This week for my presentation I chose Dulce Maria Grey’s High Literature and Ethnic Identity. I will talk about all of the research points in class, but her book inspired me to write my own autoethnography. I write this piece after reading the first few chapters because her stories moved me to tell my own. I hope you enjoy it:
I am an American. I know this because I have a birth certificate that states that I was born in Dover, Delaware to Raymond and Theresa Sanchez. However, I am also Puerto Rican by heritage. I know this because my grandmother immigrated from Puerto Rico to New York and my last name is Sanchez. All of my life, I have faced these two conflicting identities: American and Latina/o (or Hispanic, as most American categorize any Spanish-speaking person or person descendant from Spanish-speakers). I have recently read an autoethnography by a Dominican women named Dulche Maria Grey entitled High Literature and Ethnic Identity who wrote about her struggles as a Latina academic and interviewed other Dominican-American academics about their struggles to navigate the academic world as children of immigrants: the negative stereotypes, the shame of disappointing their families, the need to be considered “smart.” It is interesting to read their experiences because my experience as a Puerto-Rican descendant living in America has been both similar and entirely different. The main difference I can recognize between their experiences and my own is that I do not have one of the classic markers of Latina descent: the Spanish language.
In a way, I will never be able to understand Dulche’s immigrant experience because I was not an immigrant or even the child of immigrants. I am a third-generation American whose parents grew up speaking English (although my father’s family did speak Spanish at home). My parents never had a typical gender-role Hispanic/Latino marriage; my father was not into machismo, and both my sister and I were highly encouraged to go to school and find fulfilling professions. I did not grow up ashamed of my parents. Both of my parents managed to survive and succeed, despite living in rough New York City neighborhoods (my mother, in particular, was one of only two siblings in a family of nine to finish high school, despite living in very poor conditions). I was always very proud of how my parents overcame their financial situations to become professionals, homeowners, and, eventually, investors. While I sympathize with Dulche’s situation and the situations of those she interviews in her work, I will never truly understand the pain of being a non-English speaker.
On the other hand, Dulche has a significant advantage over my experience as a Latina: her knowledge of Spanish. I have found that the Spanish language is like a golden ticket to a culture I have never experienced. Because I do not speak Spanish, I do not feel comfortable in all Spanish-speaking areas. I am not connected to my Puerto Rican heritage. I may eat some of the same foods and use the same hair salons, but I am not Latina according to Latina/o standards. When I find myself in an all Spanish speaking area, I am treated as a child while well-meaning women give me looks of pity and pantomime my food order or hair wishes (the only Spanish word I learned after two years in Miami was “cuarto,” a forth, because the Spanish-speaking lady working the deli at Publix kept giving me a full pound of lunchmeat every time I ordered). I have also had many negative experiences because of my lack of knowledge of Spanish. One time, I was yelled at by a tiny Latina woman in a clothing store and accused of “forgetting my culture.” Whose culture? If I was not born in Puerto Rico, and do not speak Spanish, am I Puerto Rican? Do brown skin and a love for Latin food qualify me to call myself Latina? I was very angry at this woman, just as I was very angry when I travelled overseas and was constantly reminded that I was not a “real” American. American television and magazines has taught other countries that only “white” people are American. Because I was not white, I could not possibly be American. Eventually, after much questioning, the people decided that I was Spanish (evidently, Puerto Rican also did not qualify as a culture).
This distinction has plagued me throughout my life. I am constantly being defined as Hispanic and being asked to represent Hispanics. I am sure I received some of my educational opportunities because I am labeled Hispanic. I do not want to let down my fellow Latina/os by denying my Latina heritage, but it is very frustrating to be labeled Hispanic by other Americans, while simultaneously being denied accesses to Latina/o culture because of my lack of Spanish language skills. I understand Dulche’s resistance to be labeled as a representative of Dominicans everywhere, but I argue that at least she is a member of the Dominican community, an accepted Dominicana. While I realize that this distinction comes with its own issues (stereotypes and pressures from the community to act like a Latina, etc.), I often feel like an imposter as both an American and Latina, a person lost between worlds.
Because I do not speak Spanish, I became an English major and learned English so well that no one would ever doubt my intelligence. However, joining the academic community has not created a sense of belonging for me; instead, it has created a new set of challenges as I fight other academic’s attempts to move me towards some form of Latina/o studies. It angers me that I have to defend my decision to not study Latina/o American literature, or literacy among Latina/o populations. I find myself reading Dulche’s study to help myself better understand my position as a Latina scholar, but I still cannot ever fully understand her experience because we have lived different lives in different cultures. However, what we both share is a desire to define our ethic identities, to make peace with both the ways we are viewed and the ways we view ourselves.