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If I had a dollar for every time I heard, “Wait, you aren’t white?” I would probably be a millionaire. Unfortunately, dollars do not shoot at me whenever I hear that question. To clarify, I am half Puerto Rican, half Cuban, and half I-have-blonde-hair-and-am-really-pale. We have a running joke in the family that all the Hispanic was used up on everyone else, and by the time I came around there was none left. Now, this is not to say I see my appearance as a burden. Frankly, it is a characteristic I have come to hold dear.
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When I was a kid, my mother simultaneously taught me to speak Spanish and English. I remember clearly the many little books she would share with me, each full of new words and phrases, and how there seemed to be an endless supply of them. On top of this, I enjoyed playing a game with my older sister called repeat-everything-Nicky says-until-she-starts-wondering-why-I-am-alive. “¡Para de repetir lo que digo!” and “¿Dónde están las galletas?” became two of my favorite phrases. Once I started school, I discovered that most of my classmates spoke only one language: English. I did not understand. Why had they not learned both? My Spanish felt like a secret superpower. Later, my parents explained that I had a remarkable culture to thank for my bilingual gift.
With my heritage firmly in my heart, over time I began to realize something: every year, I visited my cousins and family in Puerto Rico, and every year people there looked at me in a strange way. I did not understand it until it struck me one day in vivid clarity. I was different. I was missing characteristics they all had, and it frustrated me. I began to ask my parents why I had different hair and different eyes. They always answered the same: you were born this way! “But why?” I asked over and over again. This cycle repeated until one day I stumbled upon a photograph. It was of all of my cousins and me, piled in my aunt’s kitchen making all sorts of goofy expressions, and it struck me again. I was different. Except this time it occurred to me in the most amazing way possible: I was unique. All my cousins were unique in their own ways. I realized that there was no prescribed way I had to look to be proud of my Hispanic heritage.
I will never forget the look of surprise I received over the summer while volunteering at a local hospital. I was helping out in the ER as a guide when a Hispanic mother came in, frantically wanting to know what was wrong with her ailing little boy. There was no translator in sight. As one of the nurses desperately searched for help, I began asking the mother questions in Spanish to calm her down and understand what was wrong with the boy. The nurse looked bewildered but began telling me what questions to ask in order to get their history documented. Once the official translator arrived, the nurse thanked me, pointing out how astonished she was that I was Hispanic. I told her I was very grateful for the experience because I got to truly help in the ER, as well as break down a stereotype.
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I may not fulfill the expectations most have for what a Hispanic “should” look like, but my heritage is in my bones. It is my wonderful little secret just waiting to burst out with every person I meet. Instead of them already knowing where I come from, I get to SHOW them. My appearance has taught me endless lessons and I am grateful each day for them. I love being Hispanic, I love being different, and I would not trade either trait for the world.
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