Wednesday, March 30, 2011

To Be or Not to Be Latina

The following essay was written in a moment of crisis, in a moment of painful identity struggle, from when I first moved to the United States. That is how I felt back then. Thanks to a lot of great readings and the support of amazing people, I am slowly finding my own place in this country.

To Be or Not to Be Latina
When I moved to the US three months ago, I was not sure how people here would read me in terms of race/ethnicity. Having lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for my whole life, race/ethnicity was not one of my biggest concerns while living there. In fact, I have always seen myself as a privileged person in a lot of ways. In Brazil, social class is still seen as the hardest struggle to overcome: “If you are poor”, people say, “It does not matter if you are White, Brown, or Black. It will be just as hard”.  Even though I have serious doubts regarding this type of statement (I do think it can become harder if you are poor, African descendent, and a woman). I believe I embraced this idea, considering my traditional leftist political and ideological perspectives. Therefore, race, color, or cultural background were elements which I rarely thought about while living in Brazil.
            Now, living in the US, I am facing issues such as being read as a woman of color. I first realized that was my reality here when I received, weeks ago, an invitation to a student of color meeting at the university. I still do not know exactly what that means. The consequences of being framed in this category remain obscure to me so far. Do I have to fight for something? Do I have to work harder than Whites? Am I going to suffer any type of prejudice for looking darker than Whites? Am I going to be more likely to be subjugated for being a woman of color? Am I ready to fight back?
I come from Latin America,I also a woman of color. Notice I did not say “I am a Latina.” I am still negotiating whether I want to be identified as such, or “Brazilian” will be how I will categorize myself. Do I control these things? Can I choose to be a Latina, or a Brazilian? I did not choose to be a woman of color; this is just the way people read me. What makes me think I will be the one deciding this matter?
Reading “La conciencia de la Mestiza,” from Glória Anzaldúa, I identified with her writings. But at the same time, I had the impression Anzaldúa was not including Portuguese-speaking people in the category “Mestiza,” or to state “somos de una gente.” Some people do not include Brazilians in the Latina/o category, including Brazilians. Where do I fit, then?
The fact that people know nothing about where I come from or what language I speak is sometimes frustrating, but also gives me the chance to reinvent myself, at least to a limited extent. Sometimes I refuse to be categorized as a Latina. Sometimes I identify myself as a Latina. Does that mean I am reinventing myself or is it just a demonstration of my identity struggle? Or perhaps both? What are the implications of being a Latina that speaks Portuguese? Does that make any difference? Am I going to be considered a fraud? Am I Latina enough?
The truth is that no matter what I state, to be or not to be Latina is definitely my biggest struggle right now. Being a Latina encompasses a lot of oppressive elements. Am I oppressed enough to claim this identity? Am I having a diasporic crisis? Is living in “la frontera” the best choice to heal my internal conflicts? Right now, I see myself as my own worst enemy. I cannot decide what I want or where I belong. On the other hand, I do not know how much choice I have in this struggle of identity. I am still fighting to transform my small “I” into my total Self.

Raquel Portilho


  1. Identity negotiation is hard, but I am excited that you have chosen to work through your identity through the art of writing. I encourage you to continue to explore self and Other through your artwork. Let your creative imaginary help you move through nepantla and put Coyolxauhqui back together. The woman that emerges from nepantla will surely be able to make new faces to interact with the world. Whether you emerge as "Latina," "Brazilian," "Latin American," or perhaps something complete different, a mestiza consciousness is accessible to all willing to embrace intersectional thinking, hybridity, and ambiguity. I look forward to future posts. In solidarity, Rob

  2. You touch upon an important point about authenticity. Kevin and I once encountered a disagreement with a group of more recently arrived Mexicans living in Texas in a research project we were doing. The gist of it is that we used the word "mestizo" to simply refer to "mixed" people. Well, to these others, it meant something more unacceptable and they did not embrace the term. This was a learning experience and definitely a lesson in acculturation differences and language connotations!

    Your personal identity struggle resonates with me but for different reasons. I think there is an inherent question of authenticity involved with labels and degrees of Latin@-ness, many of which are performative. It's particularly telling to me that even amongst U.S.-born Mexican Americans there are different views on how acculturation shapes your level of Latin@ being.
    For example, as a Hispanic American whose first language is English, I have come to terms with the fact that I speak Spanish with an American accent. Does the fact that my Spanish is also not without flaws somehow make me less of an authentic Latina? OR does the fact that I adhere strongly to other culture-specific customs, traditions, values, etc. make up for this language flaw? It's not an easy line to draw. A book that helped me come to terms with my own sense of place and social identity is called Hijas Americanas. The way the research is laid out really speaks to the diversity that makes up Latin@s that I find is often not given enough thought.