By: Ileana Cáceres
Like many of you, this past election spurred some significant and critical self-reflection. How could this have happened? Why didn’t I do more? What can I do now?
Despite having always cared deeply about the rights of immigrants and women, I confess that I had not done any direct outreach in my local communities. Instead I contributed financially to the political candidates and causes of my choice and compulsively consumed political updates from the New York Times. In discussing the famed abolitionist John Brown (who led a failed insurrection), Lincoln wrote: “It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.” You see, good thoughts and intentions evaporate in the face of harsh realities, such as the incoming administration. It availed me nothing that my heart was in the right place. And I had such stupid reasons for keeping me back. Specifically, I worried that my “gringa” Spanish wouldn’t be of any help to my local Latino community.
You see, I grew up in the 90s in suburban Maryland. As a brown, curly-haired kid with nerdy tendencies, I was always scared of misstepping in either American or Latin culture, and never felt completely at ease in either. To my Anglo-American peers, I was deeply exotic, even though I just saw myself as another character from my Harry Potter books, whose internal motivations matched my own but who looked nothing like my olive-skinned self. But still, I dreamt of an owl coming to my window with my invitation for Hogwarts.
When I visited my parents’ home countries (El Salvador y La Republica Dominicana), I would stumble through my Spanish and feel an even higher wall between myself and the culture. Coming from the states, where dancing consisted of awkwardly rubbing against each other in school gymnasiums, I felt like such a pura gringa out with my cousins in Santo Domingo. I didn’t know how to dance merengue, salsa, cumbia o nada, so I bopped along and smiled from the bar, enjoying myself but utterly out of my element. As I navigated my diverse interests (Juan Luis Guerra, Led Zeppelin, Stravinsky, The Misfits), I had so many moments of dislocation – am I allowed in this space? Is this song for me too? Feeling like an eternal tourist, pressing one’s face against a snow globe, has been a large part of my experience as a Latina in the US.
Pero ya, basta with the insecurity. This is not the time for inaction because of fear that you’re not Latina enough.
In this New Year, I commit myself to throwing off the blankets of insecurity and the layers of doubt that have kept me from participating. My parents instilled me with a deep pride in being Latin American and we are under attack by the incoming administration. I may have grown up as an awkward wallflower but I reaped lasting benefits as well. For one, I am empathetic. I have many skills to contribute. I have had the luxury of being in many cultures and subcultures. I am bilingual and I am proud to be a Latina and an American.
Rather than dwell on the past and retreat into the safety of my friends, now is my time to employ my strengths and dive into the community. I have started volunteering at a local library and I’m headed to DC for the Women’s March on Washington. I am fairly new to California, so I took a chance and reached out to the Latino Community Foundation to learn more about ways to get involved. I still feel like I’m not doing enough, but I am trying. Most importantly, I have realized that it is my time to quit worrying about whether I fit in, whether my pronunciation is perfect, and focus on reaching others in any way that I can. Join me.