How Trying to Assimilate Helped Me Find My Latina Identity

Karen Vidangos, Latina Identity
Photo courtesy of Karen Vidangos

Growing up in a mostly white, suburban neighborhood, I found myself struggling with my Latina identity before I could even articulate where this struggle was coming from. I was just trying to fit in and I couldn’t understand why I didn’t. Unlike a lot of Latino families I know, my parents didn’t enforce Spanish speaking at home; when they did speak to me in Spanish, I responded in English. Assimilation was important, especially to my mother, who felt that her children had been given a birthright to secure the “American dream” through their U.S. citizenships. We only needed to follow the example of wholesome white American families to find success. Of course, what my mother didn’t realize was that behind white picket fences, privilege for lighter skin was a power I could behold but never touch.

My parents came to the United States in the mid-1980s from La Paz, Bolivia with nothing but the clothes on their back. They worked tirelessly so that my sister and I could live comfortably in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Although I remember hearing the distinct sounds of the zampoña on the cassette tapes of traditional Bolivian music my father played in my youth, my connection to my Latin roots were superficial. I didn’t know the significance of the traditions nor the long Incan history of my ancestors. Eventually, all the Bolivian artifacts that my father had carefully curated on the walls of our basement disappeared, as well as the obligation to honor my ancestors on whose sacrifices I depended.

 
“I disassociated myself from other Latinos because they played merengue when I only wanted to hear grunge.”
 

I was born in the United States, but I still felt the pressure to assimilate every time I left my house or let the outside in. Assimilation meant covering the traces of Latinidad: blonde highlights veiling dark hair, self-consciousness about my parents’ accents and the Bolivian dishes they made for friends who came over for dinner. I disassociated myself from other Latinos because they played merengue when I only wanted to hear grunge.

It also meant a college education. When I entered the University of Maryland in the fall of 2004, I reached the first tier of my family’s American dream. I was now aligned with the prosperous. But I had no guidance navigating this new environment of higher learning. For three years I struggled to find my place in the collegiate bubble of the University of Maryland but was finally forced to leave to work full time during the economic crash, when I was a junior. The only thing that spurred me to return to College Park to finish my bachelor’s degree was the fear of being stigmatized as yet another uneducated Latino. But was it statistics I wanted to change or white judgment I feared?

Years later, I attended George Washington University for a master’s degree in museum studies, now with different eyes. From the start, I noticed my singularity as a Latina in a mostly white graduate program and began mentally collecting stories that reflected the struggles of institutional racism and marginalization, problems I had internalized but never addressed.

 
“It was the beginning of breaking down boundaries, both those I had created for myself and those I saw around me.”
 

The first person I met at GWU was a Mexican-American from Los Angeles. To her, the program was a culture shock. We bonded over the lack of diversity as well as the differences between us. She was used to a more Latino-centric community, whereas I was accustomed to the whiter D.C. environment. She only spoke English whereas I was bilingual. Swapping stories, I realized how underrepresented Latino perspectives were in our program. What could that say about the museum field at large? I began researching demographics and saw how dismal the numbers were for people of color.

I took a last-minute internship at the National Museum of Natural History, where I worked closely with a linguistic curator who researched with indigenous communities in Mexico. One of the few Latina curators in the museum, I admired her passion and accomplishments in the communities she served, all of which she’d carried out with no expectation of adulation. With her as my mentor, I was challenged to rethink the issues that face museums today and the solutions that only people of color can offer. She introduced me to a larger network of Latinos within the Smithsonian who shared a wealth of knowledge and advice. It was the beginning of breaking down boundaries, both those I had created for myself and those I saw around me.

 
“The whitewashed fears I’d had growing up restricted my ability to narrate my own history, but here I was wholly myself.”
 

I wrote my graduate thesis on the inclusion of Latino communities as central to museum marketing plans. Writing on marginalization forced me to look within: Without understanding the decisions of my parents and the internal conflicts of my youth, I couldn’t begin addressing the need for change within museum institutions and highlighting absent voices in my field. I joined other Latinas working in museums for an informal discussion on cultural work at the Smithsonian Latino Center. There I found myself amongst like-minded individuals, all Latinas, all with diverse backgrounds and unique stories to share. The whitewashed fears I’d had growing up restricted my ability to narrate my own history, but here I was wholly myself.

With the support of these strong women I considered arbiters of change, I created my own forum on which to speak about my perspective as a Latina in the field and simply called it “A Latina in Museums.” The blog would be an open diary of my experiences, while the Instagram account would highlight Latinas working in cultural spaces where they have historically been the least represented. I had come to realize that attempting to assimilate in my own country had become a burden. A Latina in Museums pushed open the doors for an unapologetic brown voice to come through.

For years, I’d felt I had to protect my ancestral past from white criticism by concealing it altogether. However, being caramel skinned with dark hair, my Latina identity would never go unnoticed no matter how much I tried. Starting with those first eye-opening experiences in graduate school, I began rediscovering the colorful and cultured Bolivian blood that ran through my veins. There will always be more moments for reflection on my purpose and what it means to be Latina, but now, it’s a journey I welcome.

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