Finding My Latinidad Meant Leaving Behind Everything I Knew To Be True

As I visited different countries, I craved a deeper connection with the Indigenous identity that had been stripped away from me.
Xochitl Cornejo for Huffpost
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When I reflect on my childhood in Puerto Rico, I realize how the island can be like a bubble that isolates you from the rest of Latin America. It’s no secret that, contrary to our counterparts, Boricuas are deeply Americanized. On the island, both public and private schools teach English as a second language, you’re prompted to sing both the U.S. and Puerto Rican national anthems at major events, the movie theater mostly offers English movies with Spanish subtitles, and Spanish language TV isn’t as widely available as English channels.

I grew up waiting for both Santa Claus and Los Reyes Magos, getting excited about parranda and coquito season, but also watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Traveling to Florida, a state with an ample Puerto Rican population, with my family felt like visiting another pueblo.

Spanglish was part of our dialect, as was the use of anglicisms — this assimilation was by design. I remember being quizzed by my history teacher on the 50 states but never on all the countries that comprise Latin America. We learned little about our Latinidad; the most we discussed was through Latin American novels “Doña Barbara” by Rómulo Gallegos and “Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada” by Gabriel García Márquez. We didn’t even touch on how our cultural heritage compared and contrasted to others in the region.

The truth is, most of our history has been whitewashed. And yet when you leave your homeland, you encounter that the rest of the world categorizes you as Latino/x/e. When I landed in the U.S., I was referred to as Latina and Hispanic, terms my family and friends, still living on the island, had never identified with.

“Latinhood is an American invention,” says Jorge Duany, professor of anthropology at Florida International University. “It’s a pan-ethnic category that groups multiple nationalities in a box, which can be problematic because although they share a language, some musical practices and the Catholic religion in most cases… there are many dialectal, regional differences, in some countries even resulting in rivalries over border disputes.”

I felt conflicted, as many people with blended identities do. How exactly, beyond being Boricua, was I Latina? Do I know enough about the history of the region to call myself an expert? Can I (and should I) represent all Latinos? It often felt like my identity as a Puerto Rican was too Latina for the U.S. while being too American for the rest of Latin America.

Duany says the internal dilemma Latinos confront is that our identities depend on the context. “Who you feel like identifying at that moment depends on who you are with and the interaction you’re having,” he tells me. “One or [several] of our identities may activate in reaction to the space we’re in.”

This gave me some reassurance. I could be “from Bayamón” to other Boricuas, “Puerto Rican” to other Latinos, “Latina” to Americans and “Hispanic” to a Brazilian. I didn’t have to pick just one. But it took physically traveling between all these spaces to truly discover this nuance.

My identities clashed the most when I visited Rio de Janeiro, where reggaeton was not nearly as popular as it is in other parts of Latina America I’d visited. “We have our own music, different from the rest of you all, like funk carioca and samba,” a friend we met during our first night out told me. Although both of us identify as Latina, we communicated in English ― it was the only language we could both fully comprehend. That night, they taught me about pagode and bossa nova, and although I didn’t understand all the lyrics, I felt like Brazilian music was also mine to be proud of. It was the type of cultural camaraderie I was craving without even realizing it.

Travel journalist Victoria Leandra in Cuba.
Travel journalist Victoria Leandra in Cuba.
Victoria Leandra / Instagram

The music that bonded us filled a void that exists for many of us across the diaspora. “It’s common to not feel the same affinity across all Latino cultures,” Duany says. “A [Puerto Rican] may feel more distant from Central and South Americans, as opposed to their Caribbean counterparts in Cuba and Dominican Republic where linguistic and cultural characteristics are more similar to each other.” Bridging the gap, for me, felt crucial to understand my identity beyond the island I was born on and love so much.

For breakfast, they insisted I tried tapioca, a Brazilian crepe made out of manioc or cassava starch. After learning what’s in it, I realized I’d been fed a false narrative about a significant culinary staple of our people. The basis of casabe, the bread Indigenous Tainos used to make, was alive and well in other parts of the world, except history class taught me that turning yuca into flour was a dead tradition. In Brazil, you’ll widely find it in dishes such as farofa and pão de queijo, two local staples. In Puerto Rico, you’ll only see it as a whole root vegetable. How did this delicious form of sustenance — a thread that ran through all of our cultures ― get lost in translation?

There had to be other parts of my identity I was missing out on. I wanted to understand what it meant to be Latina, I wanted to live it across regions, understand first-hand some of their joys, issues and luchas.

And so, a few years ago, I committed to traveling across Latin America as much as my wallet would allow me to. I had to dive in head first because learning about my own Latinidad meant unlearning about the Americanness I had been indoctrinated with in Puerto Rico. During my travels, I mostly found commonalities rather than differences, unlike what I first encountered upon my arrival in the U.S. ― a country Puerto Ricans were supposedly part of.

On the island, there’s the belief that our Indigenous communities are long gone. Although you clearly see the shimmer of our Taino identities within our everyday lives, including in our vocabulary and our physical appearance, the history of our Indigenous tribes has been suppressed by the colonialist powers of both Spain and the U.S. Yet these communities are alive and well in regions such as Mexico and Peru. The Indigenous population in Latin America is approximately 50 million people belonging to 500 different ethnic groups.

As I visited different countries, I craved to reconnect with the Indigenous identity that had been stripped away from me. The Maleku Indigenous community, in Costa Rica’s Alajuela province, taught me about the common ground between our languages. Although they speak their own, we found common ground over what they call banano (plátano, for me), another culinary staple for both cultures. The Maleku people have a spiritual purpose for them as well — to clean the energy of those who enter their homes.

On a recent visit to Bogotá, Colombia, my friend offered me a “bocadillo.” It wasn’t until I saw it that I realized it was simply what we call “guayaba y queso” back home, a snack I grew up watching my dad eat after work while he watched the nightly newscast. Their “hogao” is our “salsa criolla.” It was in these moments — many of them food related, of course — that I felt reborn into identity as a Latina woman. We both acknowledge that our cultures are different from each other, but we rejoiced in finding the similarities that connect us.

“Homogeneity cannot be expected from Latin America,” Duany says. “Not all Latinos understand or identify with the Indigenous people who speak Mayan and Quechua languages or those who practice pre-Columbian religions. It is clear that diversity is the dominant feature of the entire continent geographically, culturally, linguistically and even politically. One can focus on the differences or opt to highlight the similarities.” I found beauty in doing both.

I deconstructed and unlearned harmful stigmas and structures while also educating myself about my family all over Latin America. I continue to explore different parts of my own identity, as I recognize that it continues to evolve with every new bit of information I learn about our collective history as colonized people. Every spirit and intention I’ve encountered along the way so far has somehow made me feel more complete than I could have ever hoped for. And the journey continues.

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