04/24/2013 02:51 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

Defining Who I Am as a Latina

Growing up as an only child gave me the advantage to mix and mingle at the playground. Since having no siblings to play with, I ventured out to make new friends daily. I never thought I gravitated towards "Spanish" kids; I just wanted to play with any kid. It wasn't until moving to a predominantly white neighborhood did I discover the "pairing" handicap. I was obviously not white nor could I pretend to be. Why at age eight did I need to link up with the only other Spanish girl in class? It's been 22 years since I walked into that third grade classroom, but I'll never forget the initial sigh of relief and comfort she created that day...

Being born in the Bronx, raised by a first generation Newyorican mother and Guatemalan father has left no question of who I am. Obviously, yo soy Latina. Shortly after I was born my parents set out to Jersey, on a quest for a less hazardous life and far from the streets of the Boogie down Bronx. We moved to an up and coming town that was loaded with Cubans and Puerto Ricans and felt like home to my parents. A bodega on each corner, dominoes played by retired abuelitos and school yards filled with kids set the tone here daily. There was a sense of freedom while walking down the street and they were relieved that this town kept out of the headlines. Eight years in this diverse community meant I knew la senora next door who doubled as a stand in abuela and babysitter. She prepped all afternoon slicing fresh iceberg & tomatoes for a lemon squeezed salad. Arroz con gandules y pollo for dinner while serving goya crackers and sunny delight for snack. Play dates didn't exist in that era. It was good old fashion "play with neighborhood kids till mami called you" kind of fun. Nothing could beat this childhood. There was no question of who I was then. It didn't really matter since everyone was like me anyway.

Once the crime rate met a new high, it was time to move again. Now a bit more north and less like home. As I walked into my first day of third grade, it was obvious that these kids were nothing like me. They were blond and light eyed, very different from my over the top frizzy hair and big brown eyes. Together since pre-K, these kids needed no introduction. I never felt more like a foreigner then the moment my teacher tried to introduce me and could not pronounce my name. As I scanned that classroom desperate for a friend, I spotted the only brunette girl standing out like a beam from the heavens. Here we are years later and her smile alone could light up a room not to mention she's a profession salsa dancer! She saved me that year. Between the two of us, we introduced what a Spanish home was like to many kids. Going over her house felt like a Sunday at my Madrina's house. There we were introduced to salsa music, lots of kids dirty at the knees from hours of street play and food... lots of food. We are all grown up now with families of our own but she will always be the signature friend that welcomed me to the unfamiliar territory of white suburbia.

What was that hunger to connect with my culture? Why at eight years old did I feel so disconnected with blond hair and blue-eyed kids? I remember asking my mom to address me as Tina and beg for her to spray "Sun-in" in my hair to turn blond. Where did this sense of urgency of being a "white girl" come from? Later in middle school and high school, I always stayed in the "Latino" crowd but was introduced to diversity quick. I now was outshone by my culture and met families who spiritually and culturally were more elaborate then we were in my home. Now, quite the contrary, I ended up the least Hispanic in the group. I couldn't speak Spanish, could not hold a beat and knew nothing about religion, which plays such a huge part in a traditional Spanish home. Since replying to my grandparents in English, my mom spoke fluent Spanglish and my dad self-taught himself English by assisting on my homework assignments and reading the daily news. Now questioning my identity I asked, where did I stand on the Latina scale? I wasn't the most beautiful girl of the group or the funniest. I definitely would be considered outgoing but still trying to identify myself. Having been diagnosed with cancer in my teens left me no time to question anything except my ability to live but surviving and establishing myself as a woman has me now on a new search for answers.

As a young mom in an urban area I now have to reestablish my roots and teach our culture to my sons. Mixed with Filipino, Irish and Cuban, my boys will definitely find themselves trying to identify with a click during their academic years. Since our culture bleeds through our veins, that hunger to belong will find itself on the forefront of their childhood. They, different from me, will speak both languages and understand the difference between cilantro and parsley. Our boys will address their grandparents as Abuelo and Te (considering they still cannot pronounce Abuelita). I wish them luck when they attend school dances because if my memory serves me right there were never enough boys willing to dance salsa y merengue with the girls. Being Latina is amazing; our culture is rich and offers an abundance of knowledge. Our people embrace our hunger and are always willing to guide us home when we stray. As a young girl, I must have known how special it was to be Latina and how our values set us apart. Although I still search for that familiar face in the crowd, I never deny who I am because after all: I'm proud to be Latina!