Where are you from? ¿De dónde eres? In English or Spanish, this question seems to inevitably permeate any conversation in a new space I inhabit. In the United States, my brown skin gives me away as the “other” and people ask “Where are you from?” When I answer the name of my hometown, Queens, New York, I am given an unsatisfied look. The inquisitive tend to further question with “but, where are you really from?” The truth is, I am still from Queens, but my ethnic and cultural background is Ecuadorian, the homeland of my parents. Ecuador is the answer people seek when they ask me where I am from.
¿De dónde eres? In Chile, a majority white-skinned society with a distinct accent, my brown skin and non-Chilean accent give me away as a foreigner. “De los Estados Unidos” (from the United States), I answer, again to confused looks. The confusion stems from a variety of sources. First, many are confused by my Spanish abilities. Having grown up surrounded by and speaking Spanish my accent is of a native speaker. Therefore, the logical guess is that I am from a surrounding Spanish-speaking country. Second, there is my brown skin. Stereotypically, the exchange student from the United States is white. So when I, a woman of color, claim the United States as my home, I am subject to confused looks. Much like in the United States, my counterpart continues to pry, asking “¿Pero nacistes alli?” (But, were you born there?) “¿Cuanto tiempo vives alli?” (How long have you lived there?) These questions are all in attempt to reach the information that explains my brown skin and Spanish abilities: the answer that my parents are from Ecuador.
Peruvian. Walking through the streets of Santiago the majority of the population is white-skinned, but recently there has been an influx of Haitian and Peruvian immigrants. Geographically Peru is next to Ecuador, and so there are similarities in culture, foods, and appearances. Therefore another common comment I get is “Me encanta comida Peruana” (I love Peruvian food); “Lima es linda” (Lima is beautiful); and so on. The parallel to this in the United States is those who say things like “I love tacos” and “Cancun is so fun.” The assumption of my ethnic background seems to be something inescapable for me. As a Latina born in the United States, in Chile my peers reject the United States as a part of me.
I, unlike the rest of my peers in my program, am seldom asked about my hometown in the United States. Rather I am asked about Ecuador, a country I am connected to by culture but have only visited twice in my life.
While I am not considered as the stereotype for an exchange student from the United States, I have encountered many who, despite recognizing me apart from other North American exchange students, define me as a gringa—a term used to denote a foreigner from the United States. I am gringa to them because despite growing up as a Latina, because I grew up in the United States, influenced by gringo culture. I reject the categorization of gringa because I view myself as Latina, despite being born and raised in the United States. In Latinx culture, being seen as a gringa is negative because it entails not being Latinx enough. On the other end of the spectrum I have encountered Chileans, like my host family, who are fascinated by the duality of being Latina in the United States and being able to maintain culture and language in an Anglo-Saxon dominated society.
Being Latina in Latin America means defending both parts of my identity. Recognizing and explaining my how my life in the United States has shaped who I am as a person, but also how my Ecuadorian culture has done so in the same way. It is true that I do not belong 100 percent to either culture but rather am a mixture of the two as they have influenced me in distinct ways. Living in Chile has made me realize and appreciate how this mixture defines who I am.