Updated: Mar 12, 2019
I have lived in the United States for the last 12 years. I was born in Argentina, where I lived on and off due to my father’s work. I consider myself to be Argentinian, but I am also a US citizen and I have built my career in the US. I still have an accent when I speak English, but people confuse it with a European accent. The fact that I have fair skin, coupled with my science degrees and achievements, may add to the confusion. When I speak Spanish to people that look Latino, or that are speaking Spanish to each other, I get perplexed looks, sometimes they even ask me where I learned it. I’m not an American, but I sometimes wonder when will I stop being an Argentinian. Is there an expiration date? And if there is, who will I be then?
By Maria Baron Palamar
I did not come to the US to escape a horrible reality. I had a pretty nice life in Argentina. My dad is a nuclear engineer with two PhD’s and a good academic job and my mom is a super supportive friend and mentor. I attended veterinary school there and graduated in 2006. And then I fell in love, and he lived in the US, which worked pretty well with my plans of getting a PhD in wildlife biology and conservation. We moved to North Carolina, got married, had children, got a mortgage, got a PhD, got jobs and now we each have our own business. I always thought that I would go back to Argentina (I still think about it often), but our reality is clear and the opportunities that we would have there are not comparable to the ones we have here and in other parts of the world. It’s not that there is no opportunity in Argentina; it is just that our careers are built around a system that is different from the Argentinian one.
I was one of two Latinas at my last job and one of the few women in a leadership position. There wasn’t anyone that looked or sounded like me to share with, to learn from. I still think I look different than your average American, I don’t look obviously Latina, but many Latinos don’t. Latino is a culture, not a race. And when I look in the mirror I see it, it’s there; obvious to me, but not to others. They tend to miss it. A couple of years ago I was at a workshop.
During a heated discussion about white privilege, a woman with Asian features got up and pointed at each woman of color in the room, creating an invisible army of strong women that had braved adversity in a white and male dominated world. She did not point at me; I was not invited to join the army. I was devastated. Not only were there no Latinas to share my challenges with, I was also told I could not band together with women of color because I am not really “of color”. I know many Latinos that would like to look whiter so they don’t have to feel the eyes of the shopkeeper following their every move because they “look” like they could steal something. I know many Latinos that would find it easier to get jobs and get ahead if they looked or sounded different. When Trump got elected I shared my fear for people of color under this new administration with our Mexican nanny (that had become a friend by then), and she said “You have nothing to worry about, you and your kids will be safe”. But I do worry. I worry because I speak Spanish to the kids in spite of strangers telling me to teach them English instead. I worry because I feel so much pride when they tell people they are Argentinian, because I don’t want them to ever be ashamed or fearful of their heritage, because I want them to dream in Spanish. My kids don’t see the color of Latinos yet, you speak Spanish, you are Latino, no questions asked. I am fairly certain they sometimes think their dad has to be Latino because he is fluent in Spanish. I want them to never lose that connection to other Spanish-speaking people.
So I am not angry at my country of origin. I don’t have the struggles many Latinos have because of how they look. My struggles start when I speak; but if I quietly smile, I am accepted as one of the Americans in the room. I get to visit my country almost every year. But in the US a sea of white surrounds me; I am completely disconnected from the Latinos in my area. The lives of the Latinos that I meet are so different from mine that I feel a bit embarrassed identifying myself as one of them. I have been very fortunate to have had lots of opportunities, but I feel like a stranger and very different when I complain about micro aggressions at work, and the Latinos I know talk about not being able to find work at all, or being taken advantage of by the system because they are not fluent English speakers. I feel that I almost don’t deserve to be considered a Latina; I feel Latinos would say, “you have nothing to worry about, you are not like us”.
I have to confess that I some times look at the second generation Latinos fighting for Latino rights, giving speeches with no accent, and I wonder, “Are you really a Latino if you have no accent? When do you stop being a Latino and become something else? Can you hold on to your Latino roots as long as you still celebrate “dia de los muertos”? What if you come from a country that does not have those traditions? Is my Latino status defined by the struggles I have? By the people I hang out with? By the foods that I eat? By the language that I dream in?”
Additionally, my career in science has pulled me further and further away from my identity. As a scientist, I have no connection to where I come from, to who I was before moving to the US. In my profession, there has been no room yet to showcase my heritage. In fact, not drawing attention to my country of origin has been a survival technique; I wanted my peers to hear what I had to say without the bias of labeling me as a diversity hire. Once I had said my piece, I would let them know who I was, until then, let them think I’m French, or Check or Russian, or whatever they want to, as long as it fits with their idea of smart and capable. I am proud of my heritage, but my ultimate desire is to make this world a better place, so I will not let my pride get in the way, and I will navigate my reality as best as I can towards that desire, the cost may be that I’ll have to lose part of myself in the process.
And here I am, a not-so-Latino full-blooded Argentinian that has no one to drink mate with; definitely not feeling like an American, and holding on to Spanish as the anchor to my identity (at least while I’m awake), slipping into English when I’m asleep, wondering what I am becoming. I cofounded Resolve to achieve my dreams of making the world a better place, thus, part of our mission is to connect more women and people of color to nature through science and experience. Hopefully I will still be here when the next Latina decides to work in conservation, and she will not be alone. I’ll share with her my struggles, my successes, the pitfalls to avoid, the opportunities that are available to her, the language that connect us; the whole time hoping she thinks I am Latino enough to count me as a member of her army, especially now that I dream in English.
Disclaimer: I know that Spanish is not the only language spoken in Latin America, still, a big part of my Latino identity is my language, and that is what I reference here.