photo: iStock; Marissa Pina, Vivala

When you grow up in Miami, being Latina isn’t something you think about too often. When everyone around you speaks Spanish, quinceañeras are a part of your regular social calendar, and dinner parties always include some combination of rice and beans, you assume that life outside the 305 must be exactly same, at least that's what I imagined.

“Miami has almost every Spanish-speaking national-origin group you could imagine in sizeable numbers," says Phillip Carter, PhD, an assistant professor of English and linguistics at Florida International University in Miami. “That makes this city very different from anywhere else in the U.S., and frankly anywhere in the world.”

Living amongst two cultures was always my normal. I saw myself in the characters on Carrusel de Niños, as much as I saw myself in those of Saved by the Bell. Surely Kelly Kapowski watched Sábado Gigante with her parents, too, right?

But, of course, as one gets older they become more aware. By ninth grade, I was going to school with a lot of kids who, unlike me, weren’t born in the U.S., recently migrating with their families from Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and a plethora of other places throughout Latin America. In math class, they called me “la Americanita,” and this was the first time it became blatantly obvious to me that my Spanish skills needed work. 

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Just as I started to embrace my identity as an American – and by “American,” I mean finding my clique among other kids who spoke English as a first language – my mom and I went on a summer trip to Seattle to visit one of her good friends. I found a companion in her daughter, who was also fifteen at the time, and spent my two-week vacation meeting other kids who were nothing like me — blond hair, blue-eyed specimens straight out of a 2001 Abercrombie and Fitch catalog. No one spoke Spanish and no one’s anecdotes included a grandfather who once had a ranch in Cuba. The whole experience was pleasantly enlightening and totally uncomfortable at the same time.

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Was this what life was like outside the peculiar cultural bubble that is Miami?

Since then, I’ve often felt like I go back and forth between feeling “too Latina” when I travel outside of Miami – like having people point out my accent or ask where I’m from – to feeling completely not-Latina at home when my grandmother corrects my Spanish or I’m amongst a crowd of Latino friends watching a soccer game.

Carter says that he’s heard stories of similar identity struggles from his Miami-born students.

 “They’re these amazing bilingual Hispanics who I think feel ashamed of their Spanish, but they also feel bad about speaking English or Spanglish around Abuela." 

He says that while the number of Spanish speakers has increased over time, there’s also been tremendous growth of Miami-born Latinos who identified with both cultures.

It’s like I’m balancing my way down a strange tightrope of identity, sometimes falling more toward Latina, sometimes falling more toward American. And while it sounds challenging and confusing (trust me, it often is), I’m not sure I would know how to walk through life any other way.