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My Hispanic Heritage Became My Biggest Asset

I Used to Be Ashamed of My Heritage, Until I Realized It's the Most Beautiful Thing I Have

My friends in the United States recognize me as Latina, but to my friends in the Dominican Republic, I'm always La Gringa. I was born in New York, automatically granted citizenship, and immediately after, my mom packed everything and moved back to the Dominican Republic — where she's from — with me. She had only been in New York for less than a year before I was born, and finding herself alone with a baby, in a city where she didn't know anyone, proved to be too much for her.

I called the DR home for the first five years of my life. Then, in 1999, my mom decided to give up the life she knew in order to try to provide me with opportunities she never had. We were on our way back to New York, this time Great Neck, Long Island, where I would enroll in school.

It was just me and my mom. We were in a completely different environment than we were used to. I didn't speak a word of English when I moved here, and my mom was in the process of relearning. My elementary school was predominantly white, so making friends was difficult at the beginning. I remember feeling a strong sense of embarrassment for being the only Hispanic in my class. I felt different, like an outsider, especially when it came to characteristics like my curly hair. I remember kids would even make fun of me for it sometimes.

"Through middle school and high school, kids would refer to me as 'Maria,' not even bothering to learn my real name, or make fun of me for speaking Spanish."
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It was difficult growing up with a single mother who had to work long hours. She was working not only to provide for the two of us, but for our family in the Dominican Republic. We were always just trying to get by. I didn't have the same things as other kids around me, I even shared a room with my mom until I was in sixth grade, when she decided to move out of the US again.

This time I stayed in the country, but moved to Tampa, Florida with my dad. Things weren't much different in school. I always had to work harder than those around me to get by in class. Through middle school and high school, kids would refer to me as "Maria," not even bothering to learn my real name, or make fun of me for speaking Spanish. They never really saw it as bullying, but it was something that always made me feel bad about myself. I slowly stopped wearing my hair curly, always making sure it was pin straight so I had one less thing for kids to make fun of me for.

It took a tumor for me to stop letting people get to me, and embracing my true self unapologetically. I was diagnosed at 14, and although it was benign, my entire outlook on life changed after the surgery to remove it. I felt like I had been given a second chance and now I couldn't waste it. I started the process of learning to fully accept myself, and applied myself in school in order to make my dream of going to college in New York come true.

"I'm proud of my roots as they have empowered me to be a strong, determined, and independent woman."

I used to think being Latina was an impediment, but as I got older and my outlook on life changed, I realized how lucky I am to have such an amazing heritage that has solidified the person I am today. I have such a rich culture I can fall back on, another language I can speak, the many flavors I grew up tasting, music that's impossible not to dance to, and people who really embrace me and make me feel like family, even if it's just for a brief moment. I have learned to see this as an asset, and now I can confidently say I'm proud of my roots as they have empowered me to be a strong, determined, and independent woman.

The hardships I went through at the beginning of my childhood taught me a lot of things. I learned to always be accepting of people. I didn't always feel accepted by others, and this is something that has definitely stuck with me, encouraging me to always be welcoming towards others. I learned to give everything my all and never take an opportunity for granted. I was fortunate that my family decided to move to the United States in order for me to be where I am today — living and working in New York City. This has been and will continue to be a driving force throughout my life.

Image Source: Tattiana Lamas
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