The term “Latinx” has emerged in recent years as a gender-neutral alternative to the pan-ethnic terms Latino, Latina and Hispanic. While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably (for example, by the U.S. Census Bureau), “Hispanic” includes people with ancestry from Spain and Latin American Spanish-speaking countries, while “Latino/a” includes people from Latin American countries that were formerly colonized by Spain or Portugal. Ultimately, the difference between “Latinx” and “Hispanic” largely comes down to how one self-identifies.
National Hispanic Heritage Month (or Latinx Heritage Month) runs from September 15 through October 15, a national acknowledgment of the contributions that Latinx people have made to the United States over the course of its history. In spite of the robust amount of positive political, educational, artistic, scientific and health achievements of generations of Hispanic/Latinx Americans, there still remains a sense of “otherness” that they experience. At work, school and in the community, Hispanic/Latinx Americans often find themselves misunderstood, underestimated and unappreciated.
At Carolina, the Carolina Latinx Center hosts numerous events and programming during Latinx Heritage Month, designed to bring a sense of pride, connection and family. In hopes of building a better sense of understanding the difficulties and lived experiences of our Latinx friends and colleagues, several have generously shared their stories. In their own words, our faculty, staff and students tell us of their connection to heritage and culture, navigating a sense of belonging (or not), and their concerns for the future.
Soy orgulloso de ser Latino! I am proud to be Latino!
Latinos are not monolithic. We represent several different countries, indigenous cultures, socioeconomic classes, and religious affiliations. Some would want to pigeonhole us as all Brown, poor and uneducated people. But there is great depth, richness, and resilience in our individual stories, including mine.
My parents came to the United States in 1989 from Perú, leaving everything behind to provide their three young kids a better future. They did not know the language and therefore had to do manual jobs to provide us with opportunities to succeed. They promoted education and believed it was the great equalizer. We grew up surrounded by the warmth of family love, community and a blend in cultures.
My wife, Carla, whose family is from Puerto Rico, and I want to make sure we pass that same sense of orgullo to our daughters. In some ways, they are getting more exposure than I did. My parents, although still in New Jersey, can visit and with today’s technology are able to be present to watch the girls grow. Carla’s family is local, so they have that warmth of family nearby. We are also fortunate to be able to provide them with books, music and kid’s shows in Spanish –something I did not have when I was growing up here. Our oldest even goes to a bilingual school. We understand that we are privileged to have had the education and resources to provide these opportunities to our daughters. This type of access to opportunities is what I want for all my students and all our communities.
In New Jersey where I grew up, there were lots of pockets of Latinos. Some served as role models and others served as examples of what you did not want to become. We moved around some until we landed in a small town in northern New Jersey. My parents had strict rules for us to adhere to, such as no sleepovers — but friends were always welcome to come play at our house. They always wanted to keep us close and safe.
My sense of Latinidad was not really brought into focus until I went to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I was pre-med, an EMT, played football and pledged a fraternity. I did not want to fit into any labels. I decided I would major in Spanish since I “knew” the language. I got the chance to dive deep into literature and go into the broader Latinx community of Allentown thanks to Dr. Erika Sutherland, a great teacher, friend and mentor. Another friend and mentor from the admissions office, Cynthia Amaya, also helped me understand that even if I did not want a label to be put on me as a Latino male, a label was being put nonetheless –and that we are always being judged and examined under that label.
It was upon that realization that I become active in promoting higher education as the great equalizer. I took what I learned from Erika and Cynthia and many others to be the change we want to see. It is with this approach that we took on the task to start a Center on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We rallied around our communities and pushed and pushed. Although it took us over a decade to accomplish it, we did so. Now we are working to make the Center able to support, educate, engage and promote our communities.
America Juarez Maldonado
Environmental Studies and Public Policy major, Latino/a minor, Co-President of Mi Pueblo, Class of 2023
Latinx Heritage Month is a time to celebrate our cultures. I am proud to be Mexican because there is so much richness in our history and traditions. I always get so excited to learn about Latin American countries’ differences and similarities. Most people might not know how diverse we are. The fact that we get the privilege to learn and immerse ourselves more is beautiful. However, there are individuals who are not aware of the diversity present in Latinx countries, and we are so often labeled in one box, which is not the case.
