Throughout my life, I have become subject to fill out paperwork that had often left me puzzled when it comes to checking the box titled ethnicity. From health care forms, standardized testing, and job applications this box is almost always there. There is no class in grade school that teaches you what to check off your parents tell you, or your experiences in society make it clear. In this vignette, I will describe related accounts that have helped me realize what my ethnicity actually is. This paper will also explore the definition of ethnicity and further react to my personal reaction of understanding my ethnicity.
There is a question I have heard countless times from many, “what are you?” Throughout middle school and high school, many of my peers of color would often ask me what I was mixed with. It felt good to not be assumed to be only Hispanic. My mother is fully Puerto Rican and my father is Puerto Rican and African American who spoke only English and considered himself Black. I would often tell others I am Puerto Rican and Black, but sometimes I would respond saying American. I was proud of my families’ origin, but there was a short period of time I liked saying I was American. This was when I lived near Atlanta, GA in 10th-12th grade, where the majority of hispanics were Mexican and peers sometimes assumed I was an immigrant. At this time period in life, it bothered me be assumed an immigrant. I felt it would be easier to say American since I was born in the U.S., than identify with being Boricua(Puerto Rican)or Black. From elementary school until 9th grade, I attended predominantly white schools in Suffolk County, LI, NY. I was looked at as the hispanic girl by peers, even at a young age I could tell society placed a deficit viewpoint on my parents backgrounds, being that we were considered minorities. I was never asked about my background or culture because there were very few around me who resembled my family make up. I think when I moved to Atlanta, and was more accepted into the culture, ethnicity somewhat made sense. If I responded American to my southern peers, I automatically heard, “NO, where are your parents from?” Somehow, in my young teenage brain I put where my parents were from and ethnicity together. This is why I began always responding to “what are you?” with, “Do you mean my nationality or ethnicity?” Although, what really is ethnicity?
Before I can define ethnicity, I will briefly mention race. In my own perspective, race is a socially created construct unfortunately based on skin tone, while ethnicity is a more realistic term. It is more realistic because to define ethnicity, one must take into account many different factors, other than only skin tone. In the article titled, “Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real,” the authors state,
Ethnicity refers to clusters of people who have common culture traits that they distinguish from those of other people. People who share a common language, geographic locale or place of origin, religion, sense of history, traditions, values, beliefs, food habits, and so forth, are perceived, and view themselves as constituting, an ethnic group…(Smedley and Smedley, 2005: 17).
I agree with this definition of ethnicity, but these factors Smedley and Smedley state may or may not truly define one’s ethnicity. This is because one’s cultural practices, language, religious beliefs and traditions can evolve. “…Ethnic groups and ethnicity groups are not fixed, bounded entities; they are open, flexible and subject to change; they are usually self defined…” (Smedley and Smedley, 17). For example a common language can change in an ethnic groups because first, second and third generation children of (im)migrants may be forced to assimilate into English only schools, as I was. Even though the language Spanish was first spoken to me, I am more comfortable speaking in English because all of my schooling was in English. Since my English is stronger I also felt it was easier to respond to my peers that I am American.
Although, when I tell people I am Puerto Rican they may assume I speak Spanish more than English or worse that I speak Spanish incorrectly. In tenth grade I had peers who recognized I was Puerto Rican just by the way I spoke Spanish. They would belittle my Spanish and say how Puerto Ricans cannot speak Spanish correctly. I often thought to myself, “How could I be Hispanic if I couldn’t even speak Spanish correctly?” I grew up responding to my mom in English and spoke Spanglish often. By high school, I became ashamed of my Spanish and looked to “improve” it. I thought I had to speak Spanish correctly to truly be Hispanic, even though I had no immediate family from Spain. I purposely changed my accent, and remember my mother reminding me that I did not have to change my accent for anyone and to be proud of where we were from. Even if I only spoke English she told me I would always be Puerto Rican. She told me the music we listened to like Hector Lavoe, Tito Nieves, Jerry Rivera and the food we made like pasteles, arroz con gandules y pernil is part of being Puerto Rican too. She said, “You can cook these meals and dance like me, certainly you’re Puerto Rican.” She didn’t forget to tell me to be proud of being black either, she would say, “And Daddy’s culture, soul food and jazz what would we be without that?” I was proud to live in home with two different cultures combined, not a mainstream white American lifestyle, even though we were viewed as minorities.
As a young adult I further began to understand my ethnicity, as I made it part of my identity. With my ethnicity I “ …automatically fall into a minority category, and more specifically into the “Hispanic box,” [it has] provided me with a lot of issues to rethink and deal with as to my own identity. “Minority” is by all means an imposed and disempowering label” (Torres, 2004; 127). Being a minority can be frowned upon in American society, due to white supremacy, white privilege and the culture of whites being portrayed in the media as the most influential. When I went to predominantly white schools, I sat at the minority table during lunch. We accepted the label and all those of color sat at this table since we were definitely the minority in that setting. At the time I didn’t mind being labeled a minority because it was nice to be with peers who understood your everyday battle. Now, I believe the word minority is oppressive to people of color, especially since we continually contribute so much to the U.S. society. It is most notable to mention immigrant and slave labor has contributed to the USA being a world power. Also as I am learning in my Puerto Rican and Latino(PRLS) courses, Latinos have contributed to the present day U.S. more than society mentions. We should not be looked as a smaller group, we are a strong people and we are not a minority when looked at globally. Torres mentions in her home country Colombia, being Mestiza was being part the majority (2004; 127). This is true of all Latin American countries, my family in Puerto Rico are also of this mixed make up. This Hispanic(meaning of Spain) box becomes easy to check off for those who come from Latin American descent. Yet, most Latinos have never been to Spain, some of our ancestors are of Spain. Even though in the US Census, Latino is listed, most forms do not list it, as they should. I like calling myself a Latina because, “Latin@s can be black, white, Asian or other,” as I have learned in my PRLS 1001 class. I think this is important to also prove, how race based on skin tone does not make much sense.
These different experiences within encountering my ethnicity have shaped my identity profoundly. I know I am a U.S. born citizen, but I come from parents whose places of origins have deep roots in the African and Latino diasporas. I have become so proud of this as I have entered my college career and learned more about my culture’s histories. It has impacted me to become an activist, a bilingual educator, and this yearning to learn more about a history that was left out of my K-12 studies. I am working on becoming a balanced bilingual, so that I can help other L@tino students become emergent bilinguals. Being proud of my ethnicity has motivated me to want to teach in urban communities and eventually get my PhD in Urban Education. I consider myself not only Latina now, but Afro-Latina because of the deep legacy of African roots in my mother’s homeland and my father being black. Other’s may deny their blackness, but I am proud of my identity, my ethnicity. No matter the boxes society asks us to check off on paperwork, I know who I am, because I define who I am.
Smedley, Audrey, and Brian D. Smedley. “Race As Biology Is Fiction, Racism As A Social Problem Is Real: Anthropological And Historical Perspectives On The Social Construction Of Race.” American Psychologist 60.1 (2005): 16-26. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
Torres, Myriam N. “To The Margins And Back: The High Cost Of Being Latina In “America.” Journal Of Latinos & Education 3.2 (2004): 123-141. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.