08/10/2011 09:42 pm ET | Updated Oct 10, 2011

Finding Your Latino Roots In College

There's a misconception in popular culture that Yale is a preppy, white institution filled with upper-class legacies. The arena for Rory's college experience on The Gilmore Girls and the school that all the snobs on Gossip Girl long to attend (for a few episodes, at least) may seem like an unlikely backdrop for a story of diversity and self-discovery. Although it's far from being racially and culturally representative of the United States population at large, Yale is much more diverse and open than one may expect, and it actually helped me rediscover my Latin roots.

Growing up in a predominately Caucasian area of Georgia, I associated being Puerto Rican with my parents and older generations. I was one of the only Latino/a kids in the community, and speaking Spanish made me feel different and separate from my peers. For this reason, Spanish slowly seeped out of my vernacular as "English at school, Spanish at home" transformed into "English all day, every day." My parents and I would travel to Puerto Rico once a year, and even there I didn't feel entirely connected to the culture, so it was hard to see why keeping it alive was worth the trouble. I found it easier to assimilate and get by than to delve into my identity, unsure of what I would find.

College is when you start to figure out who you are, who you want to be, and, hopefully, how you can bridge the gap between the two. Once at Yale, I realized that I was missing, or rather subduing, something that was vital to my being: my culture. It was then that I got involved in La Casa Cultural, the Latino/a center on campus, through Despierta Boricua (the Puerto Rican student group) and Alianza (the Pan-Latin student group). There I met students like me, I heard the sounds of my culture being spoken by mouths similar to my own, and I was able to finally relate being Latina to who I was and where I wanted to be. I was able to create my own culture by combining the Puerto Rican traditions I had experience growing up with those the other Puerto Rican students told me about as well as with those that I learned from the Mexican, Colombian, Dominican, and Venezuelan students who I grew to know. After serving as president of Despierta Boricua and vice president of Alianza, I've felt more Latina than I ever have before and have been impassioned to connect with other students, serve the Latino community, and advocate for Latinos on a broader scale.

It's never too late. Even if you don't speak Spanish, aren't 100% Latino, or live in a community where you feel you wouldn't be accepted, culture can be a cornerstone in your life and is important to explore. For me, it adds history by connecting me to my ancestors in Puerto Rico and breadth by connecting me to Latin communities in the United States and abroad. Culture is all about bringing people together. Although not always obvious, we all have something in common. So find your culture, and if you can't find it, create your own. Soon you'll discover that we're all interconnected, and with that knowledge we can progress and create beneficial change.

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