February 18, 2019

PIETSCH | Through Amarillo-Colored Glasses

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My mother now is different than the mother of my childhood memories. I remember the latter in comforting rhymes. She sang a song that healed every scraped knee and bumped head:

Sana, sana, colita de rana

Si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana

It was a nonsensical song meaning, “Heal, heal, little frog tail / If it doesn’t heal today, it’ll heal tomorrow.” While I never knew its meaning, the cure-all was more powerful than any Disney-themed band-aid.

She taught my sister and me the colors and numbers in Spanish, although I had a hard time remembering “amarillo” because it was the hardest to say. She asked us endearing questions: Did I want “espaghetti” for dinner or some Jell-O-colored yellow she’d made for me. She took us to family reunions where my cousins and I would run and hide from cumbia dance lessons I’m now desperate to learn from.

My mother still sings and dances to nursery rhymes to make us laugh, but I say my colors and numbers in English. She asks if we want spaghetti for dinner, and she leaves yellow Jell-O in the fridge. She gets frustrated when I’m embarrassed to say “arepa” because I worry about my American accent. For efficiency, she texts back in English after I spend five minutes trying to text her in Spanish for the millionth time.

Her identity as a strong woman and unconditionally loving mother has never wavered. In my mind, however, she becomes inconsistent, almost like two people, because my own identity has strayed from hers. As I responded to societal pressures, she adjusted to meet me.

My mom — born and raised in Colombia — married my dad — born and raised in New York — in 1986. I was born in Florida and raised in Massachusetts. While I am Colombian American, I feel like an impostor saying it. I didn’t grow up speaking fluent Spanish at home. I have blue eyes, not brown, and my name, at face value, lacks characteristics of Colombian heritage. I hesitate to say “arepa,” even though I make them once a week. On Christmas, we open presents in the morning, not at midnight.

My discomfort with my cultural identity largely stems from growing up in Massachusetts, where my predominantly white hometown failed to consider alternatives to my outward appearance. In second grade, we read a story about a girl and her family in Mexico. My friend, whose parents are Venezuelan and Italian, was called on to teach us how to say the Spanish words we learned alongside the story. She was called on, I assumed, for her more obviously Hispanic name and her naturally curly hair. I knew the words, too, but I repeated them with the rest of the class as though I did not.

In my second year of college, my friend laughed instinctively when she saw a notification on my laptop from Cornell’s Association for Students of Color.

“What? Why do you get emails from them?”

“Because I’m Colombian,” I replied, my tone more defensive than matter-of-fact.

Then came the awkward response: “Oh. Yeah.”

I don’t blame my peers’ assumptions. Growing up in Massachusetts, I’d had few resources with which to clarify my Colombian heritage. The local supermarkets’ “ethnic” aisles sell 10 varieties of Old El Paso hard taco shells, but no Harina Pan. I speak proudly and often of my loyalty to Boston, where I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with friends while letting Colombian Independence Day pass by each July. I blast salsa Colombiana in the car to make my mom laugh; our laughter comes from embarrassment. We’re out of place, driving past cows and barns in Dunstable, Massachusetts.

I’m grateful for my hometown and the way my parents raised me. I find belonging in my community. Because of my Boston pride, I am an afterthought when someone evaluates the quantity of Latinx people in a room — which has happened often, for some reason. I have been laughed at for being considered a person of color, not because I am one, but because to others, it’s as if I am trying to be. I’ve been told “you don’t look that Colombian,” after informing someone I am. I’m never sure how to respond.

I have not known how to interpret my dual identity. While I’m not apologetic for my lifestyle in Massachusetts, nor for the ways my mother has adapted to meet it, I feel sad for the pieces of us that were lost when I allowed others to define me.

I feel judged for my inability to speak fluent Spanish. Awkward when I bring up my heritage, which feels like a boast or an admission. Guilty because my appearance has made me exempt from the struggles other Latinx women face. Sad for my anxiety and procrastination in calling my abuelita, who only speaks Spanish.

But I also feel proud for my ability to speak almost-fluent Spanish. Proud for the rhymes my sister and I still remember. Proud for supporting and uniting with other Latinx women. Proud for texting my abuelita.

At Cornell, I don’t attend the meetings for the Association for Students of Color, but I make arepas and tostones from Wegman’s for breakfast. I teach friends to dance at Agava’s Wednesday salsa nights, even if I’m only half-capable myself. I wear candongas, tiny gold hoops, similar to the ones I’d worn from age four to eleven. Despite judgment and defense, I find myself in what people have neglected to mention: there is power in the crevice between two cultural extremes.

Victoria Pietsch is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at [email protected]. Fancy Pants runs every other Monday this semester.