Where Are You From?: Answering This Loaded Question as a Latina Born and Raised in New Jersey
Where are you from?,” a question anyone with even slightly more melanin or different features than their peers has likely heard at least once, if not countless times, throughout their lives. While to the asker this is a straightforward question, for this US-born, second generation Latina from NJ, the answer is far from straightforward. In fact, my answer isn’t even always the same. In a split-second, I find myself analyzing everything from who the asker is and what I perceive their tone and intention to be, to where I am when I’m answering this question, and how much discussion I have time for on the given occasion. Truthfully, even after analyzing all of this and formulating a response, as someone who over-analyzes everything, I still leave these interactions wondering, where am I from?
For a bit of context, I was born, raised, and still reside in New Jersey (north/central in case you’re wondering, because yes– it makes a difference). My mother immigrated from Colombia, my father from Honduras a little over 30 years ago. They met and subsequently raised me in what’s often named the most diverse city in the US, Jersey City, NJ. In my 20s, I moved to Edison, NJ, where I currently reside with my fiance/partner of 10+ years and our two children. Because of where I grew up and where I live now, surrounded by peers from a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, I’ve dealt with the where are you from question my whole life, both from others, and from myself.
I have never been ashamed of or felt the need to hide that I’m the daughter of immigrants, whose first language was Spanish, from anyone. In fact, I take great pleasure in finding someone to have conversations with in Spanish, and as such, do this every chance I get. For example, I’ve often been in line for something where a patron near me might turn to me and ask, “¿Hablas Español?” I’ll reply and carry on a conversation in Spanish, often assisting them by translating. In doing this, I find that the where are you from question is asked of me to form a connection. Do we share the same background? Is this why our accents are so similar? Even then though, the answer isn’t so simple. In this scenario I’m likely to say, “My parents are Colombian/Honduran, but I was born here.” I think in a way I want them to know that I’ve proudly chosen to speak their language.
Sometimes though, I feel that the asker is surprised that I speak Spanish. They may overhear me on the phone or with a friend and ask in a surprised tone, “Where are you from?,” because to many, I don’t look Latina, whatever that means. I’ll tell them I’m Colombian and Honduran, and they’ll say “Wow, I thought you were (insert non-Latinx country here)!”. To this interpretation of the question, I feel the need to defend my background, so the focus is less on the fact that I was born in the US and more on the fact that I AM Colombian and Honduran, I am Latina enough, an entirely different discussion for a different day.
As life would have it, I took a break from writing this to pick up my son from school. As a Latina, I’m in the minority in my town, definitely so compared to being in Jersey City. A passerby pointed to my daughter and said to the person they were walking with, in Spanish, “Look at how cute she is!” I responded, in Spanish, “Oh, thank you!” and they looked surprised. They told me my daughter is beautiful and they love her dress and then they asked… you guessed it… “Where are you from?” Even after having been engaged in writing this post, after answering this question for myself through different scenarios, I still froze and responded that my parents were from Colombia and Honduras. They told me they were from Panama, practically neighbors they said, and we wished each other a good day. In this scenario, I assumed this is the answer they were looking for and thus the answer they received.
Sometimes though, these situations aren’t as friendly and the intent behind the question isn’t to form a connection. I visit the south a lot, and I apparently have a strong New Jersey accent because I often get, “You’re not from here are you, that accent is from the north. Where are you from?” Here, I respond with “New Jersey”, because I assume this is what they’re asking, and that’s usually enough. Things are much different though when I’m out with my family and we’re speaking Spanish. Here we get, “Where are y’all from?” and this is where my answer will vary greatly based on how much time I have, and honestly, my mood. It’s interesting because in my hometown, speaking to your children in Spanish is more often than not met with praise, good for you for teaching your kids a second language! In less diverse areas though, I so often am met with looks of disgust and the inescapable, “this is ‘murica, speak English!” Again, different discussion for a different day. If ever these looks of disgust are followed by the where are you from question, you’re likely to get a not-so-friendly or a sarcastic answer from me. I’m from New Jersey, yes that’s where I’m really from, no really, that’s where I came from. Oh my background? My background is in Science, I’m a STEM Educator.
Oh, that’s not what you mean? No, I don’t know what you mean, enlighten me. My goal here is to make the asker uncomfortable and realize how ignorant their question is. You want to get me to admit that I don’t belong here, wherever “here” is. If I don’t belong here, if I’m not from here, neither are you. Your ancestors having stolen this land doesn’t make you belong here anymore than my family or me. Where am I from? No, where are you from? Where did your family come from? The conversation is usually over by now.
Make no mistake: In the latest scenario, it’s not that I’m ashamed of or am attempting to hide where I am “from.” It’s more so that this loaded question I’m being asked to fit whatever agenda the asker may have had, does not merit a nice and neat response. If the asker wants to take time out of my day to attempt to make me question my sense of belonging, I’m taking time out of their day to educate them, to make them uncomfortable too. And that’s just it: the truth is, regardless of the scenario or the intent, this question does make me uncomfortable and likely always will.
While I know what my values are, what cultures and traditions and languages are important to me now and will always be, I’m still learning and forming my identity, and I’m ok with that. I know that when I visit Colombia or Honduras, to many of their citizens, I’m not from there. I know though that I am Colombian and Honduran, none of that half this half that business. I am an American. I am from New Jersey. I am from Jersey City, I am from Edison, I guess? My children, where are they from? Colombian, Honduran, Filipino, American, how will they answer this question? What about their children? To me, this question of where someone is from aims to strip away the layers of complexity that form our identities, that make us all so wonderfully unique. By asking someone where they are from and expecting a simple response, you’re already reducing a part of someone’s identity to something as simple as one location. I recognize that this question isn’t always asked maliciously, I myself have asked oh so many times where someone is from without really reflecting on what I’m asking, and truly without ill-intent. However, for someone like myself whose parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were not born in the location where this is being asked, the answer is not always a simple one. Where am I from? I’m from here, but I’m also from there.
– Marisela Turcios