This Mom Wasn’t Always a Proud Latina

Growing up in a predominantly white town once created feelings of shame for this Cuban-American mother. She now works hard everyday to make sure her daughters never have to feel the same way.

By Kimberly Pangaro

No one is truly aware that they’re growing up on two sides of a cultural line while it’s happening. Raised as a first-generation child of Cuban and Bolivian immigrants in Carlstadt, New Jersey—a predominantly white town—I certainly did not. Like many families who immigrated here from Latin America, my mother and father had the best intentions when they decided to move us to Carlstadt when I was 5 years old—wanting only to provide their children with a better life filled with more opportunities. They believed that by moving to a town that oozed privileged, those opportunities would be made available to me too. What they didn’t anticipate, were the road blocks and discrimination their little Latina would face.

Immediately upon moving there I experienced classmates and teachers calling me slur words. And then there were the burning stares of fear from residents as I walked home from school each day. The worst part though was seeing how alienated my mom felt when she was kept out of the inner circle of moms. My father would tell me that if I just kept my head down and didn’t give people a reason to blame me for anything, life would get easier. These painful words still reverberate through me to this day. So even though being Latinx comes with this cultural expectation to be fuerte, I did the opposite and made myself smaller because I was too afraid to be myself. Rather than feeling honor in my rich history and learning how to praise my roots, I pushed it all aside to conform to white culture from the time I entered elementary school.

I really felt that if I changed my accent, my clothes, and who I had a crush on, I would be accepted as “one of them.” But I never was. And as I got older it got more difficult to disguise myself. In high school my Latina curves became more pronounced and I quickly realized the outfits I attempted to wear to fit were a “fail” because my Latina curves did not fit into the silhouettes made for white waif bodies. It was no time before the white kids jumped on the opportunity to call me demeaning words that sexualized my appearance.

I wish my younger self knew to embrace the beauty of being Latina. But instead I let my insecurities and the shame of being brown in a mostly white town suppress who I was. As the years went on it only got worse. I dyed my hair blonde, refused to speak Spanish and dated white boys exclusively. I developed a new identity that I brought well into adulthood. I know my parents love me but they were too busy working multiple jobs, trying to pay the mortgage, and simply put food on the table to notice my transformation.

Eventually all the changes started to erase my Latinidad. When opportunities to speak Spanish came up—as little as they did—the natural ability to speak was gone. All that was left was the Americanized Spanglish, with hard annunciations of each letter and the inability to roll my tongue. Ironically, my identity crisis didn’t go into full effect until I started hearing whispers from the small Latinx community in my neighborhood about whether I was actually Cuban or not.

If not Cuban then who was I?

Reaching young adulthood and then becoming a mother of an 8-year old and 5-year-old, I realized I’d gone too far in my life trying to please others. It was time to go back to my roots. I now know that I should be nothing less than proud of who I am. And am committed to teaching my daughters about their heritage, by enriching them in everyday actions, like taking them to eat Ropa Vieja and Humintas, filling our home with Latinx music from artists like Celia Cruz and Los Kjarkas, and even watching documentaries on our cultural and historical foundations when I don’t have the right words. At the most basic level, feeling comfort in our own skins.

Ultimately, I did decide to raise my children in my hometown despite the painful memories it created for me. Sure there was a part of me that wanted to escape but more so I wanted to participate in building a better future for others here. For my kids. One where maybe a Latinx child didn’t feel like an outsider. So I’ve become more involved in the community that had rejected me. I joined the town clubs, sports, and even found my local political voice (even though it may not be a popular one that is sometimes labeled “too loud” when it goes against the majority white opinion). Yet we keep moving forward. And when I see my older daughter experiencing discrimation it pains me, but it just makes my voice louder and I am driven to empower her with finding hers. Teaching her that she does not have to live in fear or shame. Ever.

I now find pride in telling our family’s story to my daughters. Their grandparents immigrated here with pennies in their pockets, with no help, no inheritances, and worked endlessly to build a legal life here so that their children and grandchildren could all have better lives. So on those hard days when my daughters’ little brown eyes are confused by the ugliness in our country, that is when I use my “loud” Latina voice to remind them of all of the reasons that they should love themselves and find the joy in being Latina.