By Badassery member Monica Rivera, podcaster, Bronx native, marketer and proud Latina, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Clang, clang-clang-clang, clang, clang-clang….
“Dad, I’m sleeping! Lower the music!”
“Monica, wake up. You gotta come hear this.”
Latin music continues
This was the ritual. Every Saturday morning my dad would wake up the apartment, and what felt like the whole damn building, blasting salsa music and banging on his cowbell.
Clang, clang-clang-clang, clang, clang-clang….
Under protest, I’d groggily get out of bed, rubbing my hands across my eyes and walk to the living room to find my dad dancing and tapping a wooden stick rhythmically against the cowbell afixed to his timables (shallow single-headed drums). No, my father did not play in a band, but he was certainly ready if opportunity knocked. Song after song my father would try his hardest to get me to fall in love with the music. He’d highlight the horn section, share the history behind the musicians, explain the sounds’ origins, but try as he might, Latin music just wasn’t my thing. I couldn’t feel the music like he did.
My jam was R&B; you could thank my mother for that. We’d drive to the supermarket in her silver Chrysler, windows rolled down, listening to The Whispers, Bobby Brown, and Babyface. We would sing, loudly and badly, about lost love, earned love and unrequited love. With my friends and in my neighborhood, hip-hop was preferred. Movies like Breakin’ and Krush Groove had us convinced that we’d one day pop-and-lock our way to greatness.
What I didn't know at the time was that my neighborhood, while full of brown and black people was probably more urban than it was Latin or anything else. Most of my friends were like me, first-generation Americans. But my parents migrated here from Puerto Rico and Cuba as kids, which is to say that by the time I was born, they were completely Americanized.
My neighborhood in the Bronx that I thought accurately represented my Latin heritage was actually more Nuyorican, which refers to the members or culture of the Puerto Rican diaspora located in or around New York City. In other words, it had a dash of island flavor with a whole lot of NYC vibes. But, this was the only home I’d known.
My block (street) in the Bronx was where my Latin identity was formed. I never felt different from anyone else. My community of friends was strong. We all related to each other. I had no reason to question it, until years later when I learned that maybe I wasn’t like everyone else.
For starters, I don’t speak Spanish, although I do understand it and can speak it reasonably enough to get out of a jam. But I’m an only child and my first-time mother was panicked when my English had a Spanish accent and my Spanish sounded American. Eh, she didn’t have faith that I would sort it out so Spanish lessons ceased. Another difference? My family celebrated Christmas ON Christmas, and didn’t observe Nochebuena (The Good Night) where Latinx folk open their gifts and party it up on Christmas Eve. I’m also an only child, so is my mom, and my dad had just one brother. That’s a tiny family, when Hispanic households are larger than the National average. This also meant that we didn’t spend summers or Holidays flying back to the islands to visit family. Again, the Bronx was it.
You would think that these distinctions wouldn’t be enough to create a divide, but you’d be mistaken. In college I sought out Latin cultural organizations to join but was shocked at how different I felt. These rooms didn’t feel like anything I had experienced before. Nearly everyone spoke Spanish and used words I’d never heard. What’s a chingona? (Turns out it’s a Mexican colloquialism for “badass.” People asked for the chismosa (gossip), but in Puerto Rican culture, we used the word bochinche. Where were the people who were Latin Like ME?
Time after time, I entered spaces where people expected me to meet their image and idea of what Latinx meant to them. People saw the long dark hair, thick thighs, big booty and hoop earrings and decided,
“She's Latin, she must like all the same stuff and do all the same things.”
When I admitted to not knowing what a pupusa was, thick flatbread from El Salvador made with cornmeal or rice flour, people twisted their mouths in judgment. I was failing a test I didn’t know I was taking. If being Latin came with criteria, my boxes were filled with more Xs than checkmarks. The less welcomed I felt, the more I retreated. I rejected the rooms. I spurned the spaces. I didn’t want to be placed in a box.
In fact, I don't want to check any of your boxes because I'm Latin Like ME.
I walk into a room and I carry my Latin ethnicity proudly. I know the history of my parents and the story of their parents. After years of struggling with this paradox of being Latin verus not feeling Latin enough, I decided, I don't want to be Latin like you. I want to be Latin Like ME and accepted for those experiences and truths. Rather than separating from my community, I want to create places where we can show up exactly as ourselves. Strength comes from listening, learning and asking questions. Whether you describe yourself as Hispanic or Latin, one thing is true, our culture is rich with stories that illuminate our shared history and honor our unique experience as part of a multi-layered community. Recounting our stories contributes to inclusion and connection, encourages empathy, and brings about change.