Moving Beyond Gratitude Of Second Place

Too often I am the only Latina at the table.
This is one of the only photos I have from mi tierra. I'm the baby.
This is one of the only photos I have from mi tierra. I'm the baby.

My name is Melisa Pereyra. I am an immigrant, an actress, an orphan, a speaker of truth, a questioner, a warrior. In my writing, sometimes my tenses disagree with my subject―the doubt of my past, present and future bleed through each grammatical mistake.

This is the first time I put into writing some of my experience as an immigrant in this country. I wrote without editing myself. I am continuing to learn what it’s like to be “an other,” slowly realizing my existence is worth more than I ever gave myself credit for.

I should probably begin by sharing that am not the best at anything. I have never been. In competitions as a teenager after arriving in this country, I placed second in almost anything I ever competed in but was always aware that I could not have placed at all. I believed it was okay that those who were born here should win more often than me; being second was the best I could be. I knew my place was second to someone else’s and didn’t know there was anything wrong with it.

I am continuing to learn what it’s like to be “an other," slowly realizing my existence is worth more than I ever gave myself credit for.

When I imagined my future, it was okay if I saw myself working long hours for less than minimum wage. I was an immigrant―that was more than I deserved. For a while, I forgot I was human like everyone around me because “IMMIGRANT” was imprinted in my mouth. Through every word I wrestled in my tongue, I said to the world, “I am second.”

I became so content with second place that I began to fear the responsibilities that might come with placing first. If I was first, what would my project be if I won the pageant? If I want to change the world, could I start by addressing how the business of charity has destroyed the countries it has tried to aid? Would people look at me like I’m crazy? What were my classmates born a continent north but worlds apart from me think of me? Would they ever be able to see themselves thru my eyes? Would they ever see me?

I was only 15 when I started wondering why the world plucked me from my country of birth and dropped me off in Idaho Falls, ID. Would the people in Idaho Falls, Idaho know about the poverty that exists around the world? Would I even be able to explain it? Or would my accent and anxiety make me too nervous to be clear? Would people around me think I’m ignorant, stupid, uneducated if I tell them I am not from the fetishized vision they have of Buenos Aires, Argentina, but from Villa Caraza? From the parts they don’t show in the pictures? Would it be weird if I was proud of that? Or should I be ashamed? Would they pity me? Did that matter to me?

Often times, I would let people say, “I have always wanted to go to Argentina! It is so beautiful!” I honestly didn’t know what they were talking about. Because my survival as an actress and immigrant depend on seeing myself through a different lens, I googled “Buenos Aires, Argentina” and saw my country through their eyes for the first time.

It really was beautiful on that screen.

Since I could not see it the same way, I thought perhaps there was something wrong with me. I was afraid and therefore continued to be content with second place. I knew my biological ― as well as many of my spiritual ― brothers and sisters would not have the opportunities I had. I was the exception to the rule. “One of the good ones.”

I was too blinded by assimilation to be able to see that a fellow native Spanish speaker was trying to feel a little less alone.

Would it make my family back home proud if I told everyone who I was inside and where I really came from? Or would my family want me to stay quiet, work hard, learn the language, and do my best in order to help society stop being afraid of immigrants? Did they know the U.S was afraid of immigrants? Did I?

I wish I could say I have always been proud of where I come from, but that has not always been the case. I often got offended when people spoke Spanish to me because I assumed they thought my English wasn’t good enough to be understood; I was too blinded by assimilation to be able to see that a fellow native Spanish speaker was trying to feel a little less alone.

I cried at my bedside for months as a confused teenager with a new foster family in Idaho because I did not like it here. I hated myself for crying, for not being thankful for this new life I was now responsible to live. After dreaming the American Dream since I could remember, I didn’t know what to do with it once it was real.

At first I asked myself, what do I dream about now? Then after living in the land of opportunity for a couple of months not knowing how to speak a word of English... I began dreaming about being able to talk to people. As a 15-year-old, I began dreaming about learning how to read, speak and understand a new language with all of its nuances.

