While celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, I was reminded twice that in following our life’s path and working towards achieving our goals, we sometimes forget what lead us there and the experiences that inform our actions day in and day out.
The first reminder was at our annual Head Over Heels Women’s Business Conference, where the chamber has the privilege of delivering meaningful, powerful and impactful content to the community in partnership with Desert Diamond Casino, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, Aetna, Comcast and many other wonderful partners. At the conference we heard six successful women share their stories and the common thread was how their experiences and more importantly how their responses to those events, lead them to where they are today. It was very inspiring.
The second reminder was when an organization asked I speak about what it has been like to be a Hispanic woman growing up in the United States. It gave me pause as I prepared my response, as I realized I have been so busy looking forward in my life that I had blocked out some early experiences. Once I sat down and started looking at old pictures, memories came flooding back. Some good, and some not so good.
It’s Hispanic Heritage Month and I first want to stress that I am proud to be of Mexican and Greek decent. My family comes from a small town outside of Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico called Guasave. My mother’s parents had a farm, or “rancho” as it is called there. My mother married my father who was an American citizen who did business in Mexico. I was born in Los Angeles, California but lived my early years in Mexico. I have wonderful memories of growing up and eating my fill of peaches, pomegranates or the fruit that was in season in my grandparents’ backyard. My parents had always planned to live in the United States, and eventually moved to Tucson.
My mother became a naturalized citizen, and soon thereafter we started school. We were excited, but I was a U.S. citizen who only spoke Spanish. It was in elementary school when I first heard the words “wet-back.” Unfortunately, there other hurtful names too, but I think what was most painful was the reverse discrimination I received from my fellow Mexican students who said I wasn’t Mexican because I was born in the United States. How does a little girl process all this? And although I was a good student, my lack of understanding of the English language caused me to be placed in a remedial class. I was lucky that a teacher took me under her wing, a teacher who cared. The irony was that I was not considered Mexican enough for the Mexican kids, but too Mexican academically in that I was unable to speak English well enough. But those experiences were only part of what helped me and motivated me to learn the English language.
As I was thinking back on my formative years, I recall that at the end of a particular school day and on a sunny afternoon, a little boy in my class was confronted by the racism that we all experienced at the time. He stood up to the other boys and we witnessed in horror as he was surrounded by a pack of boys who began whipping him with their belts. I shared that story this week for the first time in my life. I had never discussed it until I was asked to speak about what it was like growing up Hispanic. The little boy survived the attack, but he was never the same. I was never the same either, and I became deliberate in my speech and vocabulary to the point where my accent disappeared. I realize now that it was in response to that incident.
You hear it said often, children are resilient. I believe they are, but I also know that I was fortunate to have a loving home and family to draw strength from—because how else would a 10 year old survive such an experience? I realize that I am not special and that many others before and after me have had trying experiences because of their culture or where they are from. However, those experiences are what informed my future and have made me who I am. Through that defining experience I became agile, I learned coping skills, I learned the value of empathy and when asked what I was, I proudly said I was Mexican American.
In this time when there is so much divisiveness, there is value in finding common ground. In our home, we practice our Spanish daily and my daughter is bi-lingual so she can know how to proudly hold onto our heritage. So what is it like to be a Hispanic woman in the United States? It’s what I make it, and what I make of it; I am Mexican American, and I love my culture, and I love this country.
We are the Tucson Hispanic Chamber.
Isabel Georgelos is the Tucson Hispanic Chamber Administrator.