Searching for the Right Label(s) To Be Latina Enough
I do not recall growing up with the words “Latina” or “Hispanic.” As an adult, I have learned that people think of my hometown as having people who were “Cuban” or “not Cuban.” It is a simplistic binary I did not like to hear.
I was born and raised in Miami—a city that is majority foreign born and majority first or second-generation immigrants from Latin America. Like most immigrants from Latin America, people shared their national origin as their label, not using terms like Latinx or Hispanic. My city is rich with the full Latin American tapestry—Dominicans, Haitians, Peruvians, Venezuelans, Hondurans, etc.
It was common for my classmates to be part of families that represented many national origins. Looking closer though, other divisions, or labels, were represented in our classrooms. To understand the labels of my classmates, one must understand the history of colonialism in Latin America.
The first label is on race. Latin America has all races. Peru—where my dad was born and raised—is an excellent example. Peru is home to indigenous communities, many who are descendants of the Inca. It is home to a sizeable community that traces its heritage to Japan and China. Peruvian Chifa is our famous and delicious Chinese-Peruvian fusion food. Like its neighbors, including most famously Brazil, Peru has many citizens who are Black and descended from enslaved people forcibly taken from West Africa. Therefore, the label “Latinx” or “Hispanic” does not confer racial identity because the continent and the speakers of Spanish are of all races.
Peru is also home to a small Jewish community. My Jewish family emigrated from Turkey and Italy in the early 1920s. My grandmother was just two years old at the time, so Peru is the home she knew for her 97 years, until she passed in 2020. Spanish was her primary language and she also spoke Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews, a Spanish-Hebrew mix.
So that’s another label—my religious, cultural, and ethnic identity is Jewish. Although many people may think Latin America is Catholic, that assumption is based on Spanish colonialism and does not accurately reflect the tapestry of religious identities in Latin America. Not only are there Jews all over Latin America, but Argentina is the country home to the 3rd largest Jewish population in the world, after the United States and Israel.
So, I ask myself: how much “Latina” can I claim? What makes someone Latina? Is it enough that Spanish is my dad’s first language? Does it bolster my Latinidad that my mom is fluent in Spanish as well, even if she is not from Latin America? She learned Spanish growing up in Texas, with a lot of family in Mexico City because her mom’s family emigrated to Texas and Mexico from Syria in the 1920s. But since she is not Mexican American, does that make me less Latina? Or am I fully Latina and fully American?
Like many Americans, I refuse to pick one label. They all seem compatible to me—Jewish, Miamian, Latina, Hispanic. And over the years, I have proudly added other ones—lawyer, feminist, mom, wife.
So, as we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month this year, I hope we spend time learning about and understanding the benefits and limits of labels. I think it helps to think of labels as not just a description of identity, but a celebration of humanity.