Helen: I identify as Guatemalan-American. I was born in the U.S.A.
Etta: How old were you when you first realized you were different?
Helen: I can remember the exact event. I was probably six or seven. In elementary school, students would routinely bring a snack to school to share, like chips, for example. Every now and then, someone would make finger food. I told my mom, "It's my turn to bring food to share with my class." The day before it was my turn, she was working really hard in the kitchen making fried tortillas with chicken filling. They're really good. But once I got to school with the food, everyone just looked at me weird. They said, "This isn't a snack. We were expecting chips or cookies. Why did you bring this?" I had been so happy and proud. But after the comments, I was like, "Oh, this is not what you consider a snack or even food."
That dish was something my mom would make all the time for us. That was the first time difference became so clear, and it really affected me.
Etta: Has living as an ethnic minority affected your view of yourself?
Helen: I think so. I view myself as entirely different. My views of life reflect my Guatamalan rather than American culture. I value hard work and family. I even consider my friends blood related family, so I'll go all in with them as well, which isn't always the same in the individualistic culture of Americans.
I also grew up with fears that were different. Some people wonder, "What am I gonna do? What am I gonna wear tomorrow? What am I gonna do for vacation?" Fears that I had were fears about immigration like, "What are the new laws going to change? How will that affect me as a Guatemalan-American? How will that affect my family?" Throughout my growing up years, I always had that stress behind me.
Etta: Do you and your family actively preserve your cultural or ethnic heritage in any way?
Helen: Yes. The biggest way we do that is by only speaking Spanish at home. We don't speak English or Spanglish. We believe in just speaking Spanish at home because that's our only opportunity to speak Spanish. It's our opportunity to continuously grow in our language and strengthen that. We also preserve our cultural slang, which each country has. So many times, growing up, I had so much homework, but I always had to stop to eat dinner early with the family. Now I cherish stopping to eat food with my family. Always take time for family.
Etta: Is there a point in time you felt discriminated against?
Helen: I think one of the worst times I'd ever experienced discrimination off campus would be a day my dad and I went to a public park in the summer. We were just walking the trails, and out of nowhere, a cop came up to us. He wasn’t in uniform, but we recognized him because it was a small town. He started questioning us, asking, "Are you legal? Do you have papers?" In the park. In the middle of the day. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, and he just kept on asking, "Are you legal?" We tried to walk away and avoid the situation, but he kept on following us asking, "Are you legal? Do you have papers?"
There was a point when I was like, "I was born here. I can speak English. Like, what is your problem?" He went, “Just making sure there are no illegals here walking on our public trails." I just couldn't believe it. That was one of the worst times I faced discrimination because this man wasn't even in uniform and had no right to question us like that.
Etta: What about on campus?
Helen: Nothing to that severity but, here and there, students make insensitive jokes about immigration laws and stereotypical jokes like, "Oh, you're gonna go celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Where are your burritos and sombreros?" Ignorant comments come occasionally. But other than that, nothing severe.
On campus, there was a Cinco de Mayo party. It was within a department and not open to all of campus, but the stereotypes within that party were ridiculous. They had a taco shaped pinata. They had Qdoba for food. And they kept on asking me questions like, "What are you doing for Cinco de Mayo?" I'm like, "I don't celebrate that. I'm not Mexican." It's not as big of a deal even in Mexico. It has just become an Americanized holiday. It was just so ignorant… the taco, the Qdoba, and they even looked up a "Mexican" playlist and put that on. It was ridiculous.
Etta: Have you ever felt ashamed or scared to share your culture?
Helen: Not anymore. When I was in middle school, I really feared being Guatemalan. I grew up in a neighborhood that was predominantly Latino. They even called it Little Mexico because there were so many Latinos and Latinas there. I got to the point where there was so much hate that I just told people, "I'm Mexican." I really just threw away my culture for about two years in middle school. That was before I even went to Guatemala and understood its beauty and its rich culture.
Starting in eighth grade, when I first traveled to Guatemala, I was like, "Forget being Mexican. This is my culture." I'm so proud of all they have to offer...their rich Mayan culture, their cities, their industries, and the natural beauty of it all.
I see being Guatamalan-American as my whole identity. When you write it, there's a little hyphen. I am that hyphen because I’m in between both cultures. I am Guatemalan. I do visit every year. I'm also American. I grew up here. So it's trying to balance both things at the same time while trying to find my identity in that balance.
I would say, feel free to respectfully come up to any one of us and ask us about our culture. But once you ask your questions, don’t immediately categorize Guatemala. A lot of people go to Guatemala for mission trips and automatically assume the Guatemala they saw on their mission trip is the same part of Guatemala I’m from. 90% of the time, people go to rural areas where they speak dialect and are descendants of the Mayans. I'm urban. The Spaniards colonized us, there's some Spain in us, and there's a big difference. I've had students come up and say, "Oh yeah, I went to Guatemala. Do you wear the clothing and speak dialect?" I don’t. All of Guatemala isn't like that. So don't automatically assume that what you saw is another’s experience.