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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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Michigan in Color: My two loves

Courtesy of Gaby Vasquez

By Gaby Vasquez, Managing Design Editor
Published March 22, 2014

“Is there anyone here who was not born in the United States that would like to talk about their national identity?”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. A guest lecturer had just spent the better part of an hour discussing national identity in an introductory course of who-knows-how-many students. Laptops around me displayed the Facebook feeds of strangers who scrolled disinterestedly, eyes shifting in and out of focus. Would anyone decide to answer, or would the question die in the awkward silence of the lecture hall?

Maybe I should raise my hand. I glanced around nervously. I could say something.

While I wondered if my hesitance was due to fear of embarrassment or something more complicated, a boy on the other side of the auditorium spoke about how he hated that people would narrow his identity down to just his Australian accent.

Meanwhile, behind me: “So, are you going to the mixer — oh, my God is that an Australian accent? I just love Australian accents. Oh my gosh, do you think he’s, like, in a frat?”

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If this question had been put to me a few years ago, I would not have even considered answering. Born in Venezuela, raised in Florida, the question was always in my mind: Was I American, or was I Venezuelan? I never really felt comfortable answering either way.

Maybe it was because the times I had been to Venezuela as a child, I had been teased mercilessly for my “gringa” accent. I was looked down on for being “too American.” Maybe it was the way I was left out of conversations, because I wouldn’t understand. How could I? How could I understand the slang my cousins used, the jokes my aunts and uncles made? I wasn’t really Venezuela. I was too American.

I was ashamed.

I was afraid to speak Spanish at all, afraid of saying something wrong and being made fun of all over again.

I didn’t fit in as a “true” Venezuelan. So, did that make me American? Maybe. But then, why didn’t I feel American? At school, I was forced to participate in “hispanic events,” which required me wearing a ridiculous dress on the small stage of the rec hall that doubled as our church, and singing a traditional Venezuelan song. I was laughed at for pronouncing words wrong, for not knowing pop culture, for not being interested in American sports teams, for not participating in “American” things.

I took this out on my mother, angry that she didn’t raise me with “American culture,” angry that my father didn’t have a sports team, angry that we were different. I had my share of Latin American friends at school, but it wasn’t enough. Most of them had parents who had lived in the United States for years already, who didn’t have accents, who didn’t speak broken English.

I couldn’t be Venezuelan. I couldn’t grow up with my cousins and pick up a “caraqueña” accent. I couldn’t live my days visiting my grandparents house, vacationing at the beaches that my parents would always talk about. I was living in America, so I had to be American. But, how could I, if I was constantly singled out for my “non-Americanness”?

I tried for so long to erase my birthplace from my life, as if it was a drawing on a piece of paper. As if it was erasable. I didn’t realize Venezuela was as much a part of me as my own skin.

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“Yes?”

The lecturer nodded towards me, acknowledging my raised hand.

Oh, shit. I actually raised my hand. I sat up a little straighter, clearing my throat in an attempt to appear more confident. How many people were in this room? I remembered the sorority girls sitting behind me. They’re probably not even listening anyway. This, somehow, made me feel much more at ease.

“I was born in Venezuela, and raised in Florida. I am a dual citizen of Venezuela and of the United States. I could spend hours talking about what my national identity means to me, about what being Venezuelan means to me, but I’ll keep it short.”

I went on for a minute or two talking about what it meant to be Venezuelan, about how as proud as I am of it, it makes me that much more grateful to be American. I am grateful for the freedoms I have that I wouldn’t have if I lived in Venezuela. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given that I wouldn’t have had if I lived in Venezuela. I am proud to be American.

But, I am so proud to be Venezuelan. I am proud of my culture, of my background. I am proud to be from such a beautiful country, filled with a beautiful culture and beautiful people. I used to be ashamed, because I thought I didn’t have a claim to Venezuela since I didn’t technically grow up there. But the few visits, the close ties I have kept with my family there, the fact that my parents serve as living reminders of where I come from, this has all been enough to give me a strong sense of pride towards my country. My countries.

I am too American to be Venezuelan. I am too Venezuelan to be American.

I don’t care.

I am Venezuelan. I am American. I love both of my countries.

I’ve had friends tell me how rude Americans are, how happy they are to be Latin@. Don’t they realize they are speaking to an American?

I’ve had people assume many things about me based on where I am from. I’m American? I must be rude. I’m Venezuelan? I must be a communist. I don’t support the Venezuelan government? I must be from a rich, extreme-right-wing family. I celebrate Fourth of July? “But, you’re, like, not even American.” I wear my Venezuelan colors? “I thought you were Mexican!”

“You speak English too well to be Spanish.”

“You don’t have a strong enough accent to be a real Venezuelan.”

“You’re not …”

“You are …”

Enough.

I am enough. I am not an assumption for someone to make. I do not fit neatly into a box.

For so long, I struggled with accepting that. I remember how much I used to fight against my parents on speaking Spanish. I didn’t want to, I wanted to be American. I wanted to speak English properly, and not have parents who didn’t understand what the Superbowl was. I wanted my first concert to be N’Sync, not aguinaldos. I talked to my parents in English; I read books in English; I listened to music in English. I had to be American.

But one spring break, when I was about ten or eleven, after a six-year-long absence from Venezuela, my parents decided to take us back. I wasn’t too happy about it; I dreaded the disappointment in my aunts and uncles faces when they saw their American niece. I was terrified at the new taunts and insults my cousins and friends might subject me to. I proudly held on to my American-ness as a shield against them. But, my armor quickly melted. When I was received by my family with so much warmth and love, when I witnessed the incredible sights Venezuela had to offer, I remembered. I remembered how much I loved when my mom would play Franco de Vita in the car, and how nothing compared to the taste of a cachapa with queso guayanes. I remembered how much fun I had with my family, how incredibly happy I felt being with all of them. I remembered how much I loved my grandparents house, the house my mother grew up in, the house I visited as a child. I was still American, but I was starting to realize that I could be Venezuelan too. I re-learned the national anthem and would sing it with pride. I relished at the challenge of reading a book in formal castellano. I fell into the habit of speaking to my parents in Spanish (or Spanglish, at times). I fell in love with Venezuela, but I did not stop loving America.

I have two great loves in my life, and they will be these two great countries. Countries that may struggle, countries that have flaws, but countries that I will always fight for, that I would give my life for, countries that I will always work to improve. I used to think I had to choose one. That I would never really fit in unless I was completely one or the other. But, people are not square. People don’t fit neatly into boxes. Whether you hail from one, two, or five different countries, whether you feel attached to all or none of them, your national identity is just that: yours. No one can tell you that you are not enough to be something, or that you are too much to be something else. That is what took me so long to understand, and what I hope I can pass on to others. It is a beautiful thing to be proud of where you came from, whether that means your country, your parents’ country, or even your grandparents’ country. And no one can tell you not to be.

Gloria al bravo pueblo and God bless America.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.


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