Where's the closest taqueria? Or, being a Latina woman in the South
By Melissa Frontado, Diversity Columnist
'Go home, wetbacks!'
This slur is what I remember most about my first day at Lee. Not the excitement of registering or my mother's advice ' all I hear are those three words, over and over again, yelled at us from an open Jeep passing the Education Building.
I'd never heard anything like that before. As a native Southern Californian, I've always been surrounded by fellow Latinos, whether they be Cuban like me, or Mexican, Puerto Rican, Honduran, etc. I had been exposed to racism before, but it was never so flippant, so confrontational. I knew from that moment my time at this school would be unlike anything I'd ever experienced.
I chose Lee for its scholarships and for the new environment. I came with my own misconceptions and thought my life in the South would be a recreation of "Steel Magnolias": I'd be surrounded by witty old women and have diabetic Julia Roberts as a friend. This dream also included the constant presence of grits, fried chicken and sweet tea.
But in all my preparation, I never thought about how my ethnic identity would be challenged. Because my mother was so invested in assimilation and had raised my family in a white suburban setting, I assumed blending in was not going to be an issue. I thought I knew how to 'talk white' and 'act white.' I was very wrong.
Freshman year was the hardest. It was the first time I had experienced such a visible lack of diversity. In California I had plenty of people of color to surround myself with, but here in Tennessee there seemed to be no one like me. Whenever I brought up the issue with friends they told me that I was exaggerating or that I wasn't trying hard enough to adapt. Some told me they didn't think of me as a Latina, they thought of me as a person. A white person.
Besides registration day, all of the racism I have been exposed to has been micro-aggressions. Micro-aggressive racism is a term that describes the subtle forms of racism people of color experience. It is not the type of racism that threatens our lives or places us in direct physical harm, but the kind that fetishizes, demeans, or distances us from the accepted majority. It is not intentionally malicious but rather stems from a lack of awareness.
I think this is one of the hardest things about being a minority student on this campus. Our peers don't often take the time to understand where we come from or how what they say can be inappropriate. Minority students want to be treated as equally as everyone else, but we also don't want our cultures denied us. Our cultures and backgrounds are beautiful and they make us who we are. All we wish for is understanding and the chance to be empowered in our identities.
During my time here I learned to take my identity into my own hands. I joined Leetinos and developed beautiful friendship through discussion of the hardships we collectively share. I began to research more about Cuban and Mexican history and made an effort to write about Latino social issues. I looked up the closest Hispanic markets and the best local Mexican restaurants. I even found out that Publix was Cuban-owned, and did a majority of my shopping there due to the wide range of Cuban products. Most importantly, I had a serious talk with my boyfriend and my friends about how I refuse to be complacent about who I am, and walked them through things they had said that had made me uncomfortable. To my joy, they took it very seriously and agreed to be more cautious in the future.
Being out of your comfort zone is hard for anyone, but what minorities often feel is a type of alienation and need to suppress themselves for survival. Though Lee is making strides to have more diversity on campus, campus culture needs to be understanding of the students here. Only by uniting against all forms of racism, large and small, can Lee make truly great strides toward being an inclusive campus.