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The US in Words #6: Pinned Down (How I Discovered my Own Identity)

The sixth in a series looking at U.S. life and culture through its idioms. View previous entries.

To pin (something/someone) down = to get exact or specific information on/from

There were a few things I was sure I was before coming to the United States: blond, big, and Uruguayan. However, all of these things, which were part of my identity, seemed to blur and fade upon my arrival here.

The first time I ever stopped to think consciously about fitting my ethnicity and skin color into a category was on the plane from Uruguay to Miami, when I was asked to fill out a customs form (if you ever travel to the U.S., you will have to fill in one of those). It gave me options for Latina, Hispanic or White. I didn't know which to pick and eventually made a random decision to placate a less-than-patient agent at the airport.

After having been in this country for about five months, I have since given the question a lot more thought than I ever thought I would.

In my first semester here, I took a class called Race and Ethnicity in U.S. Literature. The class helped me understand the dynamics of a country as diverse as the United Sates, and it made me see that simply because it is diverse does not mean that everybody embraces diversity and accepts it as a good thing. I learned about how different ethnic groups have suffered and what their communities did to own their heritage and overcome any difficulties they faced. But most importantly, I reflected a great deal on who I am in relation to race and ethnicity.

I come from a country where ethnic diversity is scarce. Our native populations were largely killed off when the Spanish set foot on what today is Uruguay, so most of the population has European origins, primarily Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. My very own roots are Spanish for the most part, but I also have some Portuguese and German heritage.

Some people in the U.S. seem to have difficulties in “categorizing” me, and that makes them uneasy. I have realized that some people find it surprising, or even disturbing, that I look White but that I am Latina. Once, for instance, my friends were talking to a guy from Puerto Rico in Spanish. When I approached to join the conversation and spoke Spanish with my clearly rioplatense accent (an accent unique to Uruguay and some parts of Argentina), the guy looked at me and said, “But … you’re white!”

The many countries of Latin America
The many countries of Latin America

This wasn’t the only time when people pointed out the difference between my looks and origin. Many Americans would typically expect someone who claims to be Latino to have tanned skin and certain facial features common to only certain regions of Latin America, such as Mexico or Cuba, which have some of the largest numbers of immigrants from Latin America in the U.S. But this is a rather narrow-minded, if not ignorant, view of the concept of Latinism, which embraces a whole continent of multiple and very diverse origins, cultures and traditions.

So what is it that makes me who I am? Is geography the decisive factor in determining my ethnic origin? In that case I am Latina, for I come from a country located in Latin America.

Are my language and my culture what define who I am? Then I am Hispanic, for I speak Spanish, drink mate, dance tango and sing folklore songs.

Do my looks (or the blood that runs through my veins) speak about my identity? Then I am White, for I have fair skin, light-colored hair and light-blue eyes, and my kindred are entirely European.

I have never liked to label people and to put them into categories; I have always felt that reduces them to something much smaller than the whole being they truly are. That is why I have decided, thanks to the insight I have gained in taking my class and pretty much just by living here, that I am happy to be all of them. Yes, I am a Hispanic White Latina, as crazy as that may sound.

I am especially proud of having started thinking of myself as Hispanic and Latina, because I never gave this any importance when I lived in Uruguay. It was only when I came to the United States and became an outsider that I had to think which groups I identified with and why. To be able to embrace the three identities makes me more of who I am, so it makes me stronger.

I have come to the conclusion that being more aware of my ethnic roots has made me more confident and that I like having added more “names” to my identity checklist. I don’t think we are just our labels and categories - we are a lot more, and we shouldn’t try to pin people down with one label - but we can add those characteristics to the whole package of traits and communities and practices and traditions that make us who we are.

Editor's Note: In the past week we've been talking a lot about race in America, and the benefits and challenges of living in a diverse country. Read some additional perspectives on race:
- When Your Race is Not the Only Race: An Education in Diversity, by Zita
- Silence is Stronger Than Hate Speech, by Phillip
- Are Foreign Students Stereotyped by American Classmates?