"You’re Latin! Where are you from?” is something I often hear as soon as people notice my thick Spanish accent.
“I’m Mexican,” I respond.
Upon which they ask, “Mexican-American?”
“No, I’m international. Born and raised in Mexico and on a Mexican passport.”
Being Mexican in New York comes with a lot of baggage. This is true coming from any Hispanic country. You are instantly associated with the immigrant discourse, the last subway stops of Spanish-speaking boroughs, and the underground restaurant scene. They tell you, “I know a lot of Mexicans,” but you will never know those Mexicans or what they are like because you do not eat, hear, speak, or feel the same thing that they do. The same is true of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Panameños, etc. We foreign Latin American students will be constantly classified as second-, third-, or fourth-generation immigrants who have settled in New York while being aware that we belong to different worlds. Unable truly to relate to such an association, I initially felt obliged to distance myself from “them.” I clarified that I was a visiting student with a temporary visa. However, with time, I’ve learned to reconsider the immigrant discourse and emotionally attach myself to it.
When I feel homesick, it is the Latino immigrant diversity on campus and in this city that comforts me. I still remember the day I arrived alone at Columbia for International Student Orientation. I was lost, confused, and in desperate need of directions. Upon walking into Hartley Hospitality, I met a few Dominican and Mexican guards willing to lead me to my dorm. The warmth of their Spanish welcome resonated with familiarity. It offered a sense of home away from home and evoked a feeling of protection. Looking back, I must confess it was one of my favorite moments at Columbia, being introduced into a life for the first time through the lens of someone who was familiar with where I came from. I must confess that despite many reasons to complain about it, dinner at John Jay is delightful because I am always greeted by a series of “hola joven” and “buenas noches” from the staff. Similarly, I love swiping into my dorm building to the lyrics and music of Mexican pop singer Luis Miguel that the guard plays, and enjoy discussing enchiladas with classmates who have Mexican heritage.
With time, I have realized that the immigrants in New York keep me from losing a sense of home. They are always so eager to speak to me because they are afraid of losing a heritage that they have been away from for years, decades, or even a lifetime, and are only able to trace it through a distant blood line.
We live in an interconnected multicultural world. However, we are often unwilling to embrace, expose, and discuss the heritage that we share with others. When I finally opened myself to this heritage, I learned a lot more about my own culture and background than I could have ever imagined. The way I see it, the Mexicans I have talked to—whether in the subway or in a Latino Studies class—are so concerned with losing their Aztec heritage that they bring up aspects of Mexican culture that I have almost taken for granted. Through these interactions, I have discovered a new perspective on Diego Rivera´s mural exposition at the Museum of Modern Art, the taste of Jamaica juice, and the struggle of Emiliano Zapata.
Above all, the immigrants in New York have taught me to reconsider the responsibility I have when it comes to immigration discourse. It is because “we”—foreign students pursuing an education abroad—do not work to improve the unemployment rates in our own countries that “they” come to live to the United States. Distancing myself from the immigration issue does nothing to solve the issue. Instead, I find it better to understand their perspective and advocate for immigration issues both in New York and back home.
I do not know if I will eventually try to settle in this country and undergo the same exhausting process of obtaining a green card. If I do, I will become one of “them.” My children will probably grow up as Mexican-Americans, and I will be glad that I sought to open myself and understand the implications of the immigration discourse.
The author is a Columbia College first-year. She is on the executive board of the Columbia Society of International Undergraduate Students and a writer for Nuestras Voces. From Outside In runs alternate Mondays.