texas mall killing 22 people. Before he had driven nearly 11 hours to the U.S.-Mexico border, Crusius published a four-page manifesto declaring his mission to carry out the attack in response to what he called the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
I was born in Texas, but I have no memory of our time living there. I was too young. I’ve been told stories of the promise that the city of San Antonio and the surrounding area held for immigrants, which was why my parents moved there from New Jersey. A death in the family brought us back northeast to where my mom and dad had initially emigrated from Central and South America, respectively. The only home I knew as a child was a small town in N.J. called, Mendham.
I heard the racism lurking in my predominantly white hometown echoed in the voices of my peers at a young age. Despite my efforts to fit in, everything about me stood out. My skin tone, my hair, my attitude, my style, my taste in music (no ola Latina then) my parents, my home, my mother’s car, my father’s accent, my father’s uniform, all these things were different. Where I grew up, each of these things was visibly, audibly, obviously different and therefore, targeted.
By high school, I began seeing Latinxs working in the local pizza shop, landscaping my boyfriend’s yard and babysitting my friend’s younger sister. Most intimately my uncle’s wife, my aunt, was one of the janitors at my school.
One day during social studies class, our teacher led a discussion regarding immigration. In that room, I was the authority on the topic, the only person with first-hand experience and therefore the one most susceptible to attack. The universal topic became focused on Latin American immigrants as students shared their feelings on the changing demographics in town. I interrupted. I scoffed as the teacher allowed the debate to escalate. Finally, a female student, one often the target of ruthless bullying herself said of the recent influx of Latinx migrants, “I feel like they’re invading our town.” I was enraged. I searched the sharpest part of my tongue for every knife I could find and hurled them at her. I was sent to the principal’s office.
Rumors spread quickly about the incident, casting me as the villain. I pleaded my case to every peer, teacher and parent I saw. I needed someone to acknowledge I was right, that I was the victim. To admit these migrants were being used for cheap labor. To understand that they weren’t trespassing, they’d been found. They weren’t siphoning wealth, they were working. Just like my family. Just like my parents. Just like me.
That moment on the street, I felt the same desperation. I wanted the whole world to know what had happened to me. I believed that if my complaint was heard and the injustice acknowledged this would restore my sense of safety. As I prepared a maelstrom of texts to everyone in my contact list recounting my near-death experience, something compelled me to stop. The terror was over and I had not been hurt. My fear would soften its grip on my synapses by focusing on that grounding truth, not by disseminating hysteria.
As I contemplate Latinx Heritage Month this year, I cannot help but feel conflicted. Daily headlines targeting Latinx tear at the connective tissue of my heritage, activating my defenses and triggering past trauma. Likening immigration to an invasion, using that term, is a dog whistle for white supremacists. Its use is insidiously common, reverberating through media reaching our classrooms, coffee breaks and dinner tables. As a child I genuinely assumed this thinking would dissipate, fall shamefully out of fashion, that I and future generations would inherit a more benevolent society. I never imagined I would hear the taunts of my childhood bullies repeated by the president, transcribed into manifesto by a domestic terrorist and witness these craven words manifest into a deadly hate crime.
“Don’t let that ruin your day,” that kind stranger told me the day I was caught in the crosshairs of misplaced rage. For me, being Latinx in America today means practicing this seemingly impossible principle each day. It means that I vow to advocate for those who are victimized, to call out injustice whenever possible and fight for the future I imagined as a child. It means that I will not accept the vitriol of others—that I will not seek redemption for being a hyphenated American—rather I will take equal pride in every aspect of my identity.
Latinx Heritage is about stepping into our power and delighting freely in our joy. It is a commitment to stand firmly in the indisputable truth that we are worthy of attention beyond our stories of sorrow.
A version of this essay originally appeared on Popsugar.com.