And so it begins… I’m a Latina.
Four years ago I filled my bags with what I believed were the things I was going to need the most: a photo album, my favorite pair of jeans, and a book of Venezuelan recipes. I didn’t know what to expect of the big Texas in the even bigger US. I just knew that my future awaited. I stepped off the plane onto the parched Texas soil, and my soul split in two. Half remains hidden among the azure Venezuelan beaches and the forest playground of my youth, but the other half soars in the open Texas skies.
Here are a few things I’ve learned in my 1,500+ days living in the States.
1. We are all Latinos, but we are all different.
I’ve known Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Colombians, Mexicans… all with their own culture and nitpicking habits. We respect our differences and will even pop jokes about them, almost like half brothers and sisters. “Óyeme… I didn’t realize Venezuelans eat so much plantains. I thought that was a Dominican thing”. “What’s a Lapa Lapa? Ahhh, you mean a Conuco?” Despite our differences, the warm blood and the deep friendship at first sight are undeniable comforts as we traverse this new land together.
2. There are parties and then there are rumbas.
Even at a piñata party, Latinos understand that the celebration will go on until the wee hours. On the list of appetizers and drinks, nestled comfortably between the sodas and the cherry Jell-O, you’ll see that bottle of whiskey proudly foreshadowing the fun to come. Of course it’s Johnny Walker because no one wants to listen to your Tío’s endless whining (yes, Tío is the one with the mustache). The guest list is over twenty-five-person long, only the closest family of course. The music will be loud and the food abundant. And there are always one or two toddlers who end up exploding in noisy tears because they couldn’t fill their baggies with cheap toys and sweets from the piñata. Did you follow me on that visual? Yes, our parties are chaos at its best.
On the other side of the pristine picket fence celebrations are a bit more organized… ok, let’s say a lot more organized. Four to six primly dressed, oxford-clad kids from school watch a movie or stiffly participate in carefully orchestrated activities that mom found browsing on Pinterest three months ago. Music lulls at a respectable level, and by 6:00 pm all the kids trundle off to their cowboy pajamas.
3. Mom’s love is different from Mamá’s.
American moms seem more inclined to protect their children in the younger stages of life. They hold their delicate little hands and helicopter around the school to make sure their little cabbages have everything they need. Mamá… not so much. In your early life as a Latino kid, your mother builds your character and has the highest expectations of you. La chancla is always within reach of her hand, the maestro is always right, and you pray that la Virgencita protects you if you dare to speak back to this powerful force of a woman.
However, when you turn to your grown years and the whole universe changes, both motherly figures change with it. Moms will eagerly send their little ones to college, convert their bedrooms into sewing rooms, and trust in their abilities to confront adulthood by their own means; mamás, on the the other hand, will transform into an overwhelming pampering force that can spoil even the most independent spirit. I’m almost thirty and my mamá makes my lunch box to take to work every single day and prepares me a cafecito every night.
4. The US is the place to experience the king among all Latino sports.
Americans believe that soccer is the most Latino of sports, and they would be correct if by Latino they mean Mexican or Argentinian. But baseball… That’s Latino! Every boy in the Caribbean dreams about becoming a “pelotero.” Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and the dirt streets of the countryside of Venezuela share a common sight: kiddos playing with whatever they can find from bat and ball to wood sticks and soda caps. I mean, if you can hit a freaking soda cap… guess what you can do with a baseball!
I will never forget my first experience at the Arlington ballpark, home of the Rangers. They were playing against the Yankees. Yes, the freaking Yankees! I couldn’t believe my luck when Andrus (for my national pride, a Venezuelan) stole third and our group jumped on our chairs and erupted in screams of joy. The fans in the next row gave us the stink eye while gingerly taking bites of their hot dogs. These pathetic excuses labeled “hot dogs” only had one thin line of mustard squeezed on each, nothing else, and this sad reality brings me to my next lesson.
5. Nothing tastes the same!
Not Oreos, not even the Cocosette which was THE candy during our school breaks back in Venezuela. Sodas, candies, chocolate, salsas… you name it. American products don’t taste remotely the same as their equivalents back home. But don’t get me wrong, during my years in the US, I’ve grown fond of the light smoky scent of a melting marshmallow over the campfire on a warm summer night. And I’m sure if I return to Venezuela, those wouldn’t taste the same.
6. Red lights need to be respected at all times.
It’s general knowledge in Caracas that you don’t need to stop at the red lights after 10:00 p.m. A quick glance at the intersection will suffice as you move on through. The same happens with the stop signs in most Latin American countries… It comes as no surprise that a whole lot of Latinos think they’re mere suggestions! Not only do traffic rules must be followed to the letter in the US, but American police officers work 24 hours a day to ensure their fulfillment. They even have cameras that send you a video link of your infraction along with the hefty bill. Yes, it happened to me!
7. Traditions will be engraved in your mind for generations to come.
No matter how many years have passed under the red, white, and blue, your homeland traditions will carry on: cooking out with salsa music blaring in the background, Cerveza Polar or Pampero and Coke on a sunny Saturday, salt over the shoulder if it spills, the matica of aloe by the window or the pesebre in the corner of the house for Christmas. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t stepped in a church for the last 15 years, the divino niño will be at your home because that’s what your abuelita used to do. At the end of Thanksgiving dinner, los maduros will be resting on the table next to the cranberry jam as you smile at the faces around you: the faces of a new family, the one you chose for yourself in the land you now call home.