I believe UNC-CH has demonstrated their lack of care to minority students. Since Nikole Hannah Jones, I questioned how much this institution cares or values Latinx students. That question has led me to consider how we can better our environment at UNC-CH, because even though I am proud to be Mexican-American, before entering UNC-CH I only claimed my Mexican identity. There is nothing wrong in saying just that the problem lies in what I believed an American to look like was not me.
This identity crisis hit hard my first year because I grew up in an area where the majority were People of Color (POC); so being a first-generation Latina at UNC-CH is not easy. I was constantly questioning my place at UNC-CH due to the fact the University was predominantly white. I was not used to the demographic, I went from under-resourced schooling to suddenly having privilege surrounding me. This knocked me completely off my first year. I tried my best to fit in, but I was in my head too much hearing, “you are just a diversity number; you do not deserve this spot; you are not smart enough to be here,” and honestly, those words made my year tougher to conquer.
Not only am I a first-generation Latina, but I come from a family of undocumented immigrants. I am grateful to come from a strong hard-working immigrant family. Being a child of undocumented immigrants made my fear of claiming the American identity more intense because being an American also included those who were against me, those who would prefer to separate my family. The culture I grew up in taught me to work hard for my dreams, it taught me to step into unknown territory. Now, I am dominating my spaces as I grow. I do so by learning and owning my identity. There is this saying, “No soy de aqui ni soy de alla” (I am not from here nor from there). I resonated a lot with that saying because in the United States I am seen as Mexican, but in Mexico I am seen as American. The changed labels confused me to the point where I realized that I have privileges like voting. Now, I am prouder of my identity because I can use my voice to say, “Hey, I am American, and like others, I deserve to be represented.”
As I think about representation, especially during this pandemic, I acknowledge that students, faculty, and staff have recognized a lack of leadership from the UNC administration. Since I am one of the Co-Presidents of Mi Pueblo, a Latinx student organization on campus, we were invited to the UNC President’s Council to discuss issues concerning COVID where the UNC administration was invited to attend. However, they failed to show up. The act of not showing up was a sign of how our health and education is not respected nor taken seriously by senior leadership. When I heard the different concerns of students, I could not believe how we, as students, are having to once again take actions for our own wellbeing.
Although UNC-CH still lacks representation, we students have the poder (power) to change and speak. I hope we all can realize it takes time to recognize the poder we already have. I would say that as long as you are willing to step out of your boundaries, you will realize more of what you are capable of accomplishing. I used to be an introvert and was afraid to speak up, but when I felt alone at Carolina, I found a place that helped me get through my first obstacle. Now, as a Co-President of Mi Pueblo, I hope I can do the same for students who are in my situation. The timid little girl is no longer afraid of speaking but is grateful to have a voice that can share a piece of poder. SI SE PUEDE!
“Nunca olvides donde empezaron nuestras raíces, Andrea” is something I grew up hearing from my mom. This translates to “never forget where our roots began, Andrea.” When I was younger, I hadn’t quite grasped how much I would grow to understand what my mom meant when she said that. My roots began in the beautiful country of Costa Rica. I then moved to the United States after I had just turned one, and lived in Lincolnton, North Carolina, until I moved to Chapel Hill for college. My identity as a Latina woman has always been very clear to me because of my upbringing. My mom did an excellent job at making sure that my siblings and I grew up with as many Costa Rican traditions as possible. I have always felt such a strong pride in my ethnicity because of how unapologetic my parents are about loving our culture.
However, my mom also ensured that my siblings and I knew the privilege and opportunities that we had by simply living in the United States as opposed to all of my family who were still in Costa Rica. My siblings, Keilor, Kristina, and I are the only ones who live in the United States on our dad’s side of the family. My life compared to my family’s is very different, which makes me appreciate opportunities given to me even more. All the sacrifices my mom and dad made for me to have these opportunities is one that will never be taken for granted.
