Patricia Peña, Associate, Davis Wright Tremaine
It's Hispanic Heritage Month, and around this time every year, I ask myself the same question: do I go by Hispanic? Latina? Dominican? Caribbean? I was born and raised in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and emigrated to the US in January 2001. January 6th, to be precise. I arrived at Miami International Airport to attend the University of Miami and lived in Miami and the surrounding area for the next 20 years. As anyone who 's ever visited Miami will tell you, it's almost outside of the US. It's its own ecosystem, where Spanish is the main language... I fit in. But living in the campus bubble of UM and having the college experience was a completely different story, and where I first encountered labels and boxes.
Throughout the university system, I had to choose: Latina/Hispanic or White Latina/Hispanic. My skin color is neither black nor white, which confused people more because they were unsure how to categorize me. I was too light skinned to be Black, and too dark-skinned to be white. I pronounced my name in Spanish (it's Pah-tree-cee-ah, not Patrisha). My classmates were confused, "you're an immigrant? But your English is so good!" What I think you mean is that I speak English well, not good. Superman does good. But I digress. For the first time in my life, at the ripe age of 18, I didn't know who I was or where I fit in.
See, growing up in the Dominican Republic, I never had to explain anything about myself, not my name or my skin color; it was normal to be mulata. Most Dominicans are mixed. (Actually, most Caribbeans from Spanish speaking countries are mixed, because after the Spanish colonizers decimated our indigenous tribes, they brought slaves from Africa, with some later Middle Eastern, Asian, and other migrations. But that's a history lesson for another day.) On campus, I was different. Everywhere I went, I started being called Latina, sometimes Hispanic, when I wasn't being confused for Indian because of my skin color. And I remember thinking to myself "but I'm Dominican. I'm just Patricia."
I decided to learn what being Latina and Hispanic means, I was in college after all. Being Latino/a means being from or having a background from a country in Latin America. Hispanic means "del habla hispana" or Spanish speaking or being from a Spanish speaking country. Not all Latin American countries have Spanish as their official or predominant language. And not all Spanish speaking countries are part of Latin America. Spaniards are considered Hispanic, but not Latinos. Brazilians are considered Latinos, but don't speak Spanish. Furthermore, the cultures in Caribbean Spanish speaking countries, like Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, are very different from the cultures in Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico. I was more confused than a chameleon in a bag of Skittles.
But I was in Miami! And living in Miami had its advantage: I was only different in college, on campus. Once I was outside that bubble and living in or being around Miami, I belonged. Everywhere I went, people knew I was Dominican. The Hispanic population in South Florida is predominantly Cuban, another Caribbean nation. Although not entirely the same, our foods, customs, and culture are similar. No one asked me twice how to pronounce my name. I still struggled with forms, particularly the ones that would ask "what is your race: white, Black, other" (I guess I'll go with other…). But overall, I wasn't an anomaly. I was one of many.
During those years, I found my voice. I refused to change or hide anything about my culture, my background, my heritage. When people asked about my English, I got sassy and would say "well, you know, we do have schools back home, with teachers and everything!" When they asked why I pronounced my name the way I did, it was "because that's what my mom named me, and we speak Spanish. I learned to say Jägermeister, you can learn to say my name." When I was a junior in college and was applying for internships and jobs, someone was reviewing my resume and said, "you should write your last name as Pena, because they'll know you're Latina if you do Peña and won't call you." I looked them straight in the eye and said: "Well they won't call me. I'm not changing my name. Also, pena is an actual word that means something completely different." And yes, when it comes to sass, I am, in fact, my mother's daughter.
About two years ago, I moved to DC, where I started encountering a whole new level of generalization and I felt like that 18-year old kid again. I was different again, the only one of my kind in a lot of rooms. But something had changed in the last 20 years. I no longer felt the need to explain myself, explain my existence, explain my presence. I no longer felt a need to fit in. I was happy being me. When people made the same comments about my English, I no longer felt the need to defend myself, I simply would smile, sometimes thank them, or sometimes say nothing. People started asking how to do the accent over the n in my last name, my go to answer became: "It's not an accent, it's a letter. The Spanish alphabet has two extra letters: the ll and the ñ." I can certainly educate others, but their assumptions and biases are no longer mine to carry.
So, after all these years, am I closer to an answer as to what I am? Well, maybe? There are a lot of things that define me. I am Latina. I am also Hispanic. I am Caribbean. I am proudly, ecstatically, and joyously a Dominican immigrant. I am an American. I certainly don't fit nicely and snuggly in a checkbox, and that is perfectly fine with me. Because, above all, I am just Patricia.
Happy Hispanic Heritage Month, mi gente!