October is Hispanic Heritage month, a bittersweet time for a second-generationer.
Prejudice enjoyed its heyday when my father was younger. Consequently, we were raised to hide our heritage, both in the world and at home. Oh yeah, we lived for the food and enjoyed the music at holidays and celebrations, but at all other times it was all about assimilation.
That didn’t work so well for me. I apparently look like the Puerto Rican and South American that I am. In early childhood that was not an issue; I had close ties to my father’s family. As I got older we saw less and less of them, partly because the mother figure didn’t want to be around these middle and working class (insert ethnic slur here.)
In high school, in true teenager fashion, I had some fun with this. When mother figure told me to do something about my wild curls, I got an “afro”. When a school “guidance counselor” insisted I drop out of the college-track courses, I evenly replied, “I’m going to college.” He said no, I was not and I again replied, “I’m going to college.”
It got even more interesting about a year later: I had been in honors English but was required to switch to regular classes in order to graduate early. (I was eager to finish high school.) The English teacher in that last semester lived in the next neighborhood over and knew my brother and me. So, he was outraged when I was summoned from his class to be interviewed in the principal’s office…to determine if I could speak English. Apparently, they were assessing the linguistic abilities of all students with Spanish surnames. My teacher asked me to answer their questions in Spanish and I gave it my best shot. The suits were too ignorant to know that I wasn’t a native speaker. I quickly switched to English to tell them how stupid they were, and why. (I had my teacher’s word that there would be no repercussions, and he was right.)
Funny how things work out: mother figure didn’t want me to go to college. My paternal aunt offered to keep an eye on me if I went to the public college near her job. It was a commuter school, appropriate since there were so many lower-income students. And it was there that, for the first time since third grade, I was educated alongside some people who looked like me. Of course, I was an odd duck, not being a fluent Spanish speaker and living in the neighborhood that I did. I had a blast and, yes, graduated. Oh, and my aunt never once bothered me at school.
So here it is, many years later, New York is such a different place. Tonight, my corporate overlords provided the venue for a beautiful Hispanic Federation fundraiser, and some of us employees were invited to attend. Live music, yummy cocktail food representing much of the Hispanic world, chatting with colleagues, that awful feeling that perhaps I should have worn a fancier dress.
I believe we have assimilated in the perfect way: hard work, education and congeniality have bought a measure of equality. A few years ago I lived in a pretty suburb and nobody had any problems with my child or with me. I earned the right to live in that area near the water, just like everybody else there.
Like it or not, Americans are a hyphenated people. We honor our ancestors by recognizing where they came from. Sometimes it gets tribal, when the more ignorant among us decide to hate based simply on ethnic difference. But it happens less and less. And that, for me, is the takeaway from Hispanic Heritage Month.