Growing up in a small town in North Carolina meant that I knew firsthand what racism and microaggressions looked like. I would be called a “Mexican” or “illegal” all the time by other students and I would laugh it off, but it wasn’t until college that I realized how much those small comments affected me and how I viewed myself. As I learn more in college about the history of this country, the more I realize how this experience that I faced growing up is one that many other Latine students go through, silently. I have spoken to numerous Latine identifying students who share similar stories with me and how it has affected them. One common theme I saw was: “always seen but never heard.” I have always felt this and never knew how to do anything because I was unsure of how to explain what I was feeling. Through the influence of other Black and POC students, along with time and education, I have been able to find my voice and assure that I am seen and heard.
While I enjoy being a part of the Latine community, the political division seen within the community has been one that is not surprising, but definitely heartbreaking. It is no secret that the Latine community has very problematic issues. Racism, colorism and homophobia are embedded into the society, along with the “machismo” culture that is very prominent in Latin America, which causes sexism on multiple levels. The ideals of Latine people have been put to a forefront during the last few political elections, and it has been very disappointing to see how many people do not want change for our community. We should all remember that we have to face the problems, especially ones we created, instead of trying to act as if they do not exist and work to solve them. Change is a necessity for the Latine community, it was never an option.
Being Costa Rican is one of the most important parts of my identity. I love that I am able to speak Spanish, use lingo that would only be heard in Costa Rica, watch telenovelas that my cousins watch, get to travel back and forth to visit my family, and eat casados for lunch and then a granizado for dessert. There is so much beauty in appreciating where I come from.
Latine Heritage Month is important to me because it reminds me of all the beauty in not only Costa Rica, but also of the different Latin American countries. It also reminds me that I would not have the experiences that I have had if it were not for the bravery of my grandmother, Emilia, to come to this country in 1974 to pursue a better life for her and my mother, Cesi.
Maribel Carrion, MBA ‘86
Executive Director, Student Administration Systems, ITS
When I was a student in North Carolina, teachers often struggled to pronounce my name correctly and would often ask where I was from. In my first year of high school, I had a new experience with my name: when I stepped into my PE class it was the boys’ class. The coach sent me to the principal’s office to reschedule. I’m sorry to say that it happened again the next year, same boys’ PE class, same coach sending me back.
Talk about feeling different!
I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but did not grow up there. My father was in the military, so home was wherever he was stationed. The result was an upbringing where I didn’t feel I fully belonged anywhere. I always felt divided: at home with family, I was one person, at school and then work I was another.
When I first came to Carolina as an undergrad, the only other Latina I knew was my sister, also a student here. When I returned to Carolina as a grad student years later, Latinos were still few and far between – especially as instructors. That was decades ago, and Carolina today is very different.
Since I started working at Carolina in 2009, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting other Latino staff and faculty, as well as many Latino students. It makes a difference in how you feel about a place when you get to spend time with others who have a similar background and language. That is why I wanted to see the Carolina Latinx Center (CLC) established. It was important that students especially had a place where they were comfortable being themselves wholly — and to have a place they could come back to at Carolina and reconnect in the future.
After a lot of hard work from the students (along with faculty and staff), it was wonderful to see the Center finally open in 2019. Given these challenging times, the CLC is even more important for Latinos to be able to support each other. As the Center evolves, my hope is that it ensures the voices of this community continue to be heard across this campus and state.
Ricky Pimentel, MS
Doctoral Student – Biomedical Engineering, Applied Biomechanics Laboratory
“Work first, play second,” I’d hear my mother reply to nearly any question I could ask. Can I go over to my friend’s house this weekend? What about that school field trip to the beach? “Work first, play second!,”, she’d respond. Can’t the grass be mowed tomorrow? I’d always groan in response. Does the work really need to be done right now?
Two decades later, I often hear myself repeat this phrase in my mom’s tone of voice so I can trick myself into getting one more task done before calling it a night. I’m a mestizo doctoral student trying to realize as many opportunities as possible during my time at UNC-Chapel Hill. Having already been through undergrad, a master’s, and a few years of work experience, I knew that if I went back to school for a Ph.D., it would be wise for me to take advantage of all the networking, resources, and clubs that I could get involved with.
Yet, during my first semester here in the fall of 2019 I was shocked at all the resources that UNC-Chapel Hill provides to its students. Two recreation centers, clubs from A-Z, over a dozen libraries, and a sea of software licenses are just the start of what we have at our fingertips. I often tell new students and visitors that, if they wished, they could spend 40+ hours a week going to all the seminars, workshops, and speaker series on campus that our university sponsors and learn from world-renowned scholars and the newest scientific techniques.
