September 15 to October 15 happens to be the Hispanic Heritage Month. As part of this celebration I decided to share an excerpt from an essay I wrote this year. The original title of the essay is Reflection on Academic Exile, Race, Ethnicity and Writing- A Response to Adichie’s Novel Americanah
On Race and Ethnicity
Race is not an issue that exist for us foreigners before we leave our homes[…]
Before I came to the United States, I did not define myself as Hispanic, I never have to think of myself as distinct, I never associated myself with a cultural group except during World Cup season in which I joined my fellow Paraguayans in the ecstasies that comes with the games or when I protested in the squares of Asuncion against a corrupt government policy. But as soon as I came to college, I realized I belonged to a certain group, to a specific niche of which I never ceased to belong — I was always an outsider. Initially I was part of the international students’ group, and later I became part of the subgroup of the Hispanics, eventually I also became part of the tacit unofficial Dordt’s club of “the non-white”. The complexity of being a minority is that at the same time that you have some experiences in common with those associated with you, you are also different, you also have conflicts, and you can’t understand each other completely. But the majority that surrounds you do not notice these intricacies. They forget about your individuality, they do not think about your specific context, you are “one of them” and to be “one of them” requires you to fit the expectations that people have from that group…
[…] What comes next, after this awareness of social classification, is a process of acceptance of the new given identity. After a couple of months living in the United States, I was no longer offended when people assumed I ate spicy food, […] or mistakenly called me by the name of the only other South American male at Dordt. With some creativity, I would find a way to answer properly to professors’ questions like “What do people in South America think about Venezuela’s ‘oppressive government’?” I was not offended anymore because I started to embrace my Hispanic identity. It did not matter that Paraguayan food was totally different than that of the Mexicans and Nicaraguans, or that I do not play soccer like the guy from Brazil, or that South America is divided between those who supported Chavez’s Government in Venezuela and those who did not. Even though we had our differences, I had a lot more in common with the Hispanic students than the American ones: my Hispanic brothers and I were outsiders. As of today, I can claim that I would rather eat Mexican and Nicaraguan food than American dishes, play soccer rather than football or basketball, and I would probably have more similar political ideas with a Hispanic fellow than with any of my American friends. Nevertheless, it was not until I read this novel [Americanah] that I could understand that there was something deeper in my initial rejection of being seen as Hispanic, especially in Sioux County. It was not only that my perspective of this group changed, but also my societal ideas. What prevented me to accept this identity was related to social status.
According to Ifemelu, the reason why Non American Blacks do not want to be known or seen as “black” in America is also because of the social implications that come with it — to be black is to be at the bottom of the American class and race hierarchy, is to be looked as Chimamanda Adichie describes as “a condescending pity” (Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story). If, the racial status flipped and being black became a symbol of privilege nobody would reject being recognized as “black”. I rejected to be known as a Hispanic because I did not want to be associated with the average Mexican immigrant, I did not want to be seen as someone who was led by economic exile to eventually become an illegal immigrant, and I did not want to be related to the uneducated masses. I did not want to be at the bottom of the American social hierarchy. But it did not matter how smart I pretended to be, how much I cared about my appearance, how intentional I was in eliminating my accent, I was always confounded as another “Mexican”, another kid with a “rough life”, someone of whom people have “pity”. I decided to accept the label, I started to embrace my Hispanic identity, to relinquish my fake upward individual status. The process took time. I started to listen to Latin American music out loud again, forcefully introducing the guys in my hall to Jorge Drexler, Caetano Veloso and Wisin y Yandel. I started to pronounce my name as I would do it at home rather than doing it with my fake American accent “My name is Juan Pablo Benitez Gonzalez”.
Stating my name in Spanish was a way of acknowledging the worth of my language and inheritance, especially because what defines me as Hispanic is not race, is not genotype, my appearance is more similar to a middle eastern than that of a South American native. What defines me as Hispanic is ethnicity, is cultural formation, language, the interaction of my genes with its surroundings, the experience of the Latin blood in the soil of the Guaranies (a native Paraguayan tribe). What defines me as Hispanic is phenotype, is sound, is my name, Juan Pablo, popular Spanish names. Benitez, a last name originated in Asturias, the north of Spain. Gonzalez, the second most popular last name in Spain and most popular last name in Paraguay. The switch in my introduction from English to Spanish was a way of tacitly saying “This is who I am, I am not less than you. This is who I am, your notion of status does not define me. This is who I am, and I am proud of my roots.”