For so much of my life, I’ve questioned if I “fit in” with those around me. Not in the standard “in which high school clique do I belong?” kind of way, but more of a “who even am I?” kind of way. My last name, Smith, doesn’t give any indication as to my Colombian heritage. This name could fit with so many different people. But what about my old last name, before I changed it?
The way the r’s roll off the tongue, the way there is natural rhythm to the name, the way you immediately know there is a history, a culture, an identity behind it.
That name, legally my last name up until the summer of 2014, led to many implications—implications that I wasn’t prepared for when I was younger. Implications like, “Oh, so you speak Spanish! How do you say ___?” Or, “Where are you from? No, like where are you from?” These statements always insinuate something, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I was older. It meant people had the inclination to look at me and think that I’m not like them, but instead a part of this vague, “other” group.
Growing up in the suburban Triangle of North Carolina, it could be hard trying to understand who I was. I was often torn between two different sides of myself: the understanding of my cultural heritage, and the very Americanized person I was.
My Colombian family lives all across the world, but mainly in California and Colombia itself. This unfortunately meant I simply didn’t grow up surrounded by this family, and I wasn’t in an environment that lent itself to exploring my family roots.
Instead, I was in the South, where everyone says y’all and debates were frequent over which barbeque is superior. This also meant I grew up in an area where someone like my dad, who has dark tanned skin, is able to get pulled over just because he has a nice car and therefore could be labeled as suspicious. It meant in high school, I got asked if I knew and could sing the Mexican national anthem, in front of many of my peers. It meant I questioned whether or not my chance at being accepted to college was amplified by me checking one little box.
I recently found myself listening to a spoken word poem, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. This poem, “My Spanish” by Melissa Lozada-Oliva, speaks about the internal struggle when asked if you speak Spanish. Her opening lines play over in my mind:
If you ask me if I am fluent in Spanish, I will tell you
My Spanish is an itchy phantom limb:
reaching, for a word and only finding air
I never grew up speaking Spanish. Neither of my parents are native speakers, as the language was lost in the family through generations, through relocations, and through adapting to American life. Yet each time I’ve been asked this question, I almost feel a sense of loss. It’s a longing to have that connection to my heritage … and to feel as if I could then be a Verified Latina™.
I’ve spoken with my friends and family before about my identity crisis, if you will. I’ve always felt as if I don’t truly belong in any group. I’m too White to be considered Latina, but too Latina to be considered White. I don’t fluently speak Spanish, but my olive skin and dark features make me stand out next to my peers. My former last name helped solidify my identity, but once it changed, I felt like I lost who I was.
It’s important to note I did not change my last name because I felt ashamed of it. I was proud to bear the last name Ramirez. In fact, it was a bittersweet decision to change my name, but I ultimately did in favor of unifying my immediate family after my parents got married. This decision weighed heavily on me at the time, as countless thoughts questioning my decision popped into my mind, with one at the center of it all.
Who are you?
If you ask me who I am now, I can give you a couple different options. I can tell you about my educational background, or my professional experiences. I can tell you what lofty goals I have for changing the world, or I can tell you about what I like to do for fun. As far as the Big Question about my identity? I’m still working on that.
It has been hard for me to come to terms with my Latina identity. So many people who have mixed backgrounds struggle with a sense of feeling like they don’t fully belong or that they aren’t enough to matter. What I’ve had to accept is that it honestly doesn’t matter what others say. I know my family. I know from where they’ve come from. I know the love they have for me, for themselves, and for our roots. I am proud of where I come from.
I hold my head high when speaking about my Latina identity. I embrace the journey I’ve been on, full of intricate moments that all created who I am today. I brush off any skepticism of my credibility, because I know who I am.
So, who am I?
I’m a proud young Latina, and I’m never looking back!
Alexandra Smith, 22, is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill where she studied media and journalism, Hispanic linguistics and women and gender studies. She is a passionate advocate for the anti-violence movement and mental health reform, and in her free time, tends to her plants and creates new makeup looks.