So my dilemma now is, how can I take advantage of all these opportunities and still get my doctoral dissertation done? One difficulty in being a perpetual student (I’m in 21st grade) is that the work and play start to blur together. How do I “work first, play second”, when there is no limit on the number of studies to design, datasets to visualize, or computer models to simulate my research? But I am lucky, because I have opportunities all around me.
Latinos have been risking their lives and liberties for decades to come to the United States in the name of opportunity. Many intentionally sign up for grueling and/or monotonous low-wage labor in the hope that prospects will be better for their offspring. This “work first, work second” scenario may be preferable to staying in a country with little infrastructure, unbounded poverty, corrupt governments, and gangs running the streets. That is what my father and many of my tias and tios did when Sendero Luminoso rose as a communist brutality in Peru during the 80’s and 90’s. A similar situation is happening now in Central America and in Afghanistan.
Immigrants and refugees are looking for a better life for themselves and their families. We want safety, security, shelter, and a chance to start a new life. Given sufficient opportunity, we will make the most of any chance. We live thriftfully and efficiently, and adapt to new surroundings. My generation of Peruvian-American cousins are achieving our parent’s wildest dreams. Over 90 percent of my Peruvian cousins are graduating college or trade school. We work in business, medicine, defense, construction, engineering, philanthropy, research and development, and education. We are getting married, having children, and growing into the olive-skinned, ceviche-loving economic backbone of this country. We took advantage of the opportunities that have been provided to us and are stepping up to offer opportunities for a new generation.
The United States is not only red, white, and blue—we’re a melting pot of colors, customs, ideas, and lifestyles. We thrive in diversity and divergence from the status quo. We know how to work first to get the job done and continue advancing. We get to play second to enjoy the fruits of our labor. And, I’ll add that we must move forward together by graciously welcoming individuals with other viewpoints, learning about other lifestyles, and supporting each other to access the opportunity all around us.
My identity — or the person I thought I was — has been challenged through most of my life. I remember walking to grade school in my native Cuba, dressed in the pale blue uniform with the Jewish star that identified me as a student of the Colegio Hebreo Autónomo, and having to cross the street or quicken my pace because some children from the neighboring non-denominational school were shouting “Polaca” (‘you polack’) as I approached. I was well aware that they didn’t mean it as a compliment, just as I was aware that they hailed this insult because to them I was an “other”; to them — though I thought I was as Cuban as they were — I did not belong.
A couple of years later, in 1961, I moved to Miami, where no one seemed to challenge my being Cuban, but where that label was now reason for rejection. I was even rejected by fellow American Jews who at first found it hard to believe that someone who spoke Spanish could also be Jewish. In a crowded bus in Miami Beach, one afternoon shortly after my arrival, my older sister and I overheard with surprise a group of elderly people sitting right behind us complaining in Yiddish (a language we had both studied daily in our Jewish school in Cuba) that Cubans were taking over Miami and should be sent back home. I still remember the shock in their faces when I turned around and told them (in Yiddish) what I thought of their remark. But, how ironic: now I was being insulted in Yiddish for being Cuban!
A similar incident happened in Boston, where my family and I had relocated upon their arrival to the United States. We had been in the Dorchester and Mattapan area for about seven years, I was a senior at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, we pretty much felt like we belonged (I certainly did). One morning, as I was rushing to my parked car to get to a 9 a.m. class (I was typically running late — proof positive that I am Cuban), I discovered that my rear tires were completely flat. I thought it was just a case of bad luck until I noticed a note on the windshield that read, “You people should go back home.” When I recovered from my initial shock (who would do such a thing? who were “you people?”), I ran home and called the police, who came up dry. I was certain that the note and the odious prank were the product of a zealous Jewish neighbor’s desire to cleanse his or her territory of invaders who spoke Spanish, people like my family and myself. But did this person know we were Jewish? Would that have made a difference? I’ve often wondered about that.
