Belonging to a Cultural Spectrum

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Written by: Victor Alves

Art by: Lily Tammik


Chasing a sense of belonging that might never materialize isn’t worth it. And that’s okay.

I like to think of my upbringing as relatively unique. I was born in New York City to Hispanic parents; my mother is a Catholic Mexican and my father is a Buddhist Uruguayan. I have fraternal twin brothers who are only two years younger than me. My parents both worked all day, so growing up we had a squadron of babysitters and maids to keep us busy and maintain the apartment. They were also all Hispanic. My best friend back then was Jewish, and my closest friends in preschool and kindergarten were ethnically American and Indian. I even picked up French but quickly lost it due to a lack of practice.

Before I even knew what the word “culture” was, I had an implicit understanding of its impact on my life. I picked up cultural traits from my Hispanic heritage and my Americanized upbringing that I continue to carry with me today.

Religious differences and other disagreements led to the divorce of my parents, and my mom lost her job around the same time. My mom won custody after representing herself and found a new position back home in Mexico, so we moved out to Mexico City when I was seven years old. I grew up without my father, whom I do not resent but am merely indifferent to. My mom’s steadfast presence, immense strength, and incredible perseverance are traits that continue to inspire me every day.

After our move, I immersed myself in Mexican culture, partaking in family reunions and gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation for the traditions I had long heard about but never really experienced. Despite all this, I never truly felt Mexican.

I still get surprised looks whenever I speak Spanish back home in Mexico since they immediately take me for an American tourist. I was only considered “American” at my high school, even though my cousin attended the same school. I adored reading in English and writing essays for my AP English Literature course. At the same time, I struggled to get through Cien Años de Soledad in Spanish Literature. I mostly consumed modern American media, leaving me with a lack of understanding of both English and Spanish cultural classics (I never listened to The Beatles or Timbiriche).

In eighth grade, I felt my connection to America waning, and my English was starting to fade. Up until that point, I was mostly part of two friend groups: the Americans and a group of Mexicans/Latinos. I found myself at a crossroads. Do I continue to mostly hang out with the Mexicans, or do I make the shift to the Americans to preserve that part of my identity?

It was a tough decision, but I ended up siding with the Americans. I recovered my proficiency in English and began to consume the same sort of media they did, at the cost of not fully engaging my Hispanic side. To this day, I do not regret that decision, but I do wish I had put more effort into developing that part of my cultural identity.

However, this did not mean I instantly became a “traditional” American. I may look white, but I do not know any of the traditions that Americans assume I understand. I speak to my mom in Spanish and to my brothers in English. I never experienced a state fair until college and thought the quintessential small-town American life portrayed so often in movies was merely a Hollywood trope. I thought white picket fences and large suburban complexes that sprawled across the countryside for miles were part of the vision of the American dream back in the 1950s and not the reality of the 2010s. The way born-and-raised Americans tend to approach certain aspects of their life, such as family, distance, tradition, and exposure to different cultures leaves me mesmerized. I thought applesauce was a type of sauce that came from apples, and I thought the only types of apples were red, green, yellow, and dark red (that’s mostly because I can be dumb sometimes, but my point still stands). I thought that Thanksgiving dinner was a literal dinner at 9:30 PM and accidentally rejected an invitation to participate in such a dinner during my first year of college. I was invited at around 4:00 PM for food, not knowing that the food was the actual Thanksgiving dinner; I had just eaten lunch, and said: “sorry, I’m full.” Only later did I realize what had occurred. I profusely apologized and explained what had gone through my mind, and he simply laughed and told me not to worry about it.

If I didn’t tell you I come from a Hispanic background, you would never believe it. I had to learn to be adaptable, to move back and forth along my cultural spectrum out of a necessity to better fit in. Sometimes, I don’t even bring up my background unless relevant to the conversation. Other times I lead with it. During my stint as an employee at a hotel in Acapulco, Mexico, I never once told my coworkers I was American. Last year, I sat next to this kid in one of my classes during the entire semester, and never once spoke of my background. On the last day of class, I asked him where he was from. After he responded, I told him I was from Mexico. Believing it to be banter, he went along with it and asked me to pull out my driver’s license. The look on his face when he saw it is a memory I will laugh at for a long time.

I think in both English and Spanish. I’m as American as I am Mexican. I am a walking inconsistency that feels at home in both America and Mexico and neither. I enjoy having that flexibility of a unique perspective and the diversity it brings. I feel at home everywhere along my cultural spectrum because I’ve learned that home isn’t a place; it’s a feeling.

I believe my hybrid nature helps me connect with more people, always shifting towards either side of my cultural spectrum as the situation calls for it. That hybridity is my most valuable treasure and my heaviest burden. I will never fully belong, but I will always belong. And as long as that hybridity doesn’t turn to discomfort or resentment, I will hold onto it as long as I can.

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