If you asked me what identity means to me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. At least, I wouldn’t be able to explain it coherently, but instead, I can give you a jabbled stream of consciousness.
I find myself lost again in the waves of strange new places appearing into my 23-year-old senses, fearing that I’m not one inch closer to discovering who I really am, nor where I’m supposed to put down roots. Maybe it’s my own naivety, but home and identity became intertwined when I was very little. I’ve only started to separate their meanings now.
I had lived between my childhood Michigan home and my grandparents’ Mexico homes, feeling alone in both. Then, I existed in three host family’s homes in Brazil and once again in Michigan during university. I always existed escaping from this confusion of self that seemed to follow me wherever I went.
And one day in an Uber full of strangers, I realized I was right where I needed to be.
Ana and Eduardo moved away from everything they knew in Mexico. They moved approximately 2,382 kilometers from their families, friends, and beginnings. With a one-year-old baby girl and the promise of budding careers, the couple journeyed to Michigan as its auto industry blossomed.
Before settling in an affluent, sprawling suburb of metro-Detroit, we had lived in an apartment in Waterford, Michigan. My early childhood brings memories of running down carpeted hallways, perking up at the sound of the ice cream truck in the summer, and layering up with neon-bright nylon snow pants in the winter. My parents let me regularly visit mis abuelos in Mexico on long summers or winter breaks. Michigan’s passing of time per its vibrant seasons brought this quiet, immigrant family into its very comforting core, where a child could run free in her fenced backyard.
English at school and Spanish at home, this subconscious switch between two different personas of the same young girl led her to feel a bit out of place in both. I hadn’t grown up with any friends who looked like me- had caramel-colored skin like me, had thick curly hair like me, spoke softly in two languages like me. At a young age, I started surrounding myself with different people than me. My first best friend knew no English, as she’d just moved from Japan.
All my childhood friends knew the unspoken contract that written by our immigrant parents; do well in academics and make your family proud. My small family operated on the undercurrent of “you can’t just do your best to succeed in school, you have to be the best because the odds are against you”. As I got closer and closer to college and this unventured “real world” everyone was so worried about, it seemed like the looming odds grew even more menacing.
I started to attach my identity and self-worth to a stressful academic career and after school reveries.
At a very young age, I anchored myself in imagined realities. I daydreamed about this life where I studied on green lawns with artists in a Parisian university. I dreamt about holding a briefcase and talking on my phone in my business suit, heels clicking in the rain of some big unknown city. I wished I had long, light brown hair and green eyes, I wished I didn’t look so weird compared to my schoolmates and to the girls in the fashion magazines I’d pour over. I dreamt about being anywhere but here, and being anyone but who I was.
Growing inwards into my teenage angst, I used language as a tool to distance myself from my parents. They never showed anger towards my actions except for the occasional disappointed, “Ya no sabes hablar español, no te sabes comunicar”. To them, the root of our many feuds was the simple fact of miscommunication. I resented them for making me different than my peers, I hated not being able to control how others perceived me and secretly, not being able to control how I look. I resented them for the red-hot burn I felt when the waiter wouldn’t understand my father’s accent. I resented them for the classroom tauntings of “How’d your parents cross the border?” “Are you really American? No, I mean- where are you really from?”.
I desperately wanted my life to reflect what I created for myself instead of limiting my ‘home’ to a physical address and especially attaching my identity back to my Hispanic heritage. It seemed that these two concepts were always just barely out of my grasp. Identity was merely a setback because the perfect identity was complete fluidity.
The future idea of a ‘home’ dissolved itself in my attempt to unravel who I was trying to become.
A different external environment has a mysterious way of forcing you to look at what’s underneath and what grows within you. And for the first time, what made me different was openly celebrated and “anywhere but here” led to creating a new, albeit temporary home. My exchange year in Brazil helped me fall head over heels with the world around me, especially the exuberant joy found in many Latin cultures around the world. I loved the way the Portuguese language hugged the melodic conversations between people, and I loved the way Brazilians passionately spoke about education, politics, places they’d like to visit someday. Consequently, I pushed down the practiced French and the mutated Spanish I had in my heart, and made space for this new language that seemed to only exist in song.
At the very impressionable age of 17, my adolescent years culminated in a city approximately 8,219 kilometers away from ‘home’, yet I felt like I knew myself better than I’ve ever known. Having transformed my vulnerability, I became a solace for myself in a country I had only ever read about when I was younger.
