But when the kids from down the street hurled it at me with all the fury and filth of a spitball, I immediately knew it was bad. Even in elementary school, I could sense all the ugliness and hate and hostility the epithet contained..
Spic! You’re a spic!
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I still remember their faces—contorted with anger over some minor kickball dispute and reflecting the bigotry served with dinner at their kitchen tables. And I still remember the knot that twisted tight in my gut, a blow that sent me staggering.
Yet, inexplicably, perhaps instinctively, the word also filled me with pride. A spic? If that meant, as I quickly guessed that it did, someone whose roots ran far to southern borders, whose house reverberated with the rhythm of Spanish, whose family came in shades of caramel and tan and peach, then that’s what I was.
Yeah, I shouted back, as my fingers coiled into fists. I’m a spic. So what?
I would hear that word—and worse—many times again. As a first-generation immigrant, I would feel the disdain of those who think I am not American enough. As a green-eyed, light-skinned Latina, I would feel the mockery of those who think I’m not authentic enough.
Neighbors on the New Jersey block where I grew up always viewed us as the “foreigners,” despite more than a decade in the same emerald-and-white duplex. One of my editors at a newspaper dismissed me as not being a “real Latina,” despite my Ecuadorean birth certificate and bloodline.
The neighbors, mostly second and third-generation Irish and Italian-Americans, saw only our other-ness. The editor, who could not imagine Latinos without accents, olive skin, or surnames ending in a vowel, saw only his own narrow preconceptions.
It hurt to glimpse the scorn lurking under the surface of the kids who played hopscotch in our driveway, whose mothers chatted with mine on the front porch. It stung to realize that the families who shared our working-class street never shared our friendship.
And it boiled my blood to work alongside a man whose amiable demeanor dissolved with the evidence of his own ignorance.
But the scorn and the sting and the slimly-veiled prejudice that made my blood simmer never scratched below my skin. Never made me to want to exchange my platanos maduros for macaroni and cheese.
I am protected. I am proud. I am a stalwart product of the empanadas frying on my mother’s stove, the thick woolen blankets woven of vicuna and emblazoned with Andean mountain scenes, the soft Spanish lullaby cooing me to sleep.
I wear a suit of armor soldered by the thousand-and-one reminders of my heritage that fill my childhood memories – the folk art carvings on the living room shelves, the mournful accordions and flutes of Ecuadorean melodies, the translucent envelopes bearing colorful air mail stamps.
Every one carries an echo from the place where I was born, a reminder that my veins carried a history far deeper and richer and stronger than any casually-flung insult. And I have always reveled in that knowledge.
I am an Ecuadorean, raised in the United States. I speak a Spanish blended with the dialect of New Jersey streets and the Andean highlands. I am fair-skinned, curly-haired, and light-eyed. My surname is German; my soul is South American.
I am not a spic or a foreigner or a fake Latina. I am a proud Latina, as authentic as you can get—a mix of races and cultures and skin tones like millions of other Latinos. We carry the promise of Vasconcelos’ Raza Cosmica, the poetry of Neruda, and the boldness of Atahualpa.
Somehow, as a child, I had intuited this when confronted by the kids down the block. But I did not really understand it until I turned 15.
That year, my family traveled back to Ecuador for the first time since we had left 12 years earlier. As we neared my native country, the plane soared upward and over the Andes mountains ringing the capital city of Quito, then dove abruptly.
My stomach lurched with the sudden shift in altitude. I grew queasy. I grew nervous.
Until I spotted the snow-capped peaks gleaming through the clouds. The equatorial sun illuminated each crag and valley like a stained-glass window glowing in an Easter dawn. Ecuador opened up below us, a stunning patchwork of majestic mountains, lush green valleys, and sprawling city.
It contained colonial Spain and Inca ruins; Amazon rain forests and hot mineral springs; boleros and cumbias; bougainvillea and banana trees; cobblestone streets and Panamerican highway. It spoke to the past and the future, the ancient and the modern, the humble and the powerful.
Awestruck by the sight and the sensation, I marveled to myself: This is who I am.
The fearless little girl playing kickball knew that. So did the infuriated young newspaper reporter. And so do I.