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Battles of being brown: The balance of two cultures

By Ashlyn Torres

Ashlyn Torres

Ashlyn Torres

I always lived with my mom.  She did most of the basic day to day “how to survive” type of things, and my dad taught me the core values of our culture.  He taught me respect, discipline, the value of family and how much having an open mind is worth – whether it’s about food or people.

When people see me, they assume I’m Mexican.  I’m actually a mix, half Puerto Rican and half white.   My dad gave me my brown half, and while I grew up in Kansas, he always made sure I knew where I came from and took pride in that.

Being in the middle of two cultures never really bothered me or confused me until I went back to Puerto Rico.  I realized I didn’t know how to act around “my people.”  I just stayed quiet because I didn’t want to disrespect anyone with my “white humor” or my language.  The fact that I didn’t speak Spanish wasn’t too helpful either.

Honestly I felt “too white” to be there.  After spending a couple weeks in the Puerto Rico, things became easier. When I came home to the States, I was in that limbo area again.  I had become accustomed to Puerto Rican way of life. I had been back to the “motherland” and figured out who I really was.  The tables had flipped and I felt “too brown” to be here.

The same thing happened when I came to college and tried to join a sorority.  I originally rushed traditional sororities and was accepted into Gamma Phi Beta, but after a couple weeks I realized I just didn’t really fit in there.  I was “too brown.” So I dropped and rushed Lambda Theta Nu, a multicultural sorority. But again, after a few weeks, I felt “too white. ” Talk about not knowing where you belong.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved all of the girls in G-Phi and in Lambda Theta Nu, but I just couldn’t find my place in the group.

Honestly, I felt like I was the only one who felt like this.  Then I met Danny Penaflor, a Mexican freshman here at UNK from Lexington.  We got to talking, and I realized I wasn’t the only one who dealt with the struggle of how to act.  “How we were raised is different than the American culture,” Penaflor told me.  “You want to give a good impression, but you just don’t know how to act.  Respect is a big thing in our culture.”

I also met Manny Rangel, a Mexican junior from Schuyler.  “The culture is different.  In Mexican culture, a guy asks the parents if they can date their daughter, but in American culture a guy doesn’t ask for anything except marriage,” Rangel said.  And he was right.

How I was raised, if you didn’t like the food on your plate, you choked it down anyway because it is considered rude and disrespectful to push food aside.   And honestly, I thought everyone was like that until I got to high school.  But I’ve noticed in America, if you are served something that you don’t like, you don’t touch it and no one notices.

Another thing I noticed was how American’s valued their families.  The Latino world holds onto their families and spends as much time as possible with them.  Once you moved out to go to college, you’re always welcome back home even if you’re 30 and need to get back on your feet.  It’s even common for grandparents to live with their kids and grandkids.  But traditionally in the American world, once you move out for college, parents expect you to stay moved out.  That’s not saying they won’t let you crash at their place or come visit, but it’s the expectation that once you move out, you need to handle your own life.

“My mom told me recently that I was trying to embrace the American culture too much.  You know, move out when you’re 18, go to college, that type of thing,” Rangel told me.  “She really wants me close by.  I’m always welcome to move back home.”   Rangel had some of the same struggles when it came to choosing a fraternity.  “I was originally rushing Pike, but most of my friends from back home chose to rush Sigma Lambda Beta.  I was just more comfortable with my ‘brown frat;’ my friends were there,” Rangel explained to me.

Personally, I had never experienced racism until I got to Kearney.  Where I grew up, everyone knew me, so it was never a problem.  When I got to Kearney, I started dealing with a lot of people who didn’t know me, and they all assumed the same thing.

I experienced people who didn’t want to deal with me because they didn’t think I could speak English – when honestly I can hardly speak a lick of Spanish.  I’ve had people give me dirty looks at my job for helping a Latino family.  I even have co-workers who cannot stand to be around Latinos because they can’t understand them and are so short fused with them.  It breaks my heart to see such a disconnect between the people of my two cultures, especially because everyone is honest-to-God just trying to get by.

I promise. We’re trying.  We’re trying not to offend you.  We’re trying to fit in.  We’re just trying to have a good life.  It’s just so hard because we don’t always know the right thing to say.  We’re trying to fully embrace two cultures and it doesn’t always work.  Believe me when I say we really are trying to make the best of it.

Category: Op/Ed

Comments (3)

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  1. Ashlyn – thanks for sharing your story. As the Latino demographic increases in regions of the country not traditionally known to include many of us, you’ll find many more people that share your experience. I’ll be sure to share your post here via my blog. Best, Miguel

  2. [...] University of Nebraska-Kearney Latina student shares her story of what it’s like to be a bi-cultural college student in the nation’s [...]

  3. Nef says:

    Wow… profound. As a man who has grown up in both worlds, I have found that over time one becomes comfortable with one self, and secure about ones identity. In the end, it may not be completely a matter of race, but rather a matter of becoming secure enough regarding ones own identity. Once I really learned to like me and found value in who I am as an individual it became so much easier to relate to and be accepted by others. As a young man I tried to figure out where I belonged. Suddenly, one day after much searching I leanred where I belong. I belong HERE (wherever I am). People are often drawn to other confident people. It became much easier to relate to others, because I was settled about myself. I guess gray hair has its benefits…

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