My last year of college was the warm embrace before the world would cruelly spit me back out again. Living in New Community, or New Comm as we lovingly called it, I carved out a true connection to a different kind of family that accepted my deepest flaws and saw the potential to become greater than what existed before me. This white house with the red, wooden staircase crawling up to its third floor, held 15 misfits that each created their own revolution. In one corner, a girl is pushing herself to the extreme stress of overachievement, while in another, a girl is struggling to grapple with past traumas and trusting in others to envelop her in warmth. There was no hiding here, everyone was dealing with their own demon. Mine was achieving the one milestone I’ve been told to achieve for 17 years and then feeling emptiness- “You have to do well in school, so you get into a good college, so you graduate with your degree to get a good job. We moved here for you to achieve these things.”
There was this external pressure, coupled with my internalized ambition and desire to please my family, to justify their move away from their home, to not feel guilty for letting them down. Yet, after getting my degree, things did not come easier. I spiraled down, thinking I was letting my family down too- why wasn’t I getting a job? Why did no one seem to see my potential? Why am I so unhappy here? I wasn’t connecting to anything rooting me in Michigan, and feeling like I had no real ‘home’ to go to.
Looking back inwards, I had to confront my own character flaw- escaping myself. I had daydreamed about a different me for too long. It was time to take an action that would finally force me to accept who I am and lead me to who I am going to become.
Which meant moving to a completely unfamiliar land with a loosely constructed plan.
Moving to Los Angeles seemed like the most natural decision for me at this point in my life. I had lived away from ‘home’ before, but nothing like this. It feels like those odds that I imagined years before have come into full effect and planted themselves right upon my shoulders. It feels like one has to surrender yourself fully to this city, and I haven’t yet cut the final strand to allow it to swallow me in completely.
Just as those kids in my classrooms were puzzled when they prodded about my roots, I feel strangers’ eyes on me when I approach them, silently wondering if I should greet them in my broken Spanish. There’s this invisible fence people build in order to process others and only push it open if you speak the code. I overhear two people greet each other in Spanish and reprimand myself for failing to speak it more at home. They can pronounce my name correctly here, but if I say “Hola”, they respond back in English, “Is this it for you today?”. Finally, I’m living in a city that speaks my native tongue, but the reminder of my parents saying, “ya no sabes como hablar español” causes my jaw to shut close.
Los Angeles brings me to sitting in an Uber on an autumn day. I greeted the driver and the brunette in the backseat in English. The woman asks the driver in Spanish, “tienes cargador aquí?” He hands her a phone charger and asks me in Spanish, with the correct pronunciation of my name, if I needed one. I was so shocked that this simple question made me feel welcomed back into the circle I pushed myself out of when I was younger. As the orange glow of the sun setting hits the windows, a young man then enters the car, greeting our driver in English. Minutes later, he seamlessly switches to Spanish, his excited words rapid-fire when the topic of his favorite baseball teams came up. How did he know the code? The interchanging languages easily flowed between all of us and for a second I thought, maybe my identity crisis was imagined all along.
Meeting other Latinx people, those who are artists, writers, animators, producers, felt like finally smelling the saltwater breeze when on a long walk to the beach. Here they were trying to develop their passion into tangible dreams, and here I was, suddenly feeling like I was never out of place anymore for liking to paint or playing the oboe. Suddenly, it felt okay to be that kid who boarded herself up in her room, endlessly dreaming up stories and writing about imaginary characters. It was okay to start a sentence in one language and finish it in another.
Los Angeles meant I could be anything, I can be who I want to be. And although L.A. might be the farthest thing away from philosophizing on a Parisian grass field or falling in love with Brazilian cobblestoned sidewalks, it is yet another piece of myself. By looking inwards and surrounding myself with people who are inching closer to their most authentic selves, I start to realize how to start re-anchoring my identity, along with my dreams and ambitions.
Reflecting inwards into how we control our own identity just might eventually deter us from living our most authentic selves, and deter us from achieving our wildest dreams. “Being anyone but who I am” starts unlocking “I can be who I choose to be”. Expressing myself is the most liberating manifestation of identity I’ve experienced so far. Freeing myself of expectation or standards, both external and internal, forces me to face myself. What at first seems, in all honesty, truly terrifying, then turns into my liberation in the form of fluid expression of spoken and unspoken languages, cultures, and styles.
So what if my native Spanish is now a broken Spanglish? And if people like to point out a ‘subtle accent’ unfamiliar to them when I speak English? And if I want to sing in Portuguese? I might not look nor sound ‘American’ or ‘Mexican’, but I do exist between the two and I exist beyond them.
We tend to imagine this core identity, but it might lead us towards encompassing the traits and emotions we love about the different cultures we’ve expressed ourselves in. We have the power to define and constantly redefine our own beautiful existence. Do you think it’s as simple as that?
Though if you asked me what it meant to be one step closer to being completely at peace with my identity, I’d tell you that it’d mean sitting in a car full of strangers, approximately 3,693 kilometers away from home, listening to them speak the two languages that made me who I am today.