I began this journey of finding my identity ten years ago. Newly divorced and in my early forties, I didn’t know where to turn. Everything I believed in was gone. When I looked within there was a void. I had been a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother. I was always something else, but never truly me or never really free. From an early age, I was taught and shown that different was bad. My parents tried to help my siblings and I to assimilate by only speaking English, eating Americanized food, and downplaying our Puerto Rican heritage. Everything whitewashed was encouraged and acceptable. Anything too Latin was bad.
In school I learned my Latin heritage wasn’t a good thing. There was a push to extinguish bilingual education. You were told this is America; you need to learn English to be American. Anything cultural, that made you different was something to be ashamed of. That’s how I felt ten years ago. Then you add being a single, older woman, I felt I had a lot against me. Everything changed when my grandmother died and I went to Puerto Rico to attend her funeral. It was my brother, sister, and I on this journey. I remember being severely depressed and very discouraged. When we landed on the island it was as if something shifted within me. This part in me that was dormant began to wake up. Stepping off of the plane, the air smelled different. The colors were so vivid and bright. The ocean was a gorgeous, cerulean blue. As I was watching it, I began to find peace. My brother said to us, “ It’s like we went from vanilla to chocolate." I visited family I had not seen in years. I heard the music and felt the heart and soul of my people. I saw the island through a different lens and something was born. My grandmother left me a gift. I discovered my roots and began the long journey back to health and happiness. It’s sad what happens in the United States of America. Our slogan is land of the free home of the brave, but is it? On a recent trip to Atlanta with my husband, who is Cuban American, we encountered discrimination against anything different.
We went to a winery and in talking to the host, we expressed how much we loved the natural beauty of Georgia. We told our host it would be nice to have a second home there. The hostess looked at my husband for a minute and said, “You can fit right it honey, if you wore a plaid shirt and jeans-- wore a baseball cap low and spoke none of that Spanish 'Hola' or 'Gracias.' They would think you were a tan redneck.” I saw my husband shrink and I could see the sadness in his eyes. I looked at her in shock. I honestly felt she thought she was trying to help us out because we wanted to be white. We later talked about it and laughed with the uneasiness of realizing racism had just reared it’s ugly head up again. We were told one more time that we needed to deny our heritage to be a true American.
How many cultures have come to America to be told that they had to change who they were to fit in??? There is a freedom in reclaiming your heritage and being proud of who you are. It has made me who I am today. I will never be that bird in a cage again.
It’s time we free the bird.