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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
The independent student publication of The University at Buffalo, since 1950

Hispanic Heritage Month was never to blame

On holding myself accountable by addressing my own internalized racism

 In the fall of eighth grade, Friday nights meant eating too much popcorn, attempting new makeup looks and secretly watching Mean Girls in my best friend’s basement. My friends and I talked for hours about boys who didn’t know we existed, discussed Halloween costume ideas and stalked celebrities on social media accounts our parents didn’t know we had. It was my turn to receive a makeover, and all was well — until one girl scrolled onto a post about National Hispanic Heritage Month.

“Are you going to celebrate, Kayla?” she asked.

Before I could answer, the room erupted into laughter.

“Of course she’s not, she’s not even that Mexican,” one of them replied. “She’s actually really pretty. She could even model if her nose wasn’t so huge.”

The group all nodded in agreement before changing the subject.

After a few short moments, I excused myself.

I went to the bathroom, panic stricken. I paced around the room, scared to glance in the mirror. Eventually, my curiosity subdued me, and I looked. My reflection only confirmed their piercing words. The gross fluorescent lighting made my brown skin appear greenish. Great, I thought to myself. I look as sick as I feel. My large nose stared back at me, taking up nearly half of my face. I had never felt so ugly. And the feeling only got worse when I began to cry. 

Staring at myself, glitter painted eyelids and my face covered in foundation three shades too light, I began to wonder how it all came to this; sobbing in front of my best friend’s dirty bathroom mirror, with only a hideous beast looking back to keep me company.

After a few minutes of contemplation, I eventually decided that my friends were innocent in the matter. Hispanic Heritage Month just sucks, I thought. What could there possibly be to celebrate?

From that point on, Hispanic Heritage Month was no friend of mine, and Mexican culture remains a distant stranger to this day.

I quickly learned to play the assimilation game. Pale powder constantly masked my brown face. My skin begged to enjoy the last bit of summer sun, only to be met with the whitening shade of the nearest umbrella. Yet there was no umbrella large enough to shield the abundance of racial slurs that followed me down my middle school’s halls. Every time I walked past a Spanish classroom, guilt struck me, my absence from the class consumed me. Still, people laughed and called me Dora — in reality she was far more talented.

Although I never learned Spanish, I remain fluent in hate as my second language. I lost touch with all aspects of my culture in an attempt to gain white validation, but in the end, I was left with nothing.

Whitewashed with none of the privilege.

To my dismay, my grandparents forced me to attend Latin Fest with the rest of my family during my sophomore year. I watched as my cousins excitedly ran through the streets, scoping out the best places for activities. I trudged along, my lack of enthusiasm clearly upsetting my Abuela. How could they be enjoying this? I thought. It’s like they want to get picked on. Each time they ate a taco too enthusiastically, or spoke Spanish a little too loudly, I caught myself wincing, dreadfully anticipating a sea of mockery and racial slurs. 

But they never came.

Instead, wide smiles painted each of their faces, their cheeks red from dancing and laughter. Eating tasty food, listening to vibrant music and talking amongst each other in their native tongue.

My Abuela had never seemed so at peace. She had managed to find a little patch of heaven, a sanctuary that shielded her culture from assimilation. And she did all this while disregarding my mockery. As I watched my family be shamelessly Mexican, a sudden wave of jealousy hit me. While I should’ve been busy admiring the beauty of the moment, envy swarmed my brain.

This should’ve been me.

After the festival finished, we all made our way back to my Abuela’s house. Aunts and uncles swarmed me, so thrilled that I would be the first of the Estrada family to attend college. I didn’t deserve their admiration. So after a few short moments, I excused myself and headed for the bathroom.

Staring at myself, with a puffy nose and tears rolling down my face, I began to wonder how it all came to this. Hiding in the bathroom at a family celebration, knowing I didn’t deserve to be a part of this amazing community. I stared in the mirror, with the same hideous beast staring back. How disappointed my grandparents must be. To immigrate to a new country, leaving everything behind. All to give your future grandchild a better life, only to have her judge you for being a maid and a construction worker. They sacrificed everything in order for me to be privileged enough to write this column. A spoiled first generation American with internalized racism doesn’t deserve to celebrate anything.

I learned about my race and my culture through broken pieces of shattered glass. So, it was no surprise to anyone, that after years of staring in that distorted mirror, I hated myself. And it was all my fault.

Now a college freshman, I still don’t know much about my culture. I still don’t speak Spanish, I still don’t celebrate Mexican holidays and I still feel out of place at family reunions. I remain unsure of what the next steps are in retrieving pieces of my identity. Other than replacing judgment with open mindedness. I don’t know what the future holds for my relationship with Mexican culture.

But I do know Hispanic Heritage Month was never to blame.

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Kayla Estrada is the opinion editor at The Spectrum. She is an English major who enjoys rainy weather, “Bob’s Burgers” and asking people who they voted for. When she’s not writing, she can be found hunting for odd-looking knick-knacks at the nearest thrift store.  



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