Developing Identify, Self and Culture

“As the daughter of an immigrant single mother, growing up in East LA, there were times that I felt embarrassed and ashamed of who I was and where I came from. My mom didn’t speak English and was undocumented. My sister and I had different fathers and we were very poor. We lived in section 8 housing, received welfare and food stamps, and our neighbors were cholos. Drive-bys, selling drugs, teen pregnancy and dropping out of school were common occurrences in my neighborhood.”

Even though I loved school and learning, especially reading, I was made to feel ashamed for being “smart.” I was constantly told I was “weird” and that there was something “wrong” with me. My mom always threatened to send me to a psychiatric institution and my sister and the neighborhood kids would bully me as a result.

Therefore, I associated all of this negative treatment with my culture. I hated being Mexican because it meant I couldn’t be smart or nerdy or myself. It also meant I wasn’t truly American and didn’t have access to all the privileges of being white. There was never enough money for food, clothes, and other basic needs. My father was completely absent from my life and my future didn’t look too bright.

After I graduated high school and moved as far away as I could (Seattle, WA), it took me many years to return as a visitor. The first time I went back after living in Seattle for 3 years, I had to make peace with the life and people I left behind. I also had to come to terms with the fact that not everything about my culture and East LA was bad. If anything, I was lucky to grow up immersed in the language, food, music, movies, and television of my history and roots. I was able to develop my own identity without ever questioning where I came from and who were my people. I learned the language of my mom (Spanish) without apprehension and shame. I learned to eat with my hands and to enjoy the flavor chile adds to food. I learned to be open-minded and flexible when encountering people from other cultures. Most importantly, I learned to love openly and freely, because even though I didn’t have that growing up, I understood the importance of having an open mind and heart in a society that has worked for centuries to try and destroy that.


Storyteller Iris Guzman did not provide a biography.

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