Say "Latina" and people think J. Lo and Salma. Years ago it was Charo and Sonia Braga. Some may even remember Carmen Miranda, the one with...
Say “Latina” and people think J.Lo and Salma. Years ago it was Charo and Sonia Braga. Some may even remember Carmen Miranda, the one with the fruit on her head. All of them are images of hip-swinging spitfires with cute accents, ample curves and oozing sex appeal.
Consider the confusion of growing up Latina in the United States with that as an example.
Admittedly not easy, but it could be argued that such blatant, sometimes laughable stereotypes help raise questions among us about what it means to be a young Latina today.
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The challenge lies in finding the answers to such questions, say Michelle Herrera Mulligan and Robyn Moreno, co-editors of “Border-Line Personalities: A New Generation of Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass and Cultural Shifting” (HarperCollins, $12.95), essays by Latina writers in their 20s and 30s who share “cultural confusion” about their Latina identity.
There are, “thousands of us who can’t speak Spanish or dance well to salsa music, who have never related to their parents’ cultures yet still feel disconnected to the mainstream, who still hadn’t decided what culture we wanted to create, what we wanted to belong to,” writes Herrera Mulligan.
“I knew this very thing bound us together.” The thing that binds us, they argue, is a cultural byproduct of the growing numbers of Hispanics in the United States and their increasing economic and educational relevance. Confusion comes with assimilation.
“A lot of our experience is not given legitimacy,” says Herrera Mulligan, a Chicago native. “Once we become Americanized, professional, independent women, the Latina aspect fades in importance from that experience. But it’s still a vibrant part of our identity. Either you are still struggling or you are already assimilated. Few people understand that you can be an English-speaking Latina.” Such questions began to weigh on Herrera Mulligan and Moreno in 1999, when they were editors at a Latina magazine in New York City.
“It seemed like we were writing stories that weren’t honest,” says Moreno, a native of San Antonio. “It’s like the stories we had to do were always punched up in some way to show that we were Latina.” What they discovered after much thought was that such personal and emotional journeys are crucial. Their identities as women, daughters, Americans, lovers, Latinas and writers depend on it.
So they put it in writing, a collection that concludes that there are as many personal stories as there are Latinas to tell them.
“These are organic, approachable, coming-of-age stories about finding ourselves and making sense of the cultural expectations that are placed on us from both sides,” says Moreno, who admits it was difficult to write her essay.
“When I wrote my story, I found myself injecting nostalgia, giving it a Latin flavor,” she explains. “My story is subtle. It explores the idea of family, its problems. But it doesn’t need to be wrapped in a tamale wrapper. I ended up taking a lot of [that language] out.” The collection is broken into sections covering family, sex, questions about identity and making choices, the four major topics that Herrera Mulligan and Moreno say Latinas struggle with every day.
A common element in the stories is the truth that each writer conveys, using first-person voices in a myriad of styles.
“We want to stop pretending,” says Herrera Mulligan. “We only want people to get to know us.” To be honest means not to judge. A defining cultural quality for some may not be for others, including whether Spanish is spoken.
“I get that question all the time,” says Moreno. “Many women get that question. I’m a fifth-generation American. I don’t speak Spanish. Does that make me less Latina? The issue is that we are all the future. I have a story to tell like the rest of us. There are 20 million Latinas and 20 million different stories.”
Adding a literary stamp of approval to the essays is a foreword by Julia Alvarez, author of best-selling fiction, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” “In the Time of the Butterflies” and “Yo!” among other works of fiction and poetry.
In her essay, Alvarez writes, “What endeared me to this collection … is that these young Latina women are daring to ask questions. The hard ones that we of the previous generation were afraid to ask when we were their age, not out of modesty, as was the case with our mothers, but out of fear to be breaking ranks when there was so much ground to be won.”