Growing up in Texas, the one thing that I wanted to get away from was who I am: Latina (mostly). Because I am mixed race, in many ways, I was just like all the other black and Latino people in my community. In a lot of ways, however, I wasn't. I actively tried to widen the gap between me and "them" out of a hatred of my Latino culture—or what I thought was "Latino culture," based on the relatively small sample size of this community and the initial alienating experiences from which I formed my opinions about identity.
Once I got to Columbia, I started to see that the part of me that I shunned for so long was actually something that made me unique on this campus. It was this new appreciation that made me want to identify with a culture that I had only associated with superficially before I came here. This is part of the reason I joined Sabor, and while joining "Columbia's first Latin dance troupe" has greatly improved my quality of life, Sabor has uncovered some things about me and the culture that I'm rediscovering that remind me why I suppressed my identity in the first place.
As far as my experience with Latino and black culture goes, I understand that a hefty prize is placed on "womanly curves." Having a fat ass and big boobs are aspects of beauty that are placed on a pedestal. As a Latina/mixed woman, I feel like a failure for not having these traits. My body aligns more closely with the kinds of traits that are lauded in "white culture," if you can say such a thing even exists. Being tall, very thin, not having an "offensively large" behind or bosom—everything in moderation makes for an accepted "feminine figure." Perhaps it's because of this particular incarnation of twisted beauty ideals that I feel more accepted and more envied by women (or people in general) outside of my ethnicity: I have a bodily privilege that I lack in my own culture.
Sabor is more than generous with its compliments and affirmations to every person on the team, and I'm not saving face when I say it's a really safe and positive environment, but sometimes (by my own projection, perhaps) the kinds of compliments given to girls on the team make me feel like my womanliness is nonexistent because my ass is also. So much attention is paid to just a select few aspects of our bodies. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I disassociated from my culture and put such a high price on gaining acceptance in "white culture": because I—defined by my body—have value there. It has "prestige." I am congratulated for my lack of curves. Why the hell wouldn't I want to distance myself from my Latino heritage in favor of "white culture," if it means saving my precious ego? An ego which has been built on the internalized racism that leads me to put a premium on "white" standards of acceptability and to see anything else as base or backwards by comparison. This perceived rejection of myself (via my body) is just one manifestation of this much broader self-aggression.
My upbringing in a culturally mixed environment has made my assimilation into the Latino community at Columbia fraught with still more insecurities. I didn't grow up speaking Spanish (even though my Puerto Rican mother is fluent). I didn't have a quinceañera, or eat only arroz con gandules and put Adobo on everything. My idea of being Latina was informed by the most prejudiced, misguided, and negative stereotypes and nurtured by a sense of alienation that led me to say,"if this is what my culture is, I don't want it anyways." This disassociation was made easier due to the fact that my heritage was very much secondary to the formation of my identity, but it wasn't so divorced from my life that a family like Sabor couldn't still feel like coming home.
In many ways, I feel like a fraud for picking and choosing when I want to identify based on what is most convenient to me at the time: resenting, then representing, with the flip of a switch. I'm trying to embrace and erase my identity and feeling at odds with myself the whole way through. This fraudulence is only emphasized by the lack of a shared physicality, or language, or other interests and lived experiences. So this is me trying to undo years of internalized racism because being at Columbia forces you to confront yourself, and sometimes what you see turns out to be ugly and complicated and exactly what you were missing.
Chayenne Mia is a Columbia College junior with concentrations in psychology, sociology and ethnic studies. Speaking of Mia runs alternate Wednesdays.
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