You Think You Know Me?
By Carol Cain
I am a girl from Brooklyn, and am very American in many ways.
Depending on where I am.
In the Dominican Republic, I am “a gringa.”
Here, at home, I am not.
In discovering what I am and am not, both for myself and in the eyes of others, I have developed an awareness, a sensitivity, towards other people’s reactions to me.
I often forget that I have brown skin, and can’t hear the faint accent that slips from my lips when I speak, but even as I walk around not thinking about it, others around me are very much aware, and often help to remind me.
I have, like many Latinos who look like I do, become accustomed to hearing the comments brought about by the perceptions and generalized ideas others have of me.
One of my first memories of becoming aware of these perceptions was during middle school, in an English class, in a school I just entered. I always loved English class. I loved reading and writing and thought it the best hour of my day.
On this one particular day, we were reciting from some required reading we had been assigned a few days before. It seemed that most of my class members had problems pronouncing some of the words correctly. When my turn came up, I recited my piece without flaw and felt very proud of myself. Then, my teacher stopped me as I was heading back to my seat, stood me in front of the class and said to my classroom:
“You should be ashamed of yourselves! Here is Carol, an immigrant, and she was able to recite without fault. Doesn’t it embarrass you that she speaks better English than you who were born in this country?”
I was humiliated. And said nothing. I didn’t explain to him that despite my last name at the time (Alvarez) I too was born in the U.S. I didn’t explain to him that when my mother asked me to speak Spanish, I butchered the language in such a way that she would allow me to stop and finish in English. I didn’t explain to him that the reason I could recite the reading without fault was because I studied and did the work asked of me, and was a good student, not a newly arrived immigrant who miraculously mastered the language overnight.
I didn’t argue, because, at 13, I didn’t see the point. And to this day, more often than not, the minute I walk into a room, I feel the perceptions, the generalizations, are there defining me before I even open my mouth.
Nowadays, I like to use these moments — and there have been many — to educate others about who I am and who we are as Latinos — about our varied backgrounds, beliefs, physical appearances and even accents. And to those who think they know me, this is my message:
There are so many different layers to me as a American-Latina, and as an individual.
There is no one way to define me as a people, as a culture, as a language, or a group.
I come in many shades, from the fairest to the darkest.
My language is colored with a variety of dialects and slang, the sing-song of my spoken word changing to the tune of the mother land that gave birth to my ancestors.
My history is that of the slaves, and the slave owners. For in my past, I am both.
I am Latina, born and raised, though my flag is American, my passport is blue. I’ve danced the Merengue and cried to Jazz tunes. I cook arroz con pollo and enjoy California wine and French brie.
I love my sons in Spanish, though we live in English.
Who I really am probably clashes with the definition of me that you have created for yourself.
I am American-Latina, and there’s so much more to that than what you see in the pages of a book, or show, or magazine.
You think you know me, but you probably have no idea.
Carol Cain, a former publishing and public relations professional with an MBA in international relations, publishes NYCityMama.com.