No one really knows just by looking at me that I am Hispanic. Even though I have a caramel complexion with dark, chestnut hair to match, I’ve had my customers at IHOP guess I’m Italian, Lebanese, or even just “white.” It doesn’t help that I don’t practice my Spanish either (lo siento, Profe). I am a most Americanized Puerto Rican and Colombian, but that doesn’t make me any less ethnic than the most cultured Hispanic woman my age.
I used to wake up on Sunday mornings in my cramped two-bedroom apartment to Tito Rojas, Marc Anthony or, my favorite, Juan Luis Guerra blaring through my dad’s prized speakers. My father salsa-danced throughout the living room and would always put my feet onto his to encourage me to learn.
I would only last one song to satisfy him before I got embarrassed and pulled away. I sat and giggled as he serenaded me and moved his hips to the beat. He is still the best dancer I know.
As I got older and realized that I was the only “Spanish” girl in my class, I no longer approved of the salsa. I refused to answer my mother in Spanish when spoken to. I hated when my dad picked me up from school listening to “La Mega!” the fuzzy AM radio station. I hated that Maria Cookies from Goya were packed in my lunch instead of fruit roll-ups.
I wished I had a relationship with my grandparents and I wished they didn’t live thousands of miles away. The only thing I accepted was my mother’s cooking at home: rice, beans, chorizo, and fried plantains. I wanted to be like everybody else, and I resent that about myself now.
Taking Spanish classes throughout high school allowed me to rediscover my roots. I learned the language, but most importantly I dove deeper into the culture I never immersed myself in. The internet let me explore the different genres of Spanish music; bachata, reggaeton, merengue, I loved it all. By sophomore year, I was handing out mix CDs to my track team by popular request. It was finally cool to be a minority.
I was 17 when I traveled to Puerto Rico for the first time. Remodeled two-door sedans with custom speakers sped through the narrow, windy dirt roads that trickled all over the mountainous island.
Beer-bellied men in plastic chairs played games of dominoes in the streets on folding tables while sipping on Coronas. Elderly men in straw hats pushed around blocks of ice and various syrups in carts. “Those are the best snow cones,” my dad told me. “I used to love riding my bike down here to buy one.”
He continued to tell me about other places he rode his bike to, like the beach we were at that day. He fell asleep in the water when he was 12 only to wake up with blisters from the sun and salt. He found coconuts and drank the water inside after cracking them open. The stories were difficult to wrap my head around. I grew up in Salem, N.H. and he was an island boy. And then it hit me.
I didn’t know the first thing about being Hispanic.
The sudden realization was heartbreaking for me. I never felt so out of place in an environment I desperately yearned for. Here I was nearly bragging about my heritage when there was so much more to it. It was a lifestyle. My flight home was long, and quiet in my mind as I mulled over the thought.
Four years later, I’ve never been more proud to tell everybody that my mom was born and raised in Colombia and my dad in Puerto Rico. In a time where the American Dream seems harder to achieve, it has never been more awesome to say that my parents both migrated in the 80s in hopes of a better life. My mom recently told me that she would cross out the last letter in her maiden name on her notebooks because she so desperately wanted to be American. “Astrid River,” it would say. Now, I encourage her to keep it: “Astrid Rivera.”
I’ve never seen two individuals work so hard for not just them, but for my siblings and me. I hope I can make them proud as a Latina journalist. It’s the least I can do for blessing me with a culture and heritage that I will always hold dear to my heart.
Kattey Ortiz can be contacted at email@example.com