On Being Latina: How family shapes who we are
Back in July I was asked to be a speaker at Union Bank of Switzerland’s (UBS) Hispanic Heritage Celebration. On October 9, 2014 I hopped on the NY Waterway ferry at 34th street and made my way to the UBS offices in Weehawken, NJ. I was honored and excited to talk about what it means to me to be Latina. I spent weeks thinking about what I wanted to say. I thought carefully about the experiences that have shaped who I am. As I thought about what I wanted my speech to be about there was one central theme that kept arising. The theme of family. Everything that I am and everything that I do comes from and is inspired by my family.
Families are the compass that guides us. They are the inspiration to reach great heights, and our comfort when we occasionally falter. -Brad Henry
WHO AM I? When I think about how to answer that question so many titles arise. I say titles because many of us define ourselves by what we do and in that respect I am a mother, a wife, a writer, a health care professional, and while the list can go on none of these titles on their own can adequately describe me in my entirety. They only briefly describe parts of me and individually are not representative of who I am at my core. We are after all, more than just what we do.
Who we are, deep down, is defined by our values, our morals, our beliefs, our traditions. Who we are is shaped at a very early age and as we get older our choices and decisions begin to factor into who we become. At my core, and what I identify with most is being a Brooklyn born Puertoriqueña. My mother was born on the island of Puerto Rico and my father who is also of Puerto Rican descent was raised in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. It is the fusion of these two very distinct geographical places where my latinidad was forged and closely nurtured by my family through our shared experiences, customs, and traditions.
When a person arrives to a new place, with a new language, culture, and tradition—as many immigrants do, they tend to hold on even tighter to the people around them. Human nature naturally causes families to stick together and form extended family relationships. As time passes, and we become accustomed to our new environment this tight hold loosens, but the concept remains and is passed down from generation to generation. The message is always the same. You hold onto your family. You are loyal to those who share your last name, your bloodline, or even just your neighborhood. For me, family has shaped who I am.
When I was a young girl, my family and I spent every Sunday at my grandfather’s house in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. We went there every week, religiously like it was church. My parents, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins made their way to the 3 bedroom apartment that my father and his 6 siblings grew up in to have Sunday dinner For me, most of my best memories include times spent with the family. It still does. A great part of who I am developed from those experiences and having such close family ties.
Every occasion, despite how small, was cause for celebration in my family. Whether it was a baptism, birthday, holiday, or just a typical Sunday dinner our family gatherings somehow turned into a mini family reunion. Huge pots of arroz, gandules and pernil would be prepared, salsa music would blast from the radio, in the background the TV would be tuned to Univision channel 41, awaiting Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado to appear and reveal everyone’s fate through their horoscopes.
Walter Mercado is an icon in Latino households. He’s the closest thing to God. I remember being a child and watching the adults become transfixed to the TV whenever he came on, like he was ready to give them the winning lotto numbers. I’d sit in front of the TV in awe, not understanding a word he was saying, but completely captivated by his pink lips, perfectly coiffed hair, flamboyant suits, and what to me was akin to a Superman cape hanging from his back, he was the prettiest looking man I’d ever seen. It’s funny the things you remember from your childhood.
There were many times at my grandfather’s house that my cousins and I would have to find ways to keep ourselves entertained while the adults gathered in the dining room drinking cup after cup of café con leche and playing dominoes. During the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays the family would get together and spend hours sometimes into the wee hours of the night guayando platanos and preparing masa for the pasteles.
Making pasteles was a family tradition that required participation from every family member. The men, women, and children each had a job to do. We would form an assembly line and begin working. The women would grate the platanos and prepare the meat. The men would place the ingredients onto the parchment paper and wrap them and the children were in charge of tying the string. It was a tradition that brought the family together.
I have plenty of stories like that; stories that always take place in a huge family setting. As I got older, I realized that all of those gatherings, our traditions, and being part of a large Puerto Rican family instilled in me a strong love for my family and my culture. It also instilled pride. I spent most of my childhood being a proud Puerto Riquena. To me, pride had always equated to love for my culture, our food, our music, and family. I soon realized however, as I began educating myself and learning more about Puerto Rico’s history and about my ancestors, that I have many other reasons to be proud. I began understanding my island and my people on a more intellectual ad historical level. Because, we are after all more than just salsa music, good food, and an annual parade down Fifth Avenue.
Puerto Ricans come from a long line of hardworking individuals, many who have made indelible contributions to the world we live in, be it on the island or here in the States. There’s a long list of Puerto Riqueños who have contributed to politics, music, and the arts. We have produced poets (Julia de Burgos), astronauts (Joseph Michael Acaba), scientists (Olga D. Gonzalez-Sanabria), even Supreme Court justices (Sonia Sotomayor). It is all of these things (our history, traditions, culture, love for family) collectively, that I believe have formed my Latina identity.
Everything I do stems from those places. It is because of that, that I have an ardent desire and an unspoken responsibility, to not only do things that I am proud of, but to do things that represent my family and my Latino community in a positive way. As a Puertoriquen woman, whether I like or not, I do represent Latinos and even more specifically, Latino women. I am very aware and mindful of that. No one ever really sets out to be a role model, but as we grow and as we begin to have our own personal successes people look to us for leadership and guidance and in Latino families this is especially true. We represent our families so if one of us succeeds it’s like the entire family has succeeded.
In my family particularly, there is an unbreakable bond that has been formed. The bond extends far beyond my nuclear family of my parents and sister, to my extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, and lifelong friends that have been a part of my life for years. As a result of this bond, every success is that much greater. Every success is compounded exponentially by the pride felt by our family members. To some, it may seem like a lot of pressure to have to live up to such high expectations, but I believe our families have a huge influence on the people we become. Through their actions, through their words, and through their life experiences they teach us about ourselves and what is expected. We are expected to make our families proud. My father recently said to me,
“Just remember that when it comes to our history and culture it was handed down to us we are just caretakers for the next generation.”
And he is correct. History, traditions, & culture are passed on and it is up to us to make sure that we honor that history and that we preserve it, while simultaneously adding to it so that we leave to our children a legacy that they can be proud of. So when I think about what makes me Latina I can’t narrow it down to one thing or to a few things. I became a Latina by the way I love and the way I live my life, by the examples set by my family, by fulfilling the expectations of my ancestors and those who came before me. I attribute my latinidad and my desire to help others with the love of family that was instilled in me as a child. You always look out for your family. That’s what I was taught and that is what I exhibit. I want each and every one of us to succeed. If I can help another person succeed, even if it’s in a small way, I will.
My family showed me by their example how wonderful and magnificent life is. They taught me to be orgullosa of my Puerto Rican heritage while simultaneously teaching me to love everything that this great country of ours has to offer. They taught me to love America and value its lesson that great things can be achieved if one works hard for it; with the understanding that success for Latinos or Latinas, or any minority for that matter, doesn’t come easy. We have to work twice as hard and although that struggle did not and does not create a Latina identity, it does inspire how I live my life. I’ve learned that
“Pride is instilled. It is what you carry with you every day of your life.”
This is what I hope to pass down to my daughter and future generations.