Many years later, as I was getting ready to move out of my apartment in Chapel Hill, I discovered that someone had written on the back of the name plate on our apartment door the words – -in pencil — “Go home, spik.” The message shocked me, both because I couldn’t imagine who could have done such a thing and because after 20 years in the U.S. I thought I was home. But, at least for the anonymous writer of this succinct message, my name (at that time my married name was Pérez) indicated unequivocally that I belonged somewhere else, that, as the Nuyorican writer Piri Thomas would put it, I was on “alien turf.” Again.
So where is home? Where do I belong? I was a Jew in Cuba, a Cuban in Miami, a spik in the United States. To put it another way, just as confounding, where am I from? Where do I belong? These are questions that haunt me, but the incidents that precipitated this self-questioning — you might call them my defining moments — have in a sense made me what and who I am; they, I believe, have guided me into the place and the space where I am today. Why am I in academia? Why did I choose Sor Juana, a feisty, brilliant Mexican nun from the 17th century as the subject of my dissertation? Why do I continue to read and teach Colonial Spanish American literature? Why did I introduce a first-year seminar on Latino literature at my university?
I think one possible answer is that the world of academia gives me the security and freedom to say and be all that I am: Cuban, Jewish, American, etc. I choose to believe that my diversity, my hyphenated identity, makes me more rather than less, and the same can be said about many of the authors that I study and teach. Take Sor Juana, a woman writer and cloistered nun in a world dominated by men, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, who felt like a Spaniard in Peru and like an Indian in Spain, Sandra Cisneros, whose experiences as a Chicana have allowed her to write moving stories about prejudice and poverty in the slums of Chicago and elsewhere; Nicholasa Mohr, whose stories about Puerto Ricans in New York describe the difficult and emotional mediations between the island and the mainland. So, I found a haven of sorts in the world of academia, in the borough of the Department of Romance Studies, among my university colleagues and these friends, these multicultural, multi-racial authors and characters who, like me, had to face up to the challenge of living in or between two worlds.
But all this comes at a cost. As a woman in academia, a Hispanic or Hispano-Jewish woman who entered the field in the late ‘70s, I’ve had to work hard to distinguish myself in a world where women were a rarity and administrators found it hard to trust people of color. My training, which took place entirely in the United States, placed me farther away, physically and intellectually (and culturally as well) from my mother country and, perhaps more importantly, farther away from my mother tongue. My studies in Hispanic literature returned me to my roots, to the language that this Cuban in Boston feared she might have lost forever.
But, though strong, my Spanish has been marked by my training in the teaching of grammar and my exposure to more literary than living texts. I work hard at keeping my Cuban accent — in Spanish as well as English — and using as many Cubanisms and colloquial expressions as I possibly can. But when undergraduate students come to me looking for what they call in their linguistic projects a “native informant,” I secretly wonder whether I qualify, and wonder whether I should warn them that I am an impostor, that my answers may be too literary, too grammatically correct, too self-consciously contrived.
So here is yet another question to add to my pile: what is my native language? I am now, if anything, a native of the academic world, and as such I have a native language (make that two, and maybe three) that define and describe me. I sometimes connect with Spanish, with my being Hispanic or Latina, through English; sometimes I do it through my faltering Yiddish, which I speak with a detectable Spanish accent!; sometimes I do it through my academic discourse; and sometimes through Spanglish, by which I mean not the creation of mixed words but the liberal use of Spanish mixed with English (or vice versa), or what a friend of mine in Miami tells me is now called Engañol.
I am the sum of my languages. Every time I speak Spanish I return to my country of origin, but every time I speak English, I do the same. Somewhere along the line I stopped being Cuban and became Cuban-American. Too bad “Cuban-American” is not an appropriate response to the question of where I am from. That place — maybe, and only maybe — may be the world of academia, where being from somewhere else is often the norm (and in some departments it’s even considered an asset), and where people generally pay more attention to pedigree than pronunciation.
Definition, of course, is not borne out of adversity alone. I have had many positive experiences in my life (as a professor, a writer, a mother), and they have played an important part in making me who I am. But I thought it would somehow be more useful to you to hear of the not-so-wonderful-but-still-significant moments. Even though for many of you the answers to my questions of origin and belonging may not be as problematic, you might find it useful to consider them metaphorically. Where are you from? Where do you belong? Where are you going and who are you bound to become? I believe it’s up to us to carve out a space for ourselves, to search out our identity, to treasure our ethnicity, to turn adversity into definition and achievement into strength.
