“Do you celebrate the Day of the Dead?”
The first (and, let it be known, only) time that someone asked me that, I was more than ready to start a hissy fit. My jaw fell open, my face contorted into a “did you really just ask me that?” type of look, my hands balled into a fist, nails digging so deeply into my palms I could have drawn blood, knuckles turning whiter by the second — waiting and itching and aching to just be driven through that ignorant fool’s nose because anyone who dares to so much as whisper detrimental, xenophobic or bigoted comments about my culture will, without a doubt, receive una bien merecida pescozá.
The issue is not so much the question or the curiosity that prompted the inquiry. I’m proud to call myself Latina, boricua and a puertorra. I wear my history with honor, I speak my first language with pride and every day I strive to prove myself because it isn’t just about me; it’s about what my native dialect represents, about how my actions, words and attitudes make or break a group of humans that have been marginalized and wrongfully stereotyped for years.
I’ll gladly talk about my heritage and my home with anyone who is genuinely interested to learn. I can go on for hours about the lovely wonders hidden in Puerto Rico: La Isla del Encanto (about how delicious tostones are; how there’s a party around every corner and on every street, always; how the holidays start in Thanksgiving and end during the last week of January; how the natives love human interactions and connections, how pleasant conversations can start anywhere…).
So why was I bothered then?
Because the only country that celebrates Día de Los Muertos is Mexico, and, no, not all Latinos that come to the U.S. are Mexican.
I was irritated because schools in the U.S. fail to explain Latin history and culture; fail to teach Spanish that surpasses elementary level “Hola, me llamo ___”; fail to communicate the fact that there are more than 58.6 million Hispanics in the United States; fail to mention that we’re the biggest and fastest growing “minority”; fail to indicate that Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world; fail to explain how “America” encompasses Hispanic countries located below the border…
They fail, fail and fail, time and time again, and I’m so exhausted from having to clarify what the differences between my culture and someone else’s are. How would you feel if I were to ask you: “Are you the guys that are famous for making maple syrup?” or “Everyone plays hockey here, right?”
It’s those micro-aggressions (those quick snide remarks that you don’t realize actually hurt and slash and burn until a while after they’re said) that make up part of the foundation of the bigger issue. When they accumulate and spill over the top, when they’re asked and said with such normalcy that they’re not considered incorrect, the ground is laid for the bigger societal acts of abhorrence and prejudice to flourish.
Why is there so much hate and discrimination among racially, ethnically and religiously different groups? Why do so many U.S. men and women condemn and marginalize these groups, calling them thieves, rapists and criminals? Why does the media continuously portray them as such (as less than what they are; as less than any human should ever be), throwing wood into a fire that needs to be extinguished? Why, even though it is clearly written in the supreme law of the country that all men are created equal, all men, women and children are not treated equally?
It’s because people have grown used to not worrying about how their small comments and questions (just like: Do you celebrate the day of the dead?) can amount to the bigger picture, can evolve and transform into the larger issues. They’re missing, ignoring and not making the conscious effort to surpass the small step of learning and understanding that leads to assimilation and acceptance.
Let’s be honest and frank here: A country created by immigrants should be more understanding, helpful, respectful and open to other immigrants.