american daughter/hija gringa

by camila weinstock

At age fourteen, my mom and I attended a talk for adolescent girls at our church. I remember sitting up straight, with my spine pressed up against the hard wood of the pew, while I listened to a youngish church leader address the crowd of girls in front of him. He began by explaining that our virginities were like a brand-new teacup: pure, intact, and fragile. As the metaphor went on, the speaker claimed that with each person one slept with, it would be akin to adding dirt, cracks, and tarnish to the original teacup. His point was that when choosing from a cabinet of eligible women to marry, a good husband would pick a pristine teacup over a used teacup. Now at fourteen I was impressionable, but I also lived 45 minutes away from the most liberal city in the US. This talk infuriated me for its inaccuracy and harmful message, but after several months, I ceased thinking about it. That is, until the morning of my fifteenth birthday, my quinceñera, in Hispanic tradition. My mom made a big deal of having me open my new “adult” presents, filming the whole thing on the family camera. I distinctly remember undoing a crisp white ribbon and peeling away mint green wrapping paper to reveal...a brand new gold-rimmed tea cup. For me, this anecdote perfectly encapsulates much of my teenage relationship with my mother: her sticking to her roots and tradition, while I defied them, instead blazing ahead, to her horror.  

Three years later, when the world first got hooked onto the fast-moving Hamilton train, I also discovered Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lesser known musical, In the Heights. As soon as I heard the second song, “Breathe,” I dissolved into tears, for the first time having had found my musical equivalent in the character of Nina. In “When You’re Home,” Nina sings, “When I was younger, I’d imagine what would happen/if my parents had stayed in Puerto Rico/Who would I be if I had never seen Manhattan/If I lived in Puerto Rico with my people/My people!/I feel like all my life, I’ve tried to find the answer/Working harder, learning Spanish, learning all I can.” Nina was the first representation I had seen of someone who felt like I did: both out of place in her home country and in her home culture. In Nina, I found a kindred spirit. She represented the physical manifestation of all her parents had sacrificed in order to achieve the American dream. Having grown up the smartest in her barrio, Nina shouldered the double burden of having to succeed and to live up to her parents’ American dreams.

In the Master of None episode, “Parents,” Aziz Ansari and Alan Young explore a similar idea, reflecting on the sacrifices their respective families had made in order to assure that their children would go on to have better lives. In one scene, a family friend reflects on Ansari’s character’s life in an alternate timeline where his parents had not emigrated to America, saying “if [your father] didn't come to America, you would probably be working in that same zipper factory now, making the holes.” Young’s character replies, “Instead, Dev [Ansari] lives in America, where his biggest problem is that the Wi-Fi in his apartment is messed up.”

These two pieces of media sum of so much of my feelings about my mother and my complex relationship with my origins and my identity. My mother was born in the village of Coloso, to teen parents, and was raised by her paternal grandmother for the first few years of her life. She worked hard her entire life, getting top scores (as she often reminds me) in all her classes and standardized tests, while at the same time acting as a second mother to her four younger siblings. The social fabric of Latin American culture is very much based on the family unit, especially with a last name as ubiquitous as Garcia. In Coloso, my mom claims that half of the town was related to her, and she would often spend the afternoons swimming in the river with her cousins, and picking fruit from her grandmother’s backyard. My mother always painted a picture of an idyllic childhood in Colombia, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to notice the gaps in her stories, reconciled with my growing awareness of Colombia’s political history. Since I was old enough to remember, my father and brother were always told not to speak in public when we were out in Colombia, because their gringo-accented Spanish gave us away as Americans. I was smug, proud that my Spanish was good enough, and my summer tan was enough for me to pass as a full-fledged Colombian.

My mother comes from the country where magical realism was birthed. After spending any amount of time in Colombia, it is easy to understand why. The Colombia of my childhood vacations is one teeming with little scraps of real-life magic. Spending a day basking in the Caribbean sun: diving for sand dollars, letting the saltwater kiss my hot skin, stopping to eat mangos generously slathered in salt and lemon; an afternoon in the lush Medellin mountains: reading and swinging in a hammock for hours, eating sweet arepas with mounds of queso fresco, smelling that grocery store smell unique to Latin America. The Colombia that exists in my mind and my mother’s memories paints a jarring contrast from the Colombia I’ve learned about in SIS research and the Colombia that I’ve seen on Narcos. My beloved country as exists in gringo eyes is a cocaine-infested, war-torn slum ruled by drug lords and blood-thirsty guerillas. Both Colombia's exist, but the one I love glitters with gold and emeralds. My Colombia smells of dark coffee beans and the perfume of tropical flowers.

