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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Perspective: Who I am can’t be celebrated in a month

My Mexican-American heritage is a part of me, woven into who I am today.

I was hoping to feel some touch of home and see the vibrancy of my culture during this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, which started Sept. 15 and lasts until Oct. 15. While GW marked its Latin Heritage Celebration with festivals, music and food, I ended up feeling more distant and isolated from my culture — it felt like my Hispanic/Latina heritage and Mexican-American identity weren’t at any of these events or that I couldn’t even fit into them.

I’m from Calexico, California, where about 98 percent of the community is Hispanic or Latino. My hometown is literally right next to the Mexican border, and we take deep pride in our heritage. September is one of the biggest months in our community, especially in school: la tricolor (the flag of Mexico) waves in our neighborhoods and decorates the walls of our classrooms. And you can see the colors of the Mexican flag — green, white and red — everywhere, from the clothes students wear to ribbons we interlace in our braided hair. Music in Spanish plays and papel picado (paper-cut flags) hang.

And when my community celebrates Sept. 16, the anniversary of the 1810 day when Mexico declared independence from Spain, it’s as if Mexico had really just declared its independence. From the evening of Sept. 15, people scream “Viva Mexico, Viva la Independencia!” Our Spanish teachers dress in mariachi outfits, and students and teachers cover songs like Vicente Fernandez’s “Mexico Lindo y Querido.” We perform a traditional dance and others do El Grito (the cry), mirroring revolutionary leader Miguel Hidalgo’s battle cry of independence. Our school cafeteria serves us tamales and we all enjoy the food, singing along and basking in the festivities and celebrations.

I understood that my community and town were going to be more vibrant in their festivities compared to other places, especially GW, which is more than 2,000 miles away from home. I did not expect to see a Mexican flag hung up in any classrooms, but maybe I would see my culture represented in food, music and maybe some performances. Instead, I feel like the University took an essential part of my identity and tried to fit it into just another event.

What made the festivities back at home so enjoyable was that they were part of our identity. Eating Mexican food, listening and dancing to music in Spanish and watching telenovelas were daily things — not something that happened only when September rolled around. In other words, GW’s Latin Heritage Celebration events lack authenticity.

That isn’t to say that the University’s offerings of dance classes, food and other festivities are problematic, but it’s like grabbing something I was used to doing every day and turning it into a special event — almost as if officials threw an event for breathing. It is something I do every day without thinking about it. Now that it has been turned into an event, it feels like it can only be something that can exist during this month.

Only acknowledging my Hispanic heritage makes me feel like I have to compartmentalize – that I am either American or Mexican. But I am both. My last name is hyphenated to represent both of my parents, unable to be separated, in the same way that I am Mexican-American, hyphenated and inseparable.

I constantly find myself slipping words like mande into a conversation with friends because there is no exact English translation for the word. I also mix Mexican slang phrases like ni modo (can’t do anything about it) or no pues (I guess) with sentences I say in English. But few people here are able to understand me. So, I take any chance I get to speak in Spanish to the people who work at Subway or students who also speak Spanish.

I feel like I can only be a small part of myself when I’m on campus — I can only speak English, eat American food and talk about shows and music that are in English. It stings when I call someone from back home and hear the word pocha, a word for someone who speaks with a very strong American accent, because I haven’t had a full conversation in Spanish for months. I have to purposely water down my culture, like mispronouncing my name, or some people get confused.

In the past few weeks, I had the jarring realization of how Hispanic and Latina I am — something I had never felt before. I felt like I had to separate myself from my identity. The more I try to explain my phrases in Spanish, my name or my taste in music and food, the more isolated I feel.

The reason I was looking forward to this month was not just because I miss home or miss my culture but because my culture is a part of me. I looked forward to feeling like myself for a month, speaking Spanish, dancing, listening to music and eating food with flavor. But the festivities at home weren’t so much about celebrating our heritage as they were about just celebrating who we are. Instead, I feel like I am losing myself.

In truth, this isn’t GW’s fault or anyone else’s. But it is me coming to the realization of and accepting the fact that I will always feel a little like an outsider and learning not to assimilate, as isolating as it can feel.

Hispanic Heritage Month is not just about celebrating our culture or heritage. It is about celebrating things that are so intricately woven with who we are today, our behavior, language and even personality. It’s not about celebrating something that is separate from us, nor even an extension of us — it’s something that is inherently us.

Andrea Mendoza-Melchor, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.

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