I still remember being in middle school in rural North Carolina and having one of my best friends tell me, “Marcela, I don’t see you as Mexican. You’re basically a white girl.” I was wearing a baby pink Aeropostale sweater for the third day in a row with a monkey on it and my baby hairs were sprung up and curly despite all of my best efforts to flatten them down. We were sitting in the cafeteria at the “smart girl” (read: white and affluent girl) table and I looked over at the corner table where all of my Latinx peers were speaking Spanglish to one another.
Present day Marcela would have corrected this statement quickly. The social justice educator in me would have jumped out and followed up with a curious, “and what do you mean by that,” knowing very well what she meant by that. She meant, you’re something I can understand. She meant, you do not threaten me. She meant, I am comfortable around you and therefore cannot be like those other people who I fear. I would have made a long speech about how she had been socialized by white supremacy to believe that saying something like that was acceptable.
I would have.
However, young Marcela had not yet developed this awareness. I instead simply smiled and thought to myself, “I have done it! I am not like those Hispanics, I’m different. I belong here.”
Fast forward 15 years, I now work in higher education where I meet students regularly who have stories similar to mine. We were raised to aspire to the elusive American Dream by our families because of what they had sacrificed for us to be here. Unbeknownst to them, we would need to reject our parents’ histories and our own cultura to blend into the educational and professional environments they so wished for us to belong.
You see, to belong to the polished successful world is to not belong in the messiness of biculturalism and bilingualism. Sure, you can turn it on and off between home and school and work. You can say you are just doing what needs to be done and “playing the game,” but code switching as a lifestyle is exhausting. Eventually, we all make a choice. Whether it is to speak less of our native language when at home, or refuse to bring the dinner leftovers to school. As we grew up, we were being coached to assimilate to the “US-ian” ways because to master them was to take a step towards prosperity.
Well, I call bullshit.
I now believe it is time we moved beyond code switching as the answer for how to maintain our Latinidad and also find “triumph” in our careers. I am here now, for all of the young Marcela’s of the world, to say that you do not have to hang your culture at the door in order to earn your seat at the table. You do not have to fear correcting a colleague when they mispronounce your name. And you most definitely do not need to apologize for who you are – ever.
In my family, we greet everyone when we arrive and leave a function. It is at times a long journey around the room where I have to navigate many shades of lipstick and give out countless hugs. I now realize that this ritual was a way to make us and our family members feel recognized and valued in any space. I have now started greeting everyone as I enter my workplace, and not just my colleagues. As is the reality in most offices, the maintenance staff has always looked more like my family tree than upper administration. I challenge you all to learn their names and greet them con gusto every chance you get.
It is time we all start applying Yosso’s (2005) Model of Cultural Wealth to ourselves, and stop thinking that our background is limiting us from opportunities. Our culture and experiences provide us with undeniable access to so many forms of wealth worth more than any dollar amount. We are dreamers, multilingual, and understand the importance of resistance. We know how to navigate new environments – even when we are the only Latinx person in the room. We come from strong families and put in effort to build connections.
Embracing my Latinidad was one of the greatest gifts I ever gave myself and those around me. I stopped trying to make myself blend into the crowd when I was born a reina, with earrings adorning me to prove it. I no longer accept people’s efforts to erase a crucial piece of my identity. I want to invite all of you to join me because juntxs somos más.
Marcela Torres-Cervantes is a lover of pop culture, black iced coffee, and storytelling. She is a first-generation Mexicana Americana working in higher education and proudly living in Durham with her mostly mute cat.