A Little Respect, OK?
By Nilki Benitez
I was born and raised in the United States. When I started to come of age, probably a few years shy of my Quinceañera, I began to realize the gift of heritage. With my shoulders back and my chin up, I proudly announced “Colombia!” to the ubiquitous question: “And where are you from?”
I think you can probably imagine the reaction I would get, and the comments I would hear in response when my parents were asked the same question. You can probably also see how a young girl raised in the D.A.R.E. anti-drug campaign, eager to be accepted, not so eager to be associated with bad things, could slowly start to reply to that question a little more quietly and hesitantly, a little less proud.
Although things have changed throughout my life –and there are many more things associated with Colombia today than there were in the 1980s (thank you Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Shakira!) – there has been relatively little change in the response people have when they hear me say I’m “from” Colombia.
When I was young I used to hate it when my mother would slam into people for making the drug joke. I mean, they were just trying to be friendly, relate with us, you know, have a good laugh, ha ha, right? It was humiliating to see their embarrassed faces as they stood corrected. I mean, full-grown adults looking like sheepish children regañados. Even worse was when the perpetrator would try to defend the trespass, and what would result could be a heated volley of words in the shoe department, so no new Keds for me.
The thing is, now I’m all grown-up. And thus, I’ve learned, by trial and error, what I can, and what I won’t put up with. After 35 years of being cornered into defending my heritage, time after time, to someone who hasn’t bothered to think before speaking, I, like my mami before me, have had enough!
So, if you will, let me just lay it all out there for those who are inclined to make light of the drug tragedy in Colombia: Making a joke about drugs to someone of Colombian descent, who has endured and suffered through the deaths of thousands, and seen the fear of millions, is equivalent to meeting someone of German descent and hailing Hitler. Seriously, it’s that bad. It’s offensive. It’s painful. It’s not funny. Please, don’t do it.
You wanna talk Colombian flowers, emeralds, music, coffee, literature? You’re on! Just, please, lay off the drug talk.
Now, gente, what are some common things people say regarding your heritage that break your heart (or, make you want to break a bottles over heads…)?
Do you speak up?
How do you feel about being asked where you’re from when you are born and raised in the U.S.? What is your response?
Nilki Benitez, who has a degree in oceanography, splits her time between the East and West coasts. She writes feature-length screenplays as well as short stories, poetry and fiction. Some of this work can be found in her blog Musings. Nilki also is the development director of BlueFlowerMoonDream Productions, the family division of the Los Angeles based production company, Sancocho Entertainment. She is currently developing Allstarz! a show that highlights the philanthropic spirit of school-aged children. Nilki’s also recently launched a blog highlighting all that is beautiful about Colombia and is working on a compilation of interviews with prominent Latinos in the Arts.