“Since you don’t have a green card, are you here illegally?”
Most people do not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. In 1898, after the Spanish-American War, the United States colonized Puerto Rico. In 1917, the U.S. needed more men for the World War I draft, so they imposed citizenship on Puerto Ricans, forcing our men to join the U.S. Military. Puerto Ricans have been serving in the U.S. Military for over a century.
“Why aren’t you on The Pill?”
This is a question I’ve gotten from far too many medical doctors and physician assistants during my annual check-ups. In the 1950s, a public housing project in Puerto Rico was used to launch the first official human trial of the birth control pill, instead of anywhere else in the U.S. What all my providers have failed to realize is that this topic is extremely personal to me. The birth control pill was purposely marketed and tested on poor, illiterate Puerto Rican women just a few years before my mother was born!
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico; I can’t help but think of women just like my grandmothers being treated as guinea pigs. The man who co-invented the pill, Gregory Pincus, knew he could not host the trial in the continental U.S., so Puerto Rico was his alternative. Some women died and many of the other women, who received no informed consent, reported having lots of side effects because the pills included unnecessarily high doses of hormones.
Before starting dental school, I worked as a medical interpreter for several years. This profession taught me about the gaps in education when it comes to providing culturally sensitive care. I have noticed that many Hispanic/Latinx patients are intimidated by healthcare professionals and are scared to ask questions. I have learned that encouraging patients before their appointments and telling them to ask questions or to express their concerns without hesitation is the best way to serve as a patient advocate. Most providers are not aware of these cultural differences that directly affect the health outcomes of their patients. I want providers to know that they should always talk to the patient (not to the interpreter only) and should do so with respect. The patient, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what language they speak, is still a human being and the provider swore to care for them when they took their oath.
I am sharing these experiences to raise awareness of common societal misconceptions and problems that the Hispanic/Latinx population must deal with daily. I’m also hoping that people see the need for more programs and more funding to go towards historically excluded communities of color. I also challenge you, as the reader, to help “right a wrong” when you see or hear it. Too many minorities are being told to be quiet when they voice their concerns. It is time our voices are heard, and actions are taken to prevent history from repeating itself.
When I was given a nickname because no one knew how to pronounce my name correctly, I didn’t bat an eye. As the new kid from a different country, anything that made me feel included in the classroom was within my ballpark. At 13, I didn’t know the effect that going by the name “Val” would have on killing “Valeria,” but with COVID-19 taking away my ability to go to school and socialize, how I identified myself and how I was to share that was at the forefront of my life.
I graduated in 2020 and decided not to attend college in the midst of the pandemic. How could I? As the oldest in a family of nine there was no way I could do college from home. Taking a gap year was truly the only choice, as crazy as my Colombian parents thought the idea was. With the help and guidance from Campus Y’s Global Gap Year Fellowship, I was able to move to Washington, D.C., and dedicate eight months to working for an Education-based non-profit. In that time, I was exposed to the most diverse sets of people that I had met since I moved to the U.S.— all of whom thought my name was beautiful. I met Latinos, people who were interested in Latino culture, and other immigrants who shared similar stories to my own. They were in love with their culture’s dances, language, and especially foods.
During this year the wound of assimilation struck me — seeing other people who loved their culture and surrounded themselves with others who loved it as well made me realize I had such a special part of me that I was hiding in the name of not standing out; in the name of not being different. I was born and raised in another country, where was my national pride? From that point forward, I was racing myself in the everlasting battle that Latino-Americans face every day: Am I too American? Am I American enough?
Why did it take me so long to finally realize that I can be whoever I want, and that being Latina isn’t something that is defined by national borders and my language? COVID changed the lives of many for the worse, but I was blessed with the ability to take a step away from being submerged in the pressure that comes with school and ask myself and others big questions about what it means to be Latina. I even learned how to cook typical meals (I make some amazing arepas) and perfected my Cumbia and Bachata. I made best friends who I felt at home with immediately from the fact that we all spoke Spanish; something I had never found before. As my gap year was closing, I feared that going from an environment that celebrated me to a PWI like UNC would send me back to square one.
Was I going to let myself be Valeria instead of Val?