My mom did not set out to become an immigrant; it was purely an accident. After graduating from Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia’s top university, she planned to go to the US for grad school. While the early 80s were a time of violence caused by both guerilla forces and narcotrafficking, my mom was largely unaffected, other than hearing rumors about distant cousins who lived in FARC-controlled areas. At 27, my mom moved to snowy Illinois to pursue her MBA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There, she met my father: a blue-eyed, corn-fed, Chicago-raised boy, who at the time looked a lot like Kenickie from Grease. My mom did not intend to stay in the United States, in fact she hated it in the beginning. Coming from the magical Caribbean, surrounded by her cousins and friends, Illinois was a lonely, bone-chilling state. After my parents were married, and my father was unable to find a job in Colombia, my mom was faced with the reality that she would very likely never again live in Colombia.

Despite the official peace accords in 2016, my mom’s hometown village remains under FARC control to this day. When I was doing research for my 306 paper, I asked her about the last time she had visited Coloso, for her grandma’s funeral. At the time, I was barely a year old, and on the way back from the funeral, my family was stopped at a FARC check point. My mom shakily recounted how we were harassed by the guerrillas because my dad’s visa had expired, and she was holding a child with an American passport. In the late 90s, the FARC still enjoyed their pastime of kidnapping western tourists and holding them for ransom money. Thanks to some good old-fashioned bribery, we escaped unscathed, but my mom confided in me that she has never felt safe in Colombia with us ever since.

I often wonder how my mother felt leaving her magical country to come to the US, where everything from the weather to the people lack the warmth of the Caribbean sun. The cold of the windy city chilled her to the bone, and she once told me that she cried the year my father bought her a fur hat because she knew it meant another winter in Chicago. My father’s family welcomed her as one of their own, but she was still the foreigner, with a nose that pointed to some long-forgotten indigenous ancestor, and a thick English accent. When I think of her bravery and courage, I can’t help but feel guilty. Everything that I am and have grown to be feels like a cruel mockery of her version of the American dream. I know when I was born, my mother was so excited to have a daughter, to be able to dress me up, pierce my ears, and be her perfect Colombian daughter. But I was born in California, and with the European eyes and nose of my father.

Once I reached elementary school, I shortened Camila Andrea, full and lyrical, to Cami, tired of teachers mispronouncing my name. I became Americanized, easily palatable to a country growingly distrustful of anything foreign. Despite my grandfather’s anger that he would not be able to communicate with us, my mother only spoke to my younger brother and me in Spanish. At four, fresh from a year living in Madrid, I barely remembered English, and tried to speak to my friends in an Española-accented dialect. At age eight, I told my mom that was speaking Spanish was stupid, and refused to utter another word in my mother tongue for years. I know it broke her heart, hearing the sharp sounds of English conquer what remained of my Spanish. Today, I speak Spanish fluently, but with a trace of a gringa accent, that I cannot seem to shake. I belong in the no-man’s land that all mixed children live in: being both American and Colombian, but at the same time not quite enough of either. I stand out among my blonde, blue-eyed Chicago cousins, but one continent south, I am the gringa cousin. I’ve spent summers burning my skin in the sun, until it reached the shade of arequipe, trying to look more pasably Colombian. I listen to reggaeton, have a tattoo excerpted from my favorite Spanish poem, but that doesn’t and will never make me Colombian enough.

My mother sacrificed so much, leaving behind the magical, tropical paradise of her girlhood, only for me to become the atheist, stubborn, bisexual daughter that I am. Lo siento mami, pero te prometo, tengo sueños también, y lo que quiero más que nada es hacerte sentir orgullosa de mi. El día que regrese la paz, nosotras vamos a visitar la casa de Mache, juntas.

Camila Weinstock is a senior studying international relations at American University. In her spare time she enjoys reminding everyone that she is from California, taking Buzzfeed quizzes, and talking about One Direction conspiracy theories.