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On Being Latina a Long Way From Home

Moving from L.A. to D.C. taught me a lot about losing and rebuilding my identity.

Mike Reddy

I found out that the Mexican singer Juan Gabriel died through a Univision news alert on my phone. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was wandering through Eastern Market in D.C., stopping here and there to look at jewelry or taste some fruit. My phone buzzed, and when I saw the headline I stopped short, surprised by my sudden intake of breath, by the scramble in my brain. “I have to call my mom,” I thought.

I didn’t call her. I waded through the initial fuzz of confusion and denial to find a deep and strange sadness that I did not expect and could not explain. On my walk home, I searched Spotify for my first favorite song, one of the slow, beautiful duets Juanga was famous for doing with the Spanish singer Rocío Durcal. It’s called “El Destino” (“Destiny”), and features a melody so deeply familiar to me that I feel like my dreams are soaked in it. The next morning, on the metro on my way to work, I played it again. It became the background music to my commutes, then my leisurely weekend walks, then my errands. I carried it all over the city with me, suddenly seeing places differently.

I moved from Los Angeles to D.C. almost a year ago, a move I had wanted and planned. I loved L.A. and also wanted to leave it—temporarily, to try something new, I told people. I was heading toward some parts of a life, but also unconsciously away from others, from things that felt easy to cast off before I understood what they really meant to the construction of a life and an identity.

I am like a lot of women of color in that I grew up—without really knowing, without really naming it—wanting to be white. I have vivid memories of looking down at my skinny, bruised, brown knees and feeling dirty. Of dreaming that I would wake up and my eyes would be blue. There was exactly one white girl in my kindergarten class and I (along with every other little girl in our classroom) desperately wanted to be her friend, to convince her to like me, to let her know I was worthy. I grew up blind to my own value and also, maybe more tragically, to all the complicated ways I related to being a Mexican-American woman with brown skin. I didn’t know this then, but I wanted to shed all my markers of difference, all the ways I didn't match up with the people in the books I read and the movies I watched.

Leaving home became a subconscious way of fulfilling that mandate. First I left for college (though I stayed in the same city for that), and after graduation I made a plan to go farther away. In many ways, my life in D.C. is precisely the one I imagined and fiercely hoped for in my adolescence. Sometimes, when I’m on the metro on the way to a job I love, or when I’m strolling down the street near home and watching the sun set behind the Capitol building, I am struck by just how exactly I have managed to construct the things I envisioned when I was younger. I feel happy, independent, proud. I do not want to leave this place I just got to.

But also, somehow, all the best parts of everything are missing. Every day, I am trying to reconstruct alone all the things that lots of people gave me in L.A. I am trying to rebuild all the parts of my life that were rooted in community, in love, in shared identity. I miss my mother’s cooking. I miss the Spanish telenovela at 8 p.m. I miss being able to find a Mexican candy in the liquor store. I miss my family, always too many people being too loud and making a scene. I miss my dad blasting Vicente Fernandez while he’s getting ready, singing loudly and badly and happily, those songs that are sad and triumphant all at once. I made another playlist, for when I want to walk through D.C. and carry home around with me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to find or create community in a new place, with new demographics and new politics and new culture. I have invented my own semi-effective strategies, adopting habits and routines and attitudes I didn’t have before. I watch Spanish soap operas almost every day on my computer (something I had stopped doing in high school, abandoning this nightly routine with my mother for homework or my own English shows). I go out of my way to an “ethnic grocery” in D.C. to get candy and good tortillas, even though Ralph’s was perfectly acceptable to me in Los Angeles. I joined a Meetup group of Spanish speakers, something I didn’t feel I needed when I was around family.

My job helps: I write and report mostly in Spanish for CityLab Latino, and mostly about Latino communities. But even so, I find myself casting about for any marker of my own ethnicity, as though I have to keep whispering it to myself and other people or I'm going to forget. Or they're going to forget. Suddenly, these things I thought were so dispensable speak to the deepest and truest part of me.

The election, too, has thrown the importance of my identity into sharper focus. National conversation about Mexican rapists pouring over the border, about the supposed harm immigrants are doing to countless communities, would have been hard to read anywhere, at any time. I think it’s harder for me here because I feel like an island.

In reality, I am still new to D.C., and know very little of the city. There is certainly community here for me to find, somewhere. But undoubtedly it will look different from the community I’m used to—and maybe that’s why I can’t find it. I don’t know what it looks like yet. I don’t know how it’s going to feel.

I actually have a lot of faith that one day I will look around and see that I have built something more complete, satisfying, and true to me than what I have now. I can see the beginnings of that when I look around at the faces of friends I’ve made, when I find myself slipping into a comfortable routine of favorite places to eat and take a walk and drink a cup of coffee. These things still don’t feel the same as they did in L.A., exactly; there is a new feeling in them, a new sense of who I am in this place, entirely removed from my old context.

It’s really freeing, actually. I get to choose exactly who and where I want to be, with new knowledge I didn’t have when I was home. I get to make the conscious choice to bring myself closer to my identity, instead of away from it. That’s something D.C. gave me. In a weird way, that makes it home, too.

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