Friday, December 5, 2014

On This Writer’s Ethnic Identity

The question of how I identify myself—ethnically-speaking—is a persistent one.  Readers often corner me, trying to get me to pick only one ethnicity.  I believe this is because every booklover understands that a writer’s sense of belonging tints the lens through which he or she tells a story.  Moreover, readers are aware that a writer’s culture plays a vital role in his or her obsessions.

In my case, these things are absolutely true.

When it comes to defining my identity, I’ve swung from a pendulum of cultures depending on a given moment of my life.  During my first eleven years, spent in Los Angeles, I was an “American”—without question or apology.  My upbringing in California, and my being a product of the public school system, heavily filtered the way I viewed and interpreted the world.  Although I was aware that my parents’ roots made me unique, Nicaragua was a part of their world, not mine.  My blood—the blood of a native Californian—ran red, white, and blue.  And although I was of Latino descent, I considered myself part of mainstream “America.”  As a result, I saw the world the way most “Americans” did. 

Then my family moved to Nicaragua.  

Because my parents couldn’t afford to enroll me in that country’s only U.S.-accredited school, they placed me in an all-boys, Spanish-speaking, Catholic school.  But what at first seemed a tragedy—to not to be able to continue my education in the American way—turned out to be a blessing, a stroke of great fortune. 

If I had attended the U.S. school, I would have remained an “American,” and I would have never become acculturated into the world and stories of my ancestors.

In my new school I was the only English-speaking student.  While growing up in the States I had only spoken Spanish with relatives; because of this my skills were childlike: my vocabulary was limited and my knowledge of grammar non-existent.  During my first months in Nicaragua, the way I spoke elicited howls of laughter from my new classmates.  The dread of being teased forced me to adapt, otherwise I would live the life of an isolated cultural freak. 

Thankfully, within six months (Oh, the prowess of childhood to adjust to new circumstances!), I had embraced the language, the culture, the history, and the people of my heritage.  And after only a couple of years, I had, for the purpose of self-identification, become fully Nicaraguan. 

A Nicaraguan: this was how I would identify myself for decades to come.  It wasn’t until I was in my late-thirties, nearly twenty years after I had returned to the States, that I started to acknowledge that an “American” also dwelled within me. 

Although in retrospect it seems logical, as well as inevitable, the designator Nicaraguan-American eventually became my identifier. And the benefits of accepting this hyphenated identity have far outweighed any losses: it is as a Nicaraguan-American that I started to believe that, as a writer, I had stories to share through the lens with which I now viewed the world.

But another shift has taken place in my self-identification, a slight yet significant change.  I approach my thirteenth year of living in Panama.   While I could never consider myself Panamanian (not because I don’t wish to, but at my age the honor eludes me), I am once again embracing another culture, another history, another people.  Both my wife and I are happy to call this nation our home, and our stay here seems permanent. 

Perhaps I will never see as clearly through my Panamanian lens as I do through the American and Nicaraguan ones, but I now understand Panamanians.  (And isn’t this what a writer of fiction does, inhabit the identities of his or her characters’ so their actions are utterly believable within a determined cultural context?)

So, where am I now regarding my ethnic identity?

I’m honest when I reply that I am not entirely sure.  At this point in my life, pinpointing the manner in which I categorize myself is no longer of great importance to me.  What I do know is that when I visit California, I no longer feel Californian; when I visit Nicaragua, I no longer feel Nicaraguan; and when I walk the streets of Panama, I am certain I am not Panamanian.  It seems then that, today, I’m an outsider wherever I am.

But this tribal limbo is not altogether unpleasant.  In fact, I quite enjoy the distance I’ve acquired through the years regarding my need to subscribe to a particular culture.  It appears that in the process of becoming a writer, I’ve freed myself of the calling for a mass identity.  I now treasure being an individual.  And through my writings, my ability to accept those of other cultures has evolved, and this is leading me to feel a genuine kinship with every human being I encounter.

(Credit for Los Angeles photo: The Global Program)


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