Latinas struggle with cultural
Feb. 14, 2005
Essays address outdated stereotypes
Camilla A. Herrera
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 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
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.
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
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," Herrera Mulligan writes.
"I knew this very thing bound us together." The thing that binds us, the editors
argue, is a cultural byproduct of the growing numbers of Hispanics in the United
States and their increasing economic and educational relevance. Confusion comes
"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 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, though admittedly in
retrospect, 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 says 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. These are the defining moments,
"experiencing childhood, falling in love, finding yourself and choosing your
calling," Herrera Mulligan writes.
A common element in the stories is the truth that each writer conveys, using
first-person voices in myriad styles that by their trusting nature invite
Latinas who read them to consider their own stories to tell.
"We want to stop pretending," Herrera Mulligan says. "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," Moreno says. "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."
Diversity is not the issue, they argue. It is part of a whole and bigger
"We're saying we're diverse as a group but we're definitely a group," Herrera