What does it mean to you to be an American?

By Guianna Henriquez, 16, Marlborough School
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It was cold as my dad drove us to my SAT prep camp at UC Berkeley. I was excited, but since I was coming from L.A., where it was hot, loud, and colorful, this little city seemed boring, boring and boring. I knew that I would have to somehow endure 10 grueling days of college and SAT prep before my relaxing summer break began.

I slowly descended the stairs leading to the camp registration area, while my mom followed with some of my bags and my brother closed the car door. There was a line of white kids in the front of the registration area. A 16-year-old girl and her mom turned their heads curiously towards me. Was that mom giving me a dirty look? In her pearls and navy pumps, she seemed so intimidating. Did she know, by the color of my skin, that I had a scholarship? I began to feel hot embarrassment; I must, just by walking in, be doing something wrong. I began to check for any stains or peeking bras and underwear as stealthily as possible. I was fine, so I turned to check my mom and brothers, who were waiting in line behind me but weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. Everyone was standing so quietly—was it because of me? The mom and her daughter weren’t looking at me anymore, but I still felt their piercing glances. It was like they were letting me know that I didn’t belong. Did they think I was an illegal immigrant? Images of cops hassling Latinos on the street or in the desert flashed through my head, but I hadn’t done anything illegal. Somehow I wasn’t Guianna anymore; I had transformed into a chola straight out of the ghettos of L.A. Why were they judging me like that?

I tried to calm myself down. OK, OK, whatever, I said to myself. The 16-year-old girl had already gotten her key and left with her mom. I started to feel kind of silly for having been so suspicious of a few meaningless glances. My mom and I went upstairs to start unpacking, but I didn’t tell her about my momentary panic. She would start asking questions and I didn’t know how to deal with it. Perhaps I just didn’t belong with these American kids—you know, white kids.

So where are you from?

As it turned out, the girl who had stared at me that first day was a pretty nice person. The other campers were nice too and they weren’t all white. When they asked me where I was from, I intuitively knew they were just trying to start a conversation to get to know me. Sometimes I’d say “I’m from L.A.” I know others perceive me as a Latina, and I am, but that word is not specific enough. Other times, instead of saying I was Latina, I’d say “My mom is from Guatemala and my dad from El Salvador, though I was born here in L.A.”

But deep down, the question really worries me. Who am I? Why did I get so panicked that day at the SAT prep camp? I wish I could just not worry about where I belong. I’m continually trying to straighten out the two main aspects of my identity, shifting between my American and Latino selves, but just when I think I’ve found a balance, another SAT camp mom pops up and threatens it all with one meaningless glance.

My “Latinoness” is hard to define. Through music, I feel connected with my culture. I listen to everything and anything from merengue, salsa, and Latin pop to my favorite, rock en español. Whenever I go to a party with my cousins, my primary connection with other Latinos isn’t the language but the music and the dancing. You can’t go to a Latino party and not dance; believe me, I tried it once and I was dragged onto the dance floor by a huge group of people.

However, my hanging out with some Latinos doesn’t mean I’m accepted by them. My cousins from Central America, for example, were raised differently from me. I’m into Jack Johnson and Jaguares, and they’re into Christian rock music. I like to read and they don’t. They hadn’t heard of Harry Potter before I told them about it—everyone has heard of Harry Potter! Who are these people? Sometimes I feel like we’re strangers to each other, even though we’re family and we all look alike. I know my cousins make fun of me behind my back because I “talk like a white girl.” Once, my Latina friends said that to my face. We laughed, but then I realized that they considered me a white girl because I kept saying “Oh my God!” That seemed so silly to me. I just brush it off, because it’s not something I can change. But it’s kind of lonely when I spend time with them. I’m with them, but I’m not one of them. I don’t really feel like I fit in.

Illustration by Oscar Rodriguez, 19

Yet in mainstream “white” society, I often get subtle messages that people look down on me. At school, there is a certain level of respect attributed to all of the students. But once I am outside of this bubble, that respect disappears.

My mom and I went shopping once at Nordstrom, looking for a dress. Even though I go there pretty often with my friends, one of the sales clerks seemed like she was about to approach us with a product, but then decided against it. Did our ethnicity suggest that we weren’t going to buy anything from her? Maybe, maybe not. It was something small, but it showed what she thought of us—that we were less worthy. If I had been white, tall and blonde, would the sales clerk have tried to sell me something, assuming that I was educated and well-off? I guess I should just be strong and not worry about what other people think. But I can’t help it. I’m always wondering—are they judging me? Do they think I’m too white? Too chola? Lazy and uncultured? Poor? That I’m not wearing the right clothes? I always have to fight these stereotypes—I can’t just meet someone and be me.

Studying, a career, hiking–that’s my future

The real me is more than my Latina heritage and my love of rock en español. If I could tell people something important about me, I would want them to know I’m a hard-working student. I’m aiming to go to a great college and pursue a career and become a successful professional. I dream of hiking the 221-mile John Muir trail at Yosemite National Park. I want to travel to South America and maybe Africa. I’d like to go to every continent, actually—who knows if I will? I believe that with hard work, you can succeed. I believe in equal rights. It bothers me when I see that not everyone in America gets the same opportunities.

When I really think of where I come from, I remember that I grew up in Los Angeles, and that I spent my summer days riding to and fro on my pink bike with the flower basket in front. My brother and I were taken to the library every weekend, followed by a trip to either Pan Pacific or Griffith Park. We walked along the many isolated trails at Griffith in the afternoon, often getting lost with a dad who would take little known shortcuts leading to endless paths. One time, we went to see the Hollywood sign when some family members came to town just to see the white letters set along the hilltop. So aren’t I a typical California girl, an American, as much as everyone else?

When I meet someone, instead of asking me where I come from as if I don’t belong here, I wish they would just find out about me first. I wish they would take the time to get to know me instead of making assumptions based on stereotypes. Then I would feel like I was part of everything, instead of being subtly excluded.

It feels good to be able to get all this out in the open. I know I haven’t sorted this out completely, but I’m starting to realize it’s not my fault. I’m OK, even though I don’t fit into a neat category.