This is part of This Made Me, a HuffPost series paying tribute to the formative pop culture in our lives. Read more stories from the series here.
I used to blast Mozart and Bach CDs that I borrowed from the Chicago Public Library on my parents’ stereo as a child. We lived in the illegal basement unit of a brick building in Chicago, and I liked to imagine that my neighbors upstairs thought of me as sophisticated based on my music taste. The truth is I never really liked the music. The Beethoven CDs with the green covers that I begged my parents to buy me at Circuit City were a waste.
I forced myself to listen to this music and pretended to like it because I thought that would make me fit in with my English-speaking peers. As the daughter of first generation Mexican immigrants who started working as soon as they came to the U.S., it was my duty to ensure that I spoke the language clearly and excelled academically. I don’t know where I got this idea from, but I believed smart kids and rich people only listened to classical. So if I wanted to be rich, speak English well and make enough money so that my parents didn’t have to work anymore, I had to be into classical music. My mom’s comments to family members showing off my music taste confirmed it.
“I forced myself to listen to this music and pretended to like it because I thought that would make me fit in with my English-speaking peers.”
Spanish was my first language and because I was born and raised in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, which at the time was predominantly Latino, I didn’t have to speak English outside of school. I had no one that could introduce me to popular, age-appropriate music in English. My neighbors either played corridos, Mexican ballads, or salsa, the Puerto Rican canon. Classical was how I thought I’d fit into the English-speaking culture.
But forcing myself to listen to this foreign music didn’t protect me from culturally incompetent adults. In fourth grade, my teacher asked us to tell everyone what we did the previous weekend. I joyfully recounted how my family had taken a trip to the suburb of Rolling Meadows, except that I pronounced it the way my Spanish-speaking family members say it rollismedos. The teacher forced me to say the incorrect pronunciation over and over in front of everyone, despite the tears in my eyes, until a boy named Isaac intervened on my behalf. I didn’t speak up in class much after that, and I doubled down on my classical listening.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2003 when I learned my first song in English. I was 12, sitting on my aunt’s front steps during a sticky summer afternoon, and a boy played the song for me on his mp3.
I spent a lot of those last summer days with the radio in my basement room on low, switching between Kiss FM and B96 waiting to hear the opening melody of Baby Bash and Frankie J’s “Suga Suga.” I would turn the volume up as soon as I heard the distinguishable synth. When I finally learned the song’s name, I even asked Jeeves for the lyrics using the library computers.
Maybe it was because the song made me feel close to the Puerto Rican boy who wore oversized navy shirts and smelled of body spray, or maybe it was the way Baby Bash whispered azucar to me at the end of the song ― but that song stayed with me.
By the end of summer, the same boy called me a lesbian — we didn’t yet know being bi was a thing — and stopped talking to me because I didn’t want to kiss him. I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment, and good immigrant daughters weren’t supposed to kiss boys in basements.
Every few months now, I look up the song on YouTube. It’s one of a handful of songs whose lyrics I know word for word. I listen to it, not because it reminds me of childhood crushes, but because it lifts me to personal moments of agency. This was the first song I chose to like for no other reason than my own joy.
I didn’t listen to any of my classical CDs again after that year. I didn’t throw them out because doing so would be wasting my parents’ hard-earned money; they just kind of got lost in all of my belongings. Slowly I replaced them with downloaded R&B hits, alternative bangers, rock classics and for a short period, screamo essentials.
My Gemini-self can never be satisfied with just one genre, or just one language of music. My favorite self-curated playlist is simply titled “Music” and it’s made with no one in mind but myself.