Discovering My Latina Identity Through Music and Television
It’s the day before 2014, my cousin and I listen closely to an eery electronic tapping in a slightly slanted apartment deep in the Bronx. Slowly, the tapping transforms to music and people sing in harmonized longing.
I whisper to my cousin, “What is this?”
“Sssh, just listen.”
He raises his hand in the air and follows the movement of these voices, like a river flowing smoothly through violent turns the score rises. We are listening to the Phantom of the Opera. The phantom demands the woman’s voice to rise, my cousin and I listen speechless as her voice commands our ears to listen. I glance at his face while she sings even louder and his eyes are shut completely immersed by the sounds spurring in this shoe-box New York home. The score rises and falls, and suddenly I feel myself falling in love with this genre. Just while I imagine myself in victorian garb listening to these artists alter my emotions my aunt screams-
“Apague ese ruido, dios mio!” “Turn off that noise, my god!”
I see the frustration in my cousin’s eyes but his reaction feels all too familiar. The music of the night transforms. The “chiki-taka-ta” tapping of classic Dominican merengue fills the apartment. A different kind of operatic masterpiece.
My relationship with music, television, and books while I was growing up consisted of negotiating my identity to discover what I could or could not consume.I still find myself literally juggling the cultures of my roots and the culture of the country I live in… and it gets exhausting. With all forms of media, I never felt like I fit into any kind of target audience. Being first generation American means my mom and family were always immersed in the Dominican Latinx life style but going to school meant I had to strip that part of me away in order to fit in and for lack of better words “act white.” When I lived in Miami, I felt like the only spanish speaking person who listened to indie music and did not enjoy the rhythmic back and forth dancing of my Dominican people that kept our house lights on until sunrise every weekend. Fourteen years old, I would hide in my room and listen to Jack’s Mannequin loud enough to cover the sounds of Antonio Santos playing downstairs. These actions did not leave me unpunished. My family called me Gringa, a term used to call white people who did not speak English well, and my Latinx classmates would say “you’re the whitest Dominican I know.” Even at fourteen years old I knew that the worst part of the statement was I could not figure out if it was an insult or a compliment. At twenty years old, I respond with the rejection of both categories. I create my own label, my own category, a functioning hybrid Dominican-American who can listen to both Radiohead and Celia Cruz shamelessly. I have realized I can live outside the narrative that is set for me I am liberated.
The liberation did not come easy, living in Boston as an adult and a minority (rather than in Miami or even the Bronx where white was the minority) taught me to take pride in my Latinx side and also to bond with other people that fit into “outsider culture.” Befriending people of all shades and colors, I feel comfortable dancing to the cliche beats of Hotline Bling, singing along to Hasta La Raiz, and watching the Phantom of the Opera. Despite what we Latinx children of immigrants have learned, we do not have to compromise who we are to consume such media but that doesn’t mean we can’t critique it.
I didn’t realize that I was not being served quality films/books that related to my narrative in the United States until recently. I hate to admit it, but I did feel like a lot of what I was and is interested to was reserved for white people. The movies that impacted me the most while I was in my mid-teens did not have any kind of character with my background. If I didn’t go out and search for it myself, I rarely saw people of color as the main character. For a short time I was absolutely obsessed with the Princess Diaries. When I first saw the film, the introduction held me by the shoulders and shouted hope into my ears. This young teenage girl with frizzy brown hair, an obsession with indie-rock music, and a cat who was bullied at school was told she was actually a princess. Even though there were no people of color in the film, other than maybe the principal (Christina Yang!!!), it was seldom I felt compatible. So I do what one must do as a child of color consuming United States media, find the characteristics you do relate with and ignore the rest. We were forced to practice colorblindness with white people before that even became a thing. Unfortunately, there are scenes in the Princess Diaries that I could not ignore such as how her hair transformation was the main feature of the make over. In order for Mia, the main character, to be treated with dignity she had to strip off her curls. This scene actually led me to straighten my hair for years afterwards in hopes that I could some day be as accepted as Mia was. Maybe even considered royalty. Of course, I am aware that this may sound petty but to a child with hair that is consistently called “pelo malo” or “bad hair,” a simple scene such as this is life changing in the wrong way.
The same happened when I watched Sister, Sister or the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When people of color were actually given a platform to reach young people and make children of color believe that this country is not only trying to entertain a certain kind of person why do they have to be about middle-upper class families with nuclear family units. Of course, I do not denounce the power these shows had especially to me when I was younger but where were the mainstream television shows that had strong Latinx starring roles if any at all? Or sitcoms with characters that lived in the projects? Even subconsciously I found myself consuming so much media because I was struggling with finding people who were like me on them. Let’s take Gilmore Girls for example, not even one of my favorite television shows could get it right. I loved it because it had a character who had similar ambitions to mine with a single mother but there was not one person of color with a significant role throughout the entire show except maybe the comic relief character Michel.
I am not saying all of television is bad. Nowadays, when I tune into Jane the Virgin, a one hour dramedy that’s basically an English novella, I feel so connected to the show because it is the first time I see my family dynamic featured period. When I saw the first episode I remember thinking to myself, is this how white people feel? If it is, this feels amazing! And again I thought the same when I saw Fresh off the Boat, an amazing sitcom about an Asian family assimilating to white culture in Orlando, FL. As the years go by and more opportunity is given to people of color, I am gathering more hope for the future children of color who are trying to develop in a world that is not catering to them. I hope that they discover what took me 20 years to find out. That they have the power to choose and create their own ruido.
P.S I wrote this listening to this playlist I have on my Spotify: Latinx Vibes! Enjoy!