But… you don’t look Latina, are you sure?
But… you’re white. Oh, you meant to say, South Africa…”
This has been a normal part of my life. Ever since I could remember, ever since I started to interact with people without the protection of my mother I have had to defend my heritage.
“Where are you from, let me guess…”
And I usually let them. As frustrating as it is, I let people guess my heritage. Why? Well, it lets me highlight their own stereotypes and misconceptions about cultures.
If you’re new here, I was born in Tunisia, to a Cuban mother. I was raised in New York City, with not only Cuban but Italian, Colombian, American influence. To say I was culturally confused when I was younger is an understatement, but then again I believe that’s a superpower of growing up in New York. When I hung out in Corona, I was Dominican, Mexican, and Italian. When I was in Jackson Heights I was Colombian, Peruvian, and Ecuadorian. My point is, growing up I did not adhere to one culture’s standards or customs. Neither did many of my friends. We grew up in a city where the entire world is accessible at any hour.
Due to this, I was often a cultural enigma. No one ever knew where I was “from,” or the more popular question, “what are you?”. Because “human being” is never an acceptable answer. To all my mixed heritage people you feel me. It’s the most baffling question but it’s the most common.
So then I play the guessing game and see people’s reactions when they “try not to offend” me by guessing the “wrong” country. Which brings the notion that one country or culture is worse than another (another problem for another article). Then the big reveal and their faces drop.
“Tunisia, where’s that?”
“OH! You were born in South Africa, cool!”
No, North. We’re by Algeria. *confused face* Okay uh, next to Libya. *blank stares*
Then I give up because I don’t get paid to be a fifth-grade geography teacher. Don’t even get me started on the history lesson when people try to pronounce and figure out my last name. Yet, if you asked the Arab/Middle Eastern kids growing up, they would never consider me to be Tunisian. I couldn’t speak Arabic and I had little knowledge of the life in my home country. So does that mean I’m not Tunisian?
In college I took an African studies class, and on the first day my professor went around the room to learn our birthplace, heritage, etc. When it was my turn I mentioned I was born in Tunisia, the professor turned around and said “No you were not.” Ummmmm, what!? She proceeded to lecture the class about “liars trying to claim the motherland for themselves.” I was completely shocked, as I had never had someone in a position of power, especially an educated woman in academia, deny me my heritage.
I was raised by my mother’s side of my family. This means I grew up on croquetas and agua de violetas, and la Virgen Caridad del Cobre watching over me in a homemade shrine, Què Pasa, USA and lectures of how Castro stole everything. Ok, soy Cubana, I speak Spanish and dance Salsa, quien me lo va a negar? Turns out – everyone.
You’re a gringa.
It’s quite frustrating, to be and feel a certain way, and have other people try and deny that. What makes people think they have the right to tell me who or what I am?
Is it purely ignorance? These are questions I will probably never have the answers to.
But in my hours of scanning the internet, I came upon this term, cultural perspective. Basically, it is how a person’s social and cultural environment shape the way they perceive and process others. People with different cultural perspectives may have difficulty understanding why other cultures act and react a certain way. In a way, cultural perspectives influence the relationships that people have with themselves as well, like their mental or emotional wellbeing. So someone’s upbringing and interaction with their own culture will directly influence how they perceive me and my culture.
My heritage is also something I will have to defend my entire life. But through the years, I have learned how to pull my power from my roots and my ancestors. I have come to terms with the fact that other people may not perceive me as who I truly am, and that’s their fault, not mine. I am who I am. I am Cuban, I am Tunisian, and no one will ever be able to take that away from me.