By Lia Hudgins
With Hispanic Heritage month kicking off on September 15th, the annual celebration of ethnic heritage is marred by the reality of being away from it. That is, living a daily life that doesn’t reflect anything except the status quo of my surrounding demographic.
For most kids of one or more cultures, it is easy to look back and reflect on where the differences are in daily life practices. When I lived with Dominican immigrants, I took my shoes off as soon as I entered my home, enjoyed consistent staple foods of plantains and rice, and said a prayer to the cross above the door whenever I was going out. Now, living with born and bred North Carolinians that make up the other half of my heritage, I have become accustomed to walking on carpeted floors with Adidas on my feet and the awareness that the same meal will never be repeated in a week. For many of us, this distinction is easy to make. It doesn’t bother us even when it contradicts because both are a part of what we were raised with.
The issue of split cultures didn’t occur to me until I was older and attempted to live in a mix of the two.
When I moved to North Carolina, the opportunity to speak Spanish on a daily basis disappeared. I enrolled in Spanish classes, but then I spoke too fast to converse with anyone who was learning Spanish, which was just about everyone I interacted with. If I was on the phone with family members from the D.R, or when I was getting the chance to visit, they said I spoke too loud and that my behavior was different. The implication that I acted “strangely” when I spoke Spanish, or spent time with Latinos, was shocking. The same thing happened on the other side. When I was with Latinos, stories about my daily activities weren’t received well. At the time, I could not process that;depending on what group I was with, I acted differently.
Adjusting one’s speech, actions, and behavior to fit into a culture that they inhabit, but cannot wholly identify with because of the presence of another culture is referred to as code switching; for most mixed kids, it is our constant way of life, necessary for advancement but causing a psychological rift. Code switching is often used to fit in where specific questions regarding one’s culture arise, but it is also used by many as a safety mechanism.
WHEN DIFFERENCES CAUSE DISSONANCE
As I began to navigate how Dominicans and Americans played different roles in my life, the idea of ever having to be in the same room with both became an uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing thought. If I had to adjust to each group, then they would always assume that I was faking one or both of the cultures I was raised with. I was a part of both, but neither fit together at any given time. This is the reality of many children of mixed ethnic groups.
But for people raised in one consistent culture, the idea of code switching sounds like “obvious common sense” (a direct quote from someone who has never had to code switch). These people only have one culture to conform to.
Sitting in a job interview in an office in America, I will do anything to appear as if I don’t fit the stereotypes of Latinos and Hispanic culture, because it is statistically likely that I will get hired that way. However, if I am at work, and a customer can only speak Spanish, I am treated as an asset to them. Several times I have been sitting in a class with people who don’t know of my origins and listening to other students argue the question of human rights as they pertain to my ethnic heritage.
These are the kinds of things that make a code switch more than “common sense,” and it is definitely not something that everyone does. Code switching ties back to racially motivated discrimination and violence that still occurrs today. It is more than being a “cultural other.” It is oftentimes a question of safety.
THE LASTING IMPACT
How will I celebrate Hispanic Heritage month, with no other Hispanics around? I’ll be made an example of in class a few times, and that’s about it.
To this day, I’m too Hispanic to be White, and too White to be Hispanic. Independence Day is celebrated both on February 27th and July 4th. My favorite food is both cheese fries and tostones. My views on bureaucracy, school, friends, food, dance, language, and just about any category of thought in my brain can in some way be attributed to one culture or the other, and the two are often so diverse that walking a middle line is impossible.
That being said, I love both of them. Both cultures have been good to me and bad to me, and picking would be impossible.