UNC has a lot of work to do regarding the uplifting of Latinx voices, but clubs like PorColombia and MiPueblo have proven to be a great net and home for those like me who want to explore their culture and carry on generations of beautiful music, dancing, and delicious food. I am forever thankful for my parents choosing to name me Valeria; it’s a name that stands for Valor. COVID has affected everyone differently, mostly for the worst, but the inability to distract myself from school for a year forced me to look in, and I found that I wanted to be Valeria, a Colombian immigrant who is going to shake the world with the rest of mi gente.
Growing up, I understood that my family’s culture was more nuanced than “Hispanic” or “Latinx,” but it wasn’t until high school that my indigenous identity became more salient. Now, I proudly identify as Maya Q’anjob’al and seek to make others aware of indigenous communities in Latin America.
My family is Maya Q’anjob’al. My ancestors are native to the western highlands of Guatemala. My parents, Andres and Isabel, grew up in a small village called Ojo de Agua in the 1970s. They lived there for the first 10 years of their lives until raids from both guerrilla and military troops forced their families to relocate to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Many Mayan families moved to southern Mexico during the Guatemalan Civil War with the hope that crossing the border would protect them from future raids. My parents grew up in a refugee colonia in Chiapas until 1990, when they decided to migrate to the U.S. in the hopes of finding jobs to support their parents and growing family.
I was born in California, where my father worked various jobs in restaurants and farms to keep the family afloat. After a couple of years, my family boarded a Greyhound bus bound for eastern Tennessee. My father had heard from friends and distant relatives that poultry plants were hiring. We lived in Monterey, Tennessee just over three years before moving to western North Carolina in 1999. The move to North Carolina was critical in my identity formation. Upon moving, we joined a growing Mayan community at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Morganton.
Morganton is unique in that it is a Southern town with a significant Mayan population. It was while attending mass at St. Charles that I found myself surrounded by people that look like me and speak Q’anjob’al, like my parents. As a child, I knew that my parents speak a language that isn’t Spanish, but I had never asked about it in much detail up until then. Now I found myself attending birthday parties, baptisms, and celebrations with other families that speak the same language my parents do. In addition to Q’anjob’al, community members speak Kaqchikel, K’iche, and other Mayan languages.
My knowledge of Q’anob’al is limited to a few words and phrases. I speak Spanish and English. When communicating with my parents, I speak in Spanish. However, my parents speak Q’anjob’al with each other. According to my mother, my siblings and I understood some Q’anjob’al as toddlers, but we began to lose our understanding the more we played with the children of Mexican immigrants in California and Tennessee. Once we began school, my mother feared that speaking Q’anjob’al, Spanish, and English would confuse us. She did not want her children to mix up the three languages or to speak each one poorly, not gaining mastery in any of them. These fears prompted my parents to speak to us in Spanish.
During my teenage years, I became involved in social activities at St. Charles Borromeo, which allowed me to explore my Mayan identify further. My sisters and I participated in the annual cultural celebrations, which included performing traditional dances while wearing traje. It was during this time that Maureen Dougher, a church member who served as the interpreter for the priest during the Spanish mass, reached out to me and my sisters to start a Hispanic youth group. During these meetings, Maureen encouraged us and the other participants to consider a college education. Maureen emphasized our Mayan identity and told us that our cultural background is important and unique. She showed us a video about ancient Mayan civilization and explained that a civil war caused people to migrate. This period is when my Mayan identity first became an explicit point of pride. This was when I became interested in learning more about migration, Guatemalan history, and Mayan culture.
While attending UNC for my undergraduate degree, I began a deeper exploration into Latin American history and migration. I took a variety of courses in Anthropology, History, and Romance Studies. I learned more about the colonization of Latin America, the genocide of indigenous peoples, and U.S. intervention in Central American politics. The more I learned about Latin American history and migration, the more I began to negotiate my identity (and privilege) as a U.S. citizen who is also the daughter of indigenous immigrants.
Nowadays, when people ask about my cultural identity, I proudly respond that I am Maya Q’anjob’al, born in the U.S., and raised (mostly) in the South. My hope is that sharing my story will help people realize the diversity of peoples and cultures that Latinidad often fails to consider, and help others recognize that indigenous people are still here and thriving.