Am I Latino Enough?

By Yvette Borja (HuffPost Latino Voices)

Growing up in Pacifica, California, a predominantly white suburb of the Bay Area, there was never any question in my mind of whether or not I was Latino. My parents are immigrants from El Salvador who came to this country having little knowledge of English, let alone American culture. As such, unlike the other kids who went to my elementary and middle schools, I spoke Spanish at home, not English, I had a Quinceañera, not a Sweet Sixteen, and I would choose a Tres Leches cake over the standard vanilla and chocolate any day.

Upon coming to Yale as an undergraduate, I was placed into a situation entirely foreign from my childhood experience. On a campus stereotyped as an old-boy’s elitist institution, I found myself in the midst of a Latino community so strong that it prompted a whole new set of questions revolving around a central worry: “Am I Latino enough?”

Strangely, I found myself feeling the need to prove the extent of my Latino identity to other Latinos. There seemed to be a gradient scale ranging from “the ideal Latino” to the “white-washed” Latino. Gaining access to the desired side of the spectrum was simple enough: demonstrate an intimate knowledge of Latino culture, whether that be by dropping a line of Spanish into English conversations or demonstrating your ability to dance salsa in social settings. Conversations surrounding these topics never crossed into a domain other than casual chitchat, but the circumstance of being encouraged to put cultural identity on display for reasons other than natural impulse, seemed bizarre to me. Who was this show being put on for, exactly?

The concept of being “white-washed” is one that has always bothered me. I never quite understood, and still don’t, what it means exactly to be so. Hearing the phrase has always prompted me to ask what was meant by it. I can never get a clear answer. The answer has varied from having to do with socioeconomic status to the way a person dresses, to the way a person speaks. None of these at all encapsulate what it means to be Latino. In the simplest terms, to be Latino, a person must be of Latin-American descent. In my experience, however, I have found that “being Latino” is often based on an outside observer’s own idea of what Latino is. An attempt at reconciling the differences between my elementary school and college experience inevitably led me to wonder whether cultural identity is other-referential, any idea that I was not willing to accept.

For a ‘Latino gradient’ to exist and to have people placed in different stereotypical categories based on this scale does little more than spread exclusivity. In doing so, the spread of Latin-American culture is only hindered. Who has the authority to make such designations, anyway?

In order to continue preserving and celebrating Latin-American culture, all Latinos, regardless of whether or not they fulfill an entirely subjective cultural checklist should be included in the discussion of and promotion of the Latino identity. By creating in-groups and out-groups based on who is Latino and who isn’t, the possibilities for cultural education are limited. To exclude people based on arbitrary designations would do nothing more than to set the Latino community backwards.

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Categories: NGLC Conference

1 reply

  1. Beautiful, Yvette. Great food for thought during the week.

    I believe that the answer to your question and a possible solution to the problem you present lies within each and every Latino and Latina. Even among ourselves – and also within each of our home countries – stereotypes and pre-conceptions abound, e.g., regional and sports rivalries, being from “la capital” vs. from a small city or town, “Caribbeans can’t play fútbol, Andeans can’t play baseball”, etc.

    One way to prove this point is to check the 1,000+ different versions of the “15 Milagros de America Latina” : every time it’s forwarded, it gets modified or “nationally adjusted” by whoever is sending. (One version here:

    15 milagros de Latinoamerica http://bit.ly/q77Mbj

    I believe that having stereotypes or preconceptions is natural and mostly unavoidable; The BIG difference is that as Latinos – here in the US or outside- we have a great talent for laughing at ourselves without hurting racial or ethnic sensibilities; even if it involves a bit of self-deprecation. This latino-borne ability to empathize is one of the greatest resources we have and should be put to full use to share and spread the beauty and breadth of Latino Culture.

    I would like to build on your point that : “In order to continue preserving and celebrating Latin-American culture, all Latinos, regardless […] should be included in the discussion of and promotion of the Latino identity; I would like to include EVERYONE – Latino or not – in the discussion. If we don’t have EVERYONE on the table for sharing our culture, we risk preaching to the choir and will need a couple of generations and a strong and difficult pushback effort, to make up for time lost.

    Have a great week.
    JMA

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