When you are learning a new language, listening is your friend. So I listened. And listened. And listened some more. In fact, I listened for so long that I forgot I had a tongue inside my mouth. A tongue that reached all the way into my insides and gave me the power to speak.

I am not the only Latina who loves classical theater, not the only Latina with a graduate degree ... But often times I am the only Latina at the table, in a play, in a classroom, at work.

Every day, I realize that there is nothing special about me. Viola Davis is right, when she received her Emmy she said, “The main difference between people of color and every one else is opportunity.” Gina Rodriguez while accepting her Emmy for Jane the Virgin said, “This award is so much bigger than myself. Is about a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”

I was so lost, I could not have heard those things when I was 15. There is nothing special about me, nothing exceptional. I moved to this country and earned the opportunity to succeed. I am not the most talented, not the only Latina who loves classical theater, not the only Latina with a graduate degree, not the only Latina that feels empowered by telling stories. But often times I am the only Latina at the table, in a play, in a classroom, at work.

And yet, there is nothing special about me. Someone else believing that I could do great things and talking about it was not enough. I needed the opportunity.

I began searching for them, continuing to work hard and giving those that met me no excuse to dismiss my existence. I knew that I had to adhere to the way the world turned and knew it turned without me. I had to learn that I could ask for equality without being seen as ungrateful.

I learned about systemic racism much later than I care to admit; I was too busy assimilating, too busy taking notes and keeping quiet. But I have lived in this country long enough to understand that being a second class citizen in a place where I have built my entire life is not good enough anymore.

For a while, I believed that there was something really wrong with me because everyone around me always thought the world was good; people found the silver lining much quicker than I ever did. I thought I was just a negative person. If you really know me, you know that is not true (I am a realist though, and there is a reason for that). But I believed this. Why?

Surrounded by a group of people born and raised in this country, I felt embarrassed to admit feeling anything different. Instead, I laughed at jokes I didn’t understand and allowed others as well as myself to make fun of my past; because funny is comfortable in this country.

Eventually, I moved beyond feeling gratitude for my opportunities and began questioning why these opportunities don’t happen to more people like me. Why am I the only Latinx in so many different places and situations? I am not the only one who wanted to be there, not the only one who worked hard to accomplish goals. I began questioning why there aren’t more of us in leadership positions, on our stages, in our classrooms... but so many of us fill up our jails.

I am concerned about the welfare of my brothers and sisters, of my future children. I want to acknowledge that I have benefited from a system that is willing to give a light-skinned Latina a shot, but may not do so for someone with darker skin. And even though I have had opportunities, I live in a society that continues to enforce the belief that the immigrants that feed this economy can only ever be second. Because an immigrant being first is uncomfortable in this country.

Even though I have had opportunities, I live in a society that continues to enforce the belief that the immigrants that feed this economy can only ever be second.

We are called “aliens” in case we don’t feel foreign enough, told that we need to work on our “accent reduction” in case we don’t feel small enough. No one person is responsible for these things happening, but what we are all responsible for is recognizing and changing them.

There is nothing special about me, and I have benefited from the systemic racism and colorism in this country. And yes, colorism is a word, so check yourself auto-correct.

There is nothing special about me, and although I have benefited, I have not benefited equally. If no one was benefitting equally, a systemic revolution would have happened long ago. But because it’s immigrants and people of color being incarcerated, murdered and abused by this system, the inequality makes sense to many. It even made sense to me once and I should have known better.

I want to dismantle this system. I want to make the world different, better, stronger for mine and your future children. Just because I endured hunger, poverty and a myriad of other misfortunes does not mean other people have to. Just because I benefited from this broken system, does not mean other people do.

I am learning how to talk about my thoughts. I am learning how to be a leader in the fight for equality and justice. I am recognizing that my once unconscious bias against myself kept me from taking ownership of my past, my present and my future.

I don’t have the right words but I am sure as hell searching for them. I am doing that now but it took me a minute... because I erased myself for a while and pretended there was something special about me. Something exceptional. One of the good ones.

It was easier to feel like that.

#identity #justice #institutionalracism #privilege #policebrutality #amimyself #whatisother

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