From descending to Los Angeles at the age of seven till my second year in college, Bolivianx culture was non-existent to me. That part of my life was hidden, almost as if on purpose. My parents, working double-over-full-time, kissed me on the forehead every night—as I prepared for bed, they prepared for work. No time for culture. No time for identity. Time only for bills and milk. Having no other families and friends around to share some bits of Bolivianx pride, I grew up ashamed and embarrassed of my roots. Like a child being taught to get rid of a bad habit, I found myself working hard to unlearn what sense of Bolivianx culture I had left.
Who knew exploring and researching Bolivianx culture would be excruciatingly painful yet liberating for me. Yes, I am one of those kids who was born in another country and brought to the United States at a very young age. Yes, I am one of those kids who knows nothing about the body of land in which my entire family was born and taught me how to walk. And yes, I am undocumented (with DACA). For a very long time I have been ashamed and embarrassed to be Bolivianx. I want to know why. This is a reflection piece dissecting my life.
I grew up in the United States but I have never felt American. Toni Morrison has said, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Thing is, I have never felt Bolivian-American either. Maybe it is my darker skin complexion, or my high cheek bones, or my fluent English communication skills that Americans are surprised by (I swear if one more person tells me how well I speak I am going to burst like a supernova.) Or maybe it is just that my stubborn mind does not want to be labeled as belonging to a specific nation when American really means to be part of the entire American continents: the Americas from Chile to Canada. Although I’ve never felt American, growing up I did want to be an American.
How could I not? I grew up in Los Angeles with the “superiority complex” idea that “I am better than everyone outside of the United States because I live in the same country as all of the ‘best’ actors, musicians, artists, etc,. This gives me access to the best art of all time and if I want to be an artist I should emulate the best of the best. Everything else is waste.” This statement is not factually true, but these are the assumptions I grew up with. Because of this type of propaganda growing up in Los Angeles, I was extremely ashamed and embarrassed when my parents would put on cuecas, morenadas, Los Kjarkas; traditional folk Bolivianx music. Very early on, I was ashamed of my culture.
Too chunti, I would say. Chunti is a word used to describe “low-life, backwards, and uncivilized” indigenous-like activities and ways of life. Not only is it a word to insult a person for not being American enough, but it is a word to murder entire cultures. How did I learn it? I do not specifically know, but it became part of my vocabulary by middle school. “Yo that is some chunti ass music and dancing” I would think when watching my parents dance. Murdering my culture, murdering my life. I am horrible.
My mom would often tell me, “Voy a llamar a tu tía y al papa, quieres hablarles?” I’m going to call your aunt and grandfather. You want to talk to them? “Nah, I’m busy(!),” I would reply, or scream in disgust. I did not want to speak to them with my broken Spanish. Worse, it was a feeling of embarrassment mixed with a tint of a superiority complex; I wanted to disassociate myself from them. Of course I did not tell my parents this. Instead, I used the excuse of being busy. By busy I meant playing first-person shooters on a game console. By busy I meant scrolling through Myspace, and later Facebook. By busy I meant strumming my guitar to echoes only I could hear. In my head I was too important to talk to distant family; family, not as important as video games, social media sites, and instruments. The straight-jackets of the Western world tightened on me and I begin to care less and less about the rest of the world, about my family and culture. (To my family, I am sorry, and I love you.)
I began to actually care about my family in Bolivia when out of nowhere my tía died of cervical cancer. Later, I found out it she had been diagnosed and fighting cancer for a while. But I had been so ignorant and repulsed by my family and culture that I did not notice when my mom was on the phone crying when speaking to my tía. I was so disgusted with who we were that I did not even inquire about why my own mom was crying. (Yes, I am the worst human being in the world.)
It was not until mid-way through college at Cal State Los Angeles that I really began to understand my internalized oppression after taking Pan-African studies classes. In fact, the videos that are linked in this article I have watched for the first time in the past two years. Can you believe that? I never had the interest to do a simple “Bolivia” Youtube search. Why did I hate myself so much?
What is the cause of all this? I reflect. It is a complex answer but the underlying theme is white supremacy. How can it be white supremacy if I grew up in a majority-minority community in Los Angeles? Let me explain.
White supremacy begins with the idea of skin color, and can be traced back much further than 1492. Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortes, and the other Conquistadores raped, ravaged, enslaved, and stole from indigenous peoples and mother earth. Anything less than the White, European, religious model was deemed unworthy of life. As a result, this unspeakable trauma and violence has scarred the Americas into believing in white supremacy. This is apparent in Latin America where you can still find people using the term “Indio” to insult another as being uneducated and uncivilized (Indio refers to any person from indigenous backgrounds); “mejorando la raza” to embed in children the idea that marriage should be only to another of a lighter skin-tone so their new-borns resemble those of the White-European model (the standard of beauty). As a result of white-supremacy, generation after generation of non-white cultures have subconsciously waged war on themselves causing a deep psychological effect of self-hate and internalized oppression.
White supremacy begins with skin color, but it expands into all modes of life including language (reading, listening, speaking, writing), communication, literature, academics, dance, creative arts, film, etc,. Everything non-white should be ignored or forgotten, which is what I did.
I have not been able to return to Bolivia even though I have the opportunity to so with Advanced Parole, and believe me I have tried (unsuccessfully). I am still trying. 16 years have passed since I last saw my grandparents and rest of the family. Today, I find myself struggling to piece together my families’ “stories” from my short childhood in Bolivia, attempting to relearn what I can from culture to conscience. I do not wish to romanticize Bolivia, for Bolivia is troubled by its politics, corruption, and racism against its indigenous people. However, I do wish to learn, relearn, and embrace a way of life that I so ruthlessly tried to suppress growing up in the United States.
Photo courtesy of author