Struggling with validity in the Latinx community

By LAIS SANTORO | December 5, 2019

lais

COURTESY OF STEPHANIE LEE

I am Laís. I am Latinx, I am Hispanic, I am Brazilian, I am a woman. These are all my “identities,” and I accept these identities now, but that wasn’t always the case. I know in my heart that I’m a part of the Latinx community. But why do I feel like because I have white skin and European heritage that I’m not a valid member, even when it’s the community that I fit into the most? 

Let’s take it back a few years.

At the beginning of each school year, the teacher stumbled over my name while taking attendance and asked: “Where is it from?” 

“Brazil.” 

At that point, the teacher would raise their eyebrows and exclaim, “Oh, very cool!” as if to reassure me that, although difficult to pronounce, my name isn’t something to be ashamed of.

For 12 years, I disliked my name so much that I told people to pronounce it like the English word “lies,” or “an intentionally false statement.” I thought it was a great idea for teachers and coaches to write an English word next to my name so they didn’t forget. I seemed more American, even though I’m originally from São Paulo. 

My name is actually pronounced with two syllables, an accent on the i, and a fiery delivery: La-ees. I was living a lie, literally and figuratively, with an intentionally false name and persona. 

I thought I blended into the American suburbia that surrounded me because I didn’t really have opportunities to talk to other Brazilian or Latinx people in elementary or middle school. As a result, I worked to blend into what was around me: a very different culture than what surrounded me in Brazil.

At least I thought I blended in. Thinking back on it, my ideas of what was culturally inappropriate suffocated my Brazilian background: I made myself culturally appropriate, normal.

Returning from trips home in Brazil, I noticed I could never talk about my adventures with my friends because they’d only be confused. How could I explain Rio, Carnaval, butt lifts or bikini waxes to a third-grader without getting called down to the principal’s office? 

Then, after visiting Rio one summer, seeing millions of people all smiling while living and breathing Brazil, I was a bit stunned and even disappointed at myself. Why did I try to behave like everyone else in the U.S. just because I lived here? Why did I succumb to social norms telling me to act “American”? Why did I hide such a colorful and exotic side to me from everyone around me for 14 years? 

I wasn’t fake, but I was trying to be. 

I then knew that this wasn’t who I wanted to be anymore, because my true self was there all along, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions and inaccurate conclusions I drew as a kid that became my beliefs about who I was. 

I returned to myself before the world got its hands on me: a Brasileira. 

I spent so much time trying to suffocate my voice and culture that now it’s taking me so much more time to embrace it. And now, I don’t struggle with my Brazilian identity, but with my Latinx one. 

The question I’ve received so much in the past year, from people and from several college questionnaires: are you Hispanic or Latinx? 

I still don’t know how to answer that question. Honestly, I think I’m both. Since my body originated in Latin America, in Brazil, I am Latinx regardless of what language I speak.

I’m in college now with a diversity I was never able to experience before. I didn’t realize how comfortable I was with my Latin American roots until coming here. However, in my organizing work in the climate justice movement, I wonder if I am the right person to be up there on a stage, speaking to people about an issue that hasn’t affected me as much as others, as much as minorities in my new city of Baltimore and around the world. 

I worry that I am taking up space that isn’t mine and isn’t meant for me because yes, I am Latinx, yes, I am a woman. 

But I am also white. Not a white American, but a white Brasileira. 

I have immense privilege in all aspects of my life because of that. People see my face and my skin color, and they probably don’t think that I’m an immigrant and they treat me as they would any other white person. Yet others from the same country, from the same continent that I’m from, do not have the same fortune. They’re turned away at American borders, struggle to find safe spaces for their families, face injustices every day of their lives. Mostly because they have darker skin than me. 

And I continue to worry that I’m taking up too much space.

Do I have the right to speak for those people who are struggling each day? Do I have the right to speak for indigenous communities in Northern Brazil who are losing their homes, livelihoods and cultures due to white supremacy, greed and lack of human decency? Should I be the one to talk about that? 

I don’t know. But I’m alive, I’m young, I have a platform and I think I ought to use it. I think speaking up is better than staying silent. I think speaking up helps us learn that basic human rights should exist in this country.

I hope that I can elevate those voices so that in the future, we won’t have to speak up for others. Instead, they can speak up for themselves. It was wrong of us to take that right away from them in the first place.

I’m slowly starting to stop worrying about how I should use my privilege. Instead, I’m just using it. Time’s running out, the climate crisis is becoming more and more irreversible as we speak and people are dying. Are we going to be complicit in these injustices or are we going to act?

I’ve been challenged with lots of questions, brought on by myself and society. But isn’t the whole point of “living in the present,” enjoying our human lives, to not be questioning the future? I’m using my privilege to do what I can today and encouraging others to do the same.

I am Laís. I am Hispanic. I am Latinx. I am Brazilian. I am a woman. I am many things, and human is the best one. 

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