So, where are you from??? - Maya Vela
Updated: May 20, 2020
“So, where are you from?”
This is a question that I have been asked, time and time again throughout my last 21 years of life and is something I’ve been conditioned to answer differently depending on who is inquiring. I have led a very fortunate life thus far. I have attended private Christian schools since kindergarten. This also means that I have been in predominately white spaces for as long as I can remember. Race and ethnicity were never things that were explained in depth to me in my childhood home. All I knew was that my great grandparents were from Mexico and that my parents were very proud of our culture. I often heard Spanish spoken at home and I have fond memories of eating arroz con pollo after a long day at school. I was never shy about my love of the Mexican culture and I found that in my early years at school, Spanish was one of my favorite classes.
However, looking back I remember feeling a sense of performativity within these spaces. It was almost as if I was already expected to know every prayer we learned simply because we were learning them in Spanish. Surprisingly, it was quite the opposite. Having experienced othering due to speaking another language, my parents chose to raise me to not speak Spanish and thus eliminate any chance of me being made fun of by my peers. It was not until many years later, when I expressed interest in learning the language, did I become somewhat proficient.
Regardless of this fact, I was seen first as a Latina before anything else. I am not ashamed of this fact; however, I find it quite interesting to reflect and see how this shaped my schooling and formative years. Like all other children, all I wanted was to fit in. In my quest to be accepted by others, I shed certain aspects about my identity. I stopped pronouncing certain Spanish words correctly for fear of being made fun of. I did not talk about the fact that my grandparents did not attend college when my peers were talking about their family’s legacies at different universities. At the time I did not even realize that tools were not in place that would have allowed my grandparents to attend, let alone, graduate from a four-year institution.
It was not until I began high school that I started to become more aware of my situation as a person of color in predominately white spaces. I graduated high school in 2017, which was the year that our current president was sworn into office. That means that my senior year of high school was rife with conversations about which candidate would make a better president. For the first time I was able to see my classmates, many of whom I had known since I was five years old, express racist and problematic thoughts. I will never forget standing at my locker, which was located at the edge of the hallway and heard a male classmate yell “Build a Wall!” as he was passing my locker. Now, I am not claiming that this epithet was directed at me, however the lockers at my school were organized alphabetically, which meant that my locker was among students whose last names were Vargas, Vasquez, and other Hispanic last names. Either way, this one experienced forever changed how I viewed my education. I didn’t feel like I had a right to tell an educator about this incident because I knew that I would be branded as sensitive or be questioned if I misunderstood the event. My school was not one that empowered people of color, particularly women of color. The rest of my year was filled with arguing that Donald Trump was a racist because he was calling my brown brothers rapists and drug dealers and was promoting the sexual assault of my brown sisters.
By the time I graduated I realized that I had become immune to comments made against my race and I internalized certain thoughts about how I was perceived and how I should act based on those perceptions. It took a long time for me to unlearn those behaviors, and I will admit that I am still learning. Coming to college was a time for self-discovery and reflection and I found a voice, a loud one might I add, that I use to advocate for myself and others who belong to marginalized communities. I am still working on recognizing microaggressions and validating my feelings when I no longer feel validated by the space I am in. But it’s a growing process that I am grateful to go through. So now when people ask me, “But where are you from?” I have the tools to recognize that the answer to that question is not a simple one. It is step one to a larger conversation about race, ethnicity and what it means to be a Latina in modern America.