Psychologists debate the role of nature versus nurture. My parents are purebred New Jersey Jews, but my father’s job dealt with a different breed of loud, vivacious people: Latinos. As his children rushed to Hebrew school, my father globetrotted throughout Latin America, returning with vibrant stories of food, festivities, and fiestas. My father, an expert on Latin America, was not only fluent in Spanish but also in Latin culture: cooking frittatas, watching fútbol games, and routinely schlepping our family into the Ironbound section of Newark (a paella of cultures). While other families were only interested in Latin America during World Cup season, the Latin flavor in our house was omnipresent- as hard to ignore as a vuvuzela.
My hispanic bent first became noticeable in elementary school Spanish class. The other kids, whose exposure was limited to Dora the Explorer, stumbled through greetings with the cringeworthy authenticity of Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish. I tried to replicate Shakira. “Whenever, wherever”, I spoke Spanish with gusto. As I rolled my r’s, my classmates rolled their eyes. The way I spoke made my identity clear. I was Carlos, the name Señora Schwartz had given me, and it felt right.
In middle school, I kept my Latino side hidden much like the candy in a piñata. Spanish class was my favorite, but I never unleashed my full accent for fear of being teased. Even my closest friends did not know my secret. While they engaged in the nationalism of Little League, I chose soccer. Many players embraced their inner Latino on the field; I embraced mine equally on the bench, chatting with our Brazilian coach about his homeland.
In eighth grade, I got the opportunity to express my Latin side uninhibited when my family visited small town Mexico during Passover, buying into my assertion that tortillas were, in fact, unleavened bread. There, I drunk up Spanish culture (and my share of virgin margaritas). Returning from the trip, my intimate knowledge of Spanish culture and language paid off, as I scored fourth in the state on the National Spanish Exam.
I was able to truly indulge my love of latin culture in Extemporaneous Speech, in which I developed a niche as the “expert” on Latin America. With subscriptions to several Latin American think tanks and hours spent watching college lectures by former Latino leaders, I always chose the Latin America question. In every one of those speeches, I pronounced each Spanish leader’s name with an intense authenticity, and educated my audience on the relevance of our neighbors to the south. In the speeches I meld the two cultures effortlessly as a reflection of my own blended identity. For each seven minute speech, I am Carlos again.
The summer I graduated high school, I spent a month in Nicaragua. There, I perfected my Spanish, ate too many pupusas, and was fascinated by the vivaciousness of such a small country. I had always joked with my parents that I could eat rice and beans for every meal, and suddenly I was. Not surprisingly, I felt very at home with my homestay family, as we bonded while watching telenovelas, which are a surprisingly good way to learn Spanish. Traveling about the country, I absorbed as much as I could about its culture, history, politics and the role my own country, the US, had in its revolutions. I was particularly interested in the canal currently under construction. It was all the Nicaraguans wanted to talk about and I happily obliged as it combined my interests in the region, politics and the environment.
My obsession with Latin America has expanded from language and culture to academia. At Sarah Lawrence, I took an amazing course about family, gender, and migration in Latin America. My final research project for the course focused on two Nicaraguan leaders: former President Violeta Chamorro de Barrios and current First Lady Rosario Murillo. The project traced their pathways to power and explored the current role of gender in Latin American politics. Developing the paper was fascinating, and I want to expand my scholarship to other hispanic leaders and countries.
At university, I am fully out of the amario. Although I didn’t check the Latino box on the application, I will be celebrating my Latino self and majoring in Latin American Studies. Out and loud, I just need a college that will accept me - and my inner Latino.