10/18/2010 01:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reflecting on Hispanic Heritage Through the Lens of Travel

As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to an end, I find myself thinking back on a cultural appreciation thirty years in the making.

My life had hit a routine standstill. I had worked in New York's book publishing industry for nine years and successfully climbed the "corporate ladder." Yes, I loved my job and my city, but I felt there was more to 30-something life than a desk job and the cocktail culture of Manhattan. I longed to experience the world in the most immediate way possible, so I decided to leave New York and explore it. Never having traveled on my own, I thought it best to begin my year abroad close to home in South America. When I left I had no idea what to expect or what I would learn. What I discovered was the most wonderful thing: a cultural self.

Until recently, I had defined myself as Marie Elena Martinez, white girl. Growing up in an upper middle class section of Long Island, I embodied the mannerisms and embraced the traditions of my Anglo peers. I always knew myself to be different than the group I ran with but I worked hard at fitting in, being "regular." I kept an arms length distance between my Hispanic heritage and myself. I denied my Puerto Rican roots and I denied them vehemently. I detested my last name using "Martin" to make dinner reservations and hung up on the Spanish-speaking solicitors who called my house looking for "mi Papa." I turned down lucrative ethnic college scholarships. I took to laboriously straightening my curly Latino hair and begged my parents for a nose job that I never got. I flew into fits of rage when friends ribbed me about my background: I was a white American, dammit! And, that was all I aspired to be.

Some of these behaviors were learned. My grandmother, a Puerto Rican single mother, took menial jobs to support my father, enduring discrimination for her ethnicity at every turn. When she remarried an Italian man, she wiped out her own upbringing in one fell swoop, taking a job at a financial institution with her new last name. I never realized my grandmother spoke fluent Spanish. My father carried on her example. After achieving success in the garment center, he took to wearing a Jewish Chi around his neck as a nod to his business partners when he reached his prime. It was only when he was featured in an industry trade rag that I learned that my father started his career with scores of other Hispanic men and women in the mail room. Such impoverished beginnings and overt references to being Puerto Rican were shunned. Even when we vacationed in Puerto Rico, we spent our time at lavish resorts, never venturing out to explore the multitude of cultural offerings that my family tree could have proudly embraced.

Since I had a grasp of Latin cultures but had never been given an opportunity to experience them, proximity aside, South America was definitely the right place to begin. I planned to start in Ecuador and move counter-clockwise to Brazil over a period of two months. Slowly, my departure date approached. I was thrilled... and terrified.

My trip was an automatic success. I traveled with a confidence and a curiosity that surprised even me. I made friends at every stop, in every city, at every activity. But it wasn't the travel culture that was most accepting in the countries I visited, it was the people. They were generous in spirit, proud of their cultures and traditions, bound to their families, their countries. It truly impressed me. They shared their lives with a passion for living that made me want to live my own life with the same degree of cultural pride. I recognized that after this trip I wouldn't be able to settle for less.

In South America, I felt a sense of place, a sense of belonging that I'd never felt in New York. In both new friends and acquaintances, I saw pieces of myself that I never realized derived from Latino roots, for I had never considered such a possibility. My fiercely passionate side, obstinate heart, and sometimes-irrational temper seemed balanced in the easy friendships that began in Peru and Chile. The love of a good fiesta (or siesta), and the desire to live life to the fullest was mirrored in the email buddies I've taken with me from Brazil and Argentina. The return trips I've made to Ecuador, Colombia, and the recent exploration of Central American countries like Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica, all speak to the natural kinship, the assurance of self and continued discovery I felt in these foreign Latin lands. It was within the comforts of these cultures, that I finally, finally embraced them, and celebrated them in their rightful context.

In South America, I found myself desperate to dust off my high-school Spanish and master the language. I developed new interests. I wanted to learn how to cook their typical meals, discuss how they raise their children, debate on the fortunes of the Latin people in the world. Since my trip, I've devoured books on Latin cultures, traditions, histories, and individuals that shaped each of the places I visited and, of course, the place I came from, Puerto Rico. Exploring Latin America was an overdue awakening for me, a rediscovery of the importance of cultural identity. While I always relished being my father's daughter, I was proud to be a Martinez for the first time in my life.