It didn’t occur to me to write a blog post in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month because, up until recently, I wasn’t Hispanic American. I was just Hispanic.
I was born and raised in Costa Rica, a tiny nation that nonetheless knows leadership. Even as every one of our neighbors spiraled into dictatorships and military conflicts all through the last century, Costa Rica abolished its army and has been a beacon of peace since 1948. Even as the world sputters on climate action today, Costa Rica will become carbon neutral by 2021. Being Costa Rican has taught me that you might feel small, but you can still act big. What we lack in size we make up for in spirit, in pride for our little piece of tropical paradise, for our history, our work ethic, our beautiful biodiversity, our valleys, mountains and beaches, and our outstanding people.
As I write this, I am sitting in my dad’s house at the top of a hill in San Jose. It’s rainy season here, which means hot, sunny mornings and thunderous tropical rainstorms in the afternoons. There are bright flowers and greenery everywhere.
When we are here, my 3-year old gets to play outside with all her cousins, almost but not entirely unsupervised. She gets way too many treats, and ends her days sweaty, sticky, blissfully exhausted. Meanwhile, the baby gets passed around from uncle to aunt to grandmother to grandfather. We lose track of when she last ate and pooped and slept.
My family is Latin-style loud. I am the quiet, introverted one (to say nothing of my gringo engineer introverted husband, who’s a trooper). Everyone here talks over each other semi-chaotically while kids run around and play catch with lemons from the lemon tree because the soccer ball is not allowed indoors.
My family is Latin-style always late, as am I. When I am in America, it takes a superhuman effort for me to be on time. So if you’re ever offended that I’m late, just so you know, you’re being culturally insensitive.
My heart is full here. This is home.
How Costa Rica came to be my home has a lot to do with US immigration policy. In 1924, US Congress passed the Johnson Reed Act, which established strict quotas for ‘undesirable’ immigrants. So when my grandfather escaped persecution and poverty in Poland and fled on a boat to Ellis Island, he was denied entry. He got back on a boat that was sailing to Colombia, and on the way it stopped in Costa Rica, a country he hadn’t heard of before. But Costa Rica welcomed immigrants, so this is where he settled. And this is now home to all his descendants.
I learned resiliency from being a perennial outcast. Imagine growing up Jewish in a country so conservatively Catholic that up until recently, IVF was illegal. I was the only girl in my class not to have a First Communion or Confirmation. More tragically, Santa Claus seemed to love all kids – except for me. He didn’t love me. Because I was Jewish.
Meanwhile, when I travelled, studied and worked abroad, my Costa Rican identity befuddled people. Before my country became a hot tourism destination, the level of ignorance I faced was astonishing. “Costa Rica… is that a province in Mexico?” (no). “You mean Puerto Rico?” (no). “Is it an island?” (no). “Do you have cable TV there?” (yes, and it’s largely responsible for my American accent. I learned it from Saved By The Bell).
When I was in Boston for business school, I showed my Costa Rican driver’s license when I was carded at a bar. “We only accept US government issued ID’s,” said one bouncer. “This IS a US government issued ID you idiot!” said the second bouncer. “You don’t know geography. Costa Rica is a protectorate of the USA. Right?” He looked to me for confirmation. I looked at him astounded. He went on: “It’s Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Guam…” They let me into the bar. I was too amused to be insulted.
Even to this day in America, I get asked: How can you have white skin and be Latina? (Latinos come in every color). Why does your name not sound Hispanic? (my mom picked it off a movie). How come you have an American accent? (because I worked really hard at it, I’m proud of being fully bilingual).
When you go through life never quite fitting in, you learn how to get by just about anywhere. You learn to develop your own identity no matter how much ignorance and judgment you face. As a kid, it sucked to not fit in. As a grown-up, it’s my super power. I can thrive even where I’m not wanted. It’s not that hard to be the only woman in the room, because my entire life I’ve always been the only something.
I am proud of who I am. A granddaughter of Holocaust escapees. A Jewish daughter, sister, wife and mother. An immigrant. An American citizen after all these years.
But first and foremost, I am a tica. And this Hispanic Heritage Month, my heart is full because I am home.
Pura vida 😉