Porque Soy Latina

As the cops shined their flashlights everywhere in our tiny two-bedroom Miami apartment, I grabbed the remote to turn down the TV in the room I shared with my older brother. 

           “Is everything okay here?” the officer asked, turning from the water heater closet to my brother.

           “Yes sir,” his voice was unfaltering. All I could muster was a small nod. I stood quietly behind my brother.

           “Where are your parents?” His partner was checking out the kitchen, probably taking note as our cockroaches scurried off when the lights turned on. 

           “Our mom just went downstairs to the laundry room. She’ll be back soon.” He squeezed my hand, a sign to follow his lead.

 

           This was the lie our mother had instructed us to tell the cops if they ever showed up while she was at work. She feared, like many other Latino parents, that held three or four different jobs, that the Americans would deem us too young to be alone at home. This would lead to the inevitable child protective services pulling us out of our home, obviously leading to the next step—deportation. At this point, all four of us still had our green cards and valid visas, but the simple thought of deportation was enough for my mother to take any precaution. And while it may have been true that we were too young to be left alone at home—my brother was 10 and I was 7—we never experienced any problems when left home alone. 

           As the cops left our apartment, my brother looked at me and said “no le digas a mamá y papá.” This was odd coming from my brother, as we had already grown into the habit of speaking to each other in English. I nodded and we simply closed our bedroom door and went to sleep. Confused and scared by the whole ordeal, I listened to him. I didn’t fully understand the gravity of this small mistake. While I missed our family back in Colombia, didn’t know yet why we had left, I liked Florida and enjoyed our life there. I enjoyed pretending that I was American, just like the other kids at my school. 

           Every day 122 people lose DACA protection. That’s 122 more people every day that have to live with the unceasing fear of deportation every day, with the uncertainty of a future and a home. These Dreamers live with the risk of being sent back to countries that they don’t really feel at home in. When you are brought to a country at such a young age and you grow up idolising the new country’s culture—like I did—it’s hard to call any place else home. It’s been 11 years now that I’ve been living in Canada, my time in Miami seeming just as much as a distant memory as Colombia does. And while I watch from the comfort of my home as other Latinos struggle to gain some of the privileges I have, I can’t help but feel a mix of guilt and shame.

           Guilt for being a white passing Latina woman, and using that to my advantage. Had we not had the luck to move to Canada, I’d surely be one of roughly the 690 000 unauthorized immigrants to be covered by DACA, struggling in a never ending limbo. I’d be living with constant fear of deportation, fighting to stay in a country where I did not have death threats looming over me. 

           Shame that I spent the last 16 years of my life fighting so hard to erase any markers that would identify me as other, entirely disregarding a part of my identity. Shame for silencing my Spanish voice, always mispronouncing my name in a more English or French way, so I could continue to lie to those around me that I was one of them.

           Every day, 122 more people embrace the reality that even though they feel both American and Latino, as well as the reality of deportation. 

 

***

 

In Quebec, I spent half of Grade 6 and all Grade 7 in a French immersion class, mandatory for all immigrants. Walking to my classroom on my first day of high school, I could feel my anxiety bubbling—was I supposed to sit with the Anglophones, or was I meant to join the Latino crew? This was a problem I never had in Miami—the Latino kids knew each other and respected the unspoken rule that at school, we were all Americans, and as such, we all spoke English.

           As it would turn out, I never needed to make the choice myself. The minute my classmates saw my skin and heard my Spanish, they called me a Gringa. My brother, with his slightly darker complexion and clean Spanish, had no trouble navigating between the Anglos and Latinos. He could cross the borders seamlessly, I struggled to converse in only Spanish. I had only ever needed enough Spanish to translate for my parents and communicate my every day with them, and I even often defaulted to speaking to my mom in English. I saw no point in investing my time in a language that only seemed to distance my family from our new home. I needed to master French and English well enough to graduate and become well educated. Spanish seemed useless.  

           By grade 8, I was back in the regular high school system, learning enough French to function. My first “real” day of high school was just as nerve wracking. Even though I now knew where I stood, I was a Gringa, I was anxiously determined to silence my Spanish voice as much as possible.

           During first period, my geography and history teacher started taking attendance. 

           “Daniela Barrera Murcia?” he had butchered my last name.

           “Mademoiselle, avec un nom comme ça, tu viens d’où?” he looked at me inquisitively.

           In not even 10 minutes with my new classmates for the next 4 years, my cover was blown.

           “De la Colombie”I answered while letting out a shallow breath.

           “Mademoiselle” his face had twitched into a smirk. “Don’t sell drugs to my students, por favor!” He said in French while winking and howling.

           When he got to the Mexican boy, he started shooting hand guns into the air while bouncing up and down shouting “ARRRIIIBAAA!” Later, he made it to another Colombian. 

           “Well, I am certainly glad you guys sit so far apart. You won’t start a cartel!”

           My cheeks flared crimson. How could I explain to this white man how wrong he was? That I wasn’t like that, because I had lived in America, that I was basically white myself?

 

***

 

 “Why did la policia come a la casa two weeks ago?” my mom’s arms were crossed. We both stood silently in the living.

           “Sonia told me. Por favor.

           Our neighbour—one of my mom’s Latina friends— had asked my mother why the police had visited weeks earlier, wondering if we had problems with la migra. 

           “Nothing happened Ma…” I listened as my brother explained it all. 

           I often wonder if the cops left us alone because we both looked white enough, or because luckily there was enough food in the fridge, or if the lie my brother told was that convincing. What would we have done if they decided to wait for my mom, and then realized we lied when she and my dad didn’t show up again until 2 am?

           That night the cops came, my brother had accidentally dialled 911—the area code in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale county is 914. A simple mistake. A simple mistake that I can speak about today because my parents fought and brought us to Canada after the Americans wouldn’t have us. A simple mistake that I, unlike 122 different individuals, can talk about safely, because I have a privilege that crosses borders and languages, even if it’s not white.

Daniela Barrera Murcia is currently a student of Ryerson University, where she is pursuing her Master of Arts degree in the Literatures of Modernity program. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from Concordia University in Montreal. As a Colombian born Montrealer, she is concerned with the (mis)representations of minorities and people of colour in the media and literature. She is interested in contemporary Canadian literature and how Canadian identity and multiculturalism converge.