By: Susan Ragsdale
It's National Hispanic Heritage month, and I can think of no better way to celebrate than by honoring my friend, Carol, and asking her for her insights and perspective on what it means to be Latina in the United States. As Carol and I talked for an hour over coffee, I asked her about where she grew up, her home now, her family and her work. Here is Carol's story.
Carol grew up in Costa Rica where her dad owned and ran a grocery store. Ten years ago, she moved to Nashville, TN, where she currently runs the YMCA Latino Achievers program. At home, she and her husband have a 14-year-old son who spent four years of his life in Costa Rica and 10 in Nashville.
What was it like to move into the United States?
When I came here, I was suddenly identified as a “Latina,” a label, a check-mark on a box. I had to check it; there was no other option. That check-mark shocked me – it tried to define my identity and denoted me as separate, not a part of the whole. I never thought I could be limited to fit into a boxed description. I stopped being recognized as Carol. I felt disconnected and sometimes I didn’t even feel like I was a person.
When you are told you are something so many times, when you are constantly asked to check that box, it begins to imprint in your mind that you only fit in this box along with a limiting definition. And if you aren’t careful, you might begin to believe that.
Coming here turned out being a great opportunity to discover and define who am I today. I learned to reframe my internal dialogue (the way I thought about myself) so I wouldn’t lose who I really was. I had to question myself constantly: "Is this my truth?" "Is this who I am?" "Is every Hispanic stereotype true about myself?" I started analyzing the information bombarding me. I sorted through everything so that it was ME who was defining my dreams and my reality.
What’s your experience like now?
For the most part, I am treated with respect. There is much I enjoy about my work and the opportunities around me, but I still encounter those instances where I feel that people hear my accent or see the color of my skin and assume things about my intelligence or personality. I know those first 5 minutes in meeting someone creates impressions so I am conscious of giving the best of myself in every interaction and especially in those first 5 minutes.
What’s the gift of being Latina in the United States?
Latinos are "Citizens of The World!" I am bi-cultural. I am able to recognize how the beauty of both cultures, where I grew up and where I live now, have enriched my life with gifts and challenges. The trick to living well with both is to accept yourself and both worlds. It is a great gift in my eyes.
Empathy. I feel I am able to understand people a little better because of my experiences. When you travel, I believe you develop a more empathetic point of view because you learn to recognize and are more aware of what makes people uncomfortable or vulnerable, and you can connect with them.
Being Latino opens a window to the world. I have discovered that as a Latina I ignite curiosity: "You’re from where?" I can open a window to an unknown part of the world to others. In this BIG world, there are other perspectives to think about or see on any given issue. For example, here at 3:00 p.m., people are at their desks. In Costa Rica, people are sitting with friends drinking coffee. This difference is an opportunity for me to share differences and let other people see through my eyes the world I have known.
What does it mean to be a "Citizen of the World?"
Our philosophy is that we’re world citizens who happen to be born in particular places. We are here to be part of and take care of the whole world. We are here to experience the WORLD God created for us – all of it. We have a great opportunity to enrich our lives by knowing, learning from and experiencing other cultures and friends. Being world citizens is how we live. We try to be curious about everything that is around us not only in this moment and in this space because we know that everything we do affects the world globally. We are interconnected.
How do you pass along your own cultural traditions to bi-cultural kids?
In my work, I want to pass on the message to be proud of who you are, take advantage of the best of both worlds, and use your gift for the betterment of your community. Know that your existence can make a difference in someone’s life.
What does it mean to "be Latino/Latina?"
Family: Being Latino means traditions. Stories about heritage and family live together. It’s important to know those stories--like how your grandparents worked the lands, or what they had to do to bring the family together. Being Latino means knowing what a cup of coffee symbolizes: to sit down, connect, and check in. Coffee is the only thing that all of Latino America has in common. The values and traditions may differ from country to country but everybody has coffee, drinks it, and connects over it. This is a rich part of who we are.
Embracing your roots: I want bi-cultural youth to know their roots and history and to [connect with and be inspired by] their rich history. Our history includes very smart people who built pyramids, contributed to art and music, and so much more! There’s a whole legacy that comes from the culture.
Embracing where you live: I want youth to reconcile the American side with the Latino side. I believe we are a beautiful result of genetics and environment. I want our kids to embrace our country's organization, structure, our quest for achievement. America was built on people who came from all over the world and managed to work together. Unity should not just be another word in our vocabulary but a motto for life. I want youth to make a plan and work their plan for the betterment of all.
Embracing your story: More than anything, I want everyone to personally embrace his or her story and love who you are, because at the end of the day, it’s just you! You are with yourself 24/7. You might as well love yourself.
My son is able to translate two ways. He has perspective and is able to find the middle ground. He is aware of intrinsic things--things he didn’t learn from a textbook. He learned these things for himself, from being immersed in both cultures. He has flexibility of thought; he can see solutions in ways that maybe his dad and I don’t. This is part of his story of being bi-cultural (and awesome).
What would you share with other parents to help them embrace some of what you’ve talked about?
1. Listen to your kids. They are transitioning; they are switching on and off and living in a complex world trying to define who they are and what they believe in and what their values are and what they believe is true for themselves. To be able to listen to them and their opinions - the war in Iraq or the neighbor next door – is essential. What do they think? What are they feeling? If they are also navigating a system at the house and a system at school, then they are switching back and forth in two systems. Be patient but persistent to make connections with your kids; listen and guide according to your core principles.
2. See the challenge of living in two systems as an opportunity for your kids. Kids have a greater capacity to navigate two worlds. They are flexible. They can bring understanding and unity to help things move smoothly between different systems. Try to be open to learn from your kids and be open to new ways. We want them to be better than we are. Be patient with yourself, your ways, and the ways that push back from other systems. Hold onto your values, but also be open to new expressions and new ways. When you’re wiling to learn, you put your guard down: “I want to understand what you are saying and where you are coming from.” That willingness is key for growth and understanding to happen within the whole family.
Share your stories. Your history and YOUR story is important. How were you raised? Where did you come from? What about your parents? What lessons have you learned? Parents should make a conscious effort to share learned lessons with their kids.
Remember: Society is made up of families. Families are miniature versions of a society. We can make society better by making the family stronger and more aware as we share what we’ve learned.
Carol Cubillo-Seals is Director of the YMCA Latino Achievers program in Nashville, TN. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.