I Didn't Think About My Minority Status Until I Came to Tulane

By: Mario Rodriguez

While watching a mix of random videos on YouTube, I stumbled upon the trailer for the remake of “One Day at a Time”. Unlike the original sitcom from 1975, this Netflix special is about a Cuban American family. In the trailer, Rita Moreno walks into her kitchen with a typical bathrobe and nightgown ensemble, dancing to Celia Cruz’s song“Azucar Negra while she makes breakfast for her grandchildren. Time and time again, I am reminded of how special it is to see yourself and your family depicted as the protagonists, as the heroes of their own stories, and as rounded out characters with nuances that go beyond their ethnicity and touch on their underlying universal humanity. At the time I was watching the clip, and the only thing that could come to mind was “That’s what home is like”.

I would describe myself as Cuban-American and Latino before anything else. I have also come to realize that the places I grew up in have formed a very crucial part of how I express my own identity and how I communicate it with others. These elements of who I am went largely unnoticed throughout my life because I was just like everyone else around me. Coming to Tulane made me have a greater understanding of what made my background different from other people’s. My regional and ethnic identities have been instilled in me from the moment I was born; learning behaviors and practices from my family and friends as I grew up helped me form and understand what it meant to be a Cuban American living in Miami. I had never realized how much my identity resonated with my life or how it made me unique from other people until I came to Tulane. In this sense, although all of my identity as a Cuban American is avowed, its importance relative to my life at the moment is also slightly ascripted. Growing up, nearly everyone I’d met was bilingual. Everyone had parents or grandparents that had fled their native country, which was almost always Cuba (if not, their relatives country of origin spanned from places like Argentina and Venezuela to Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Everyone’s family narrative was very similar to mine, forming in our culture a collective theme of displacement in the name of opportunity, freedom, and the American Dream. This American Dream is a mythological story we are often told as US citizens, but it resonates differently with people from my home. The American Dream isn't your distant ancestor who came to the US with his family, but your Abuela who came as a scared 16 year old, without her parents or any command on the English language. I knew that coming to Tulane would mean I would constantly be surrounded by people whose grandparents didn't feel the need to put the letter E in front of words like “Sprite” or “Streetcar”, but I had no idea how that would manifest itself into my day to day interactions and the way I saw myself.

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The most notable aspect of my behavior that I have changed as a result of these conflicts is in the way I speak.  Although I was always aware of the fact that I had a Miami accent. I never thought it was very pronounced and I was completely unaware of how “Hispanic” I sounded. On my very first day at Tulane, I was asked if I was an international student by one of the girls that lived in my building. I was also often asked whether English was my first language throughout the first few months of school. Although out of context these comments may seem rather ignorant and insensitive, I do not blame the people that asked these questions for being confused; those first few months, I even had trouble talking sometimes because I would forget the word for “guagua” or “gabinete” in English, because at home I was perfectly able to switch from one language to the other without anyone ever being confused. Some of my closest friends even assumed that my parents would not be able to speak English, or would at least speak it with a really heavy accent.  

They had assumed that the only way someone could speak English the way I did were if it had been muddled by a Spanish speaking household. Upon meeting my parents, however,  they were surprised to hear that my parents spoke English perfectly well. In fact, my parents only ever speak Spanish with me or with each other when they are trying to say something about my younger brother without him noticing because he only speaks English (imagine that, a latino with an accent like mine that doesn’t speak Spanish. What a novel concept.) Over time, whatever accent my friends seemed to have picked up on got “better” in their eyes, because I grew more accustomed to only ever speaking either only English or only Spanish. I still have yet to notice any marked change in the way I talk, but I think that may be because the adjustment of my accent has been a subconscious shift rather than a conscious adjustment. I think that this supposed “improvement” of my accent is a statement on how a dominant culture in a community can have an imposing effect on the aspects of a less represented culture. I never wanted to change my accent or my Spanglish, but I still weaned myself off of it because that was how I could better fit in with the Tulane community.

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There was one particular instance where my identity truly felt scrutinized at Tulane. Second semester freshman year, I decided to go to a sorority date party with a friend of mine. It goes without saying that people had been drinking at this date party. On the bus ride back, my friend’s big asked me to take her back to her dorm and proceeded to tell me “Si, si, comprende?” as if I would not be able to understand what she was saying. I do not retell this story for sympathy or to admonish this particular person, but that situation was probably the first time in my life where I felt I was being looked down upon for no reason other than the fact that I’m Hispanic. I was being seen first and foremost as a Latino trope and not as an actual human being that happens to be Latino. One of the issues with having a school that has little to no diversity is that people do not know how to interact with people who are seemingly different from them. When my friend’s big apologized the next day, she mentioned how “her big was Cuban, and they used to always joke around like that”. If there were more minorities at Tulane, maybe she would understand that the things one member of a certain community finds permissible are not representative of everyone who shares that identity.

Regardless of some of these negative experiences I've had, I have never felt prouder of my cultural heritage as I have been since I started attending Tulane. Growing up between Miami, Mexico City, and Madrid, I never had to think about being Hispanic or what it meant to be Hispanic because I felt that I was just like everyone around me. Although I clearly enjoyed partaking in the practices and traditions that formed part of my culture, I always felt that they were merely things everyone else did as well. At Tulane, there are few Hispanics and even less Cuban-Americans. I feel that this lacking also presents me with a unique opportunity to inform people about the values my heritage holds near to its heart, on the ways my family and I celebrate our traditions. Had it not been for the strong foundation in Latinx culture, the idea of being thrown into an environment filled with people that are so different from me may have turned out much more negatively. I’m very lucky to know who I am, know where I come from, and to have been instilled with the idea that my roots are something to show with pride, rather than to hide them for the sake of conformity.