I went to public school in an inner city until seventh grade. I was not all that conscious of race, being the 11-year old that I was. My best friends were Yasser, a tall, lanky, Brazilian, with a knack for soccer; Cecil, a short, four-eyed, African American who liked to draw comics; Mauricio, a Puerto Rican who lived above a corner bar that he worked at; and Murat, a Russian eighth-grader who was really good at baseball and math.
Then there was me, Louis, a dorky, chess-playing, Colombian-Peruvian-Syrian-French-African (Latino for short), with a subscription to Nintendo Power. Like Cecil, I too wore glasses, but I took them off for school pictures because I didn’t like them.
The only real racial issue that registered in my pre-teen mind was when our classmate Nick, a White student, called Cecil a “dirty nigger.” I remember my teacher, Mrs. Miller, made Nick type a one-page history of the word and read it in front of everyone in class.
When I finished seventh grade there, my parents moved into a suburb and enrolled me in a Catholic school. I was terrified on my first day. Not only was I the new kid and a complete dork, but I was also one of four students of color in my class. I had never experienced such alienation. My year there was difficult, and I still did not really have a clue about racial issues.
Then I went to high school _ an all-boys Catholic Prep School. I was somewhat more comfortable there because I had already been fairly acclimated to the homogenous culture and knew how to act. Because I was politically impotent and naive, I generally liked high school and put up with all the bigotry that went on.
When my religion teacher made jokes about “Gay Day” parades or how the reason you cannot park your car near street corners was because Hispanics would hit your car, I just laughed along with everyone else. He even picked on individuals, calling one student “Twinkle Toes” because he thought he was too feminine. This sort of behavior set a tone at the school that was dangerous for all outcasts.
Because I did not know any better and there were no support mechanisms in place, I began to internalize the racism and the culture, as did other students of color. One of my African-American classmates, Jordan, was often called “Oreo”_ Black on the outside, White on the inside_ for acting “too White” and not acting “Black enough.”
I really had not made sense of any of this yet. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t quite know what it was. It was not until I found out that I had been accepted to Tufts that I seriously began to think about what was going on. My classmate Peter, a White student, who had also applied to Tufts but was not accepted, said that I got in because of my race. This really bothered me.
Had I really gotten in because I checked a different box than he? I didn’t know. I asked my math teacher, who was a great mentor to me, and he didn’t know either. Surely, if I asked the Tufts admissions office they would deny such a charge, I thought. I was very confused about the politics of race when I arrived at Tufts.
As I moved into my Wren Hall dorm room, I found a piece of candy and a note attached to my door from my Latino peer advisor. When I checked my email for the first time, there was an email message from Ruben Salinas Stern, the director of the Latino Center, welcoming me to the Latino community at Tufts. When I checked my mailbox, I found a copy of the Latino Center newsletter. Tufts was certainly a different kind of place.
I continued to get these e-mail messages, newsletters, and even voicemail messages on a regular basis. It was overwhelming and ironically, made me feel very uncomfortable. I felt insecure about myself. After all, why did I have to be different from everyone else? No one else I knew was getting these notices, why should I?
How did they find out I was Latino anyway? Does everyone who checks that box on the application get their name, address, and phone number released to the Latino Center so that they can send you stuff? What right do they have to do that without even asking me, I thought. Finally, one day I decided I didn’t want to receive these notices anymore. I wrote back to one of Ruben’s emails.
I requested that my name be taken off of his list. I said that sending me this stuff was a waste of time and paper because I just put the newsletters and flyers in the recycling bin. I told Ruben that he had no right to put me on any list based on the box that I checked on my application to the University and that if he continued to send me notices, I would make sure that this practice of putting people on lists without consent would not continue.
I had lost it.
But it obviously was not the fact that I was receiving junk mail that made me mad. After all, TUPD was sending me “Crime Prevention Month” propaganda and I never complained about that. It was simply the fact that accepting the newsletters meant that I had to accept myself. I could not do it.
But I also cannot sell myself short. Within the first two months, the identity politics of Tufts University had gotten to me. I probably would not have had a problem with it if there was an equal opportunity for everyone to be sent these newsletters, but the fact that I was singled out made me upset.
Places like the Latino Center _ where people can gather in a safe space _ are invaluable, but until we fully expand the safe space circle of influence, we should be mindful of the compartmentalization it can create.
I never got another notice from the Latino Center that year. I stopped thinking about the politics of identity and ignored my own.
Since then, Ruben and I have talked about that experience and have made amends. I am back on the list. But because (or perhaps despite the fact that) I have chosen the path that I am on, I feel as though I do not fully belong in the Latino community or the White community.
On the one hand, I speak English without a Spanish accent, I do not talk about my race or nationality often, I am completely immersed in the White culture, and I am only peripherally involved in the Latino community. In other words, I don’t make Whites uncomfortable by flashing my Latinoness in their face. But on the other hand, I have an olive skin tone, I speak Spanish when I call home, and I have a Colombian flag in my room.
Where is the place for me? Where is that place between Bruce Springsteen and Julio Iglesias? That is the riddle I have been trying to solve. That is the place that I have been trying to find.
I am still struggling and will probably always struggle with my identity. Being able to talk about it gives me a new power that I’ve never had before. I only wish that others might discover this power earlier than I did. This Latino Heritage Month should be an opportunity to both celebrate our identity and think about the politics of identity.