Being Latinx in America is no easy thing. Fighting pressures to abandon our culture, traditions, and heritage, we’re carving out a unique identity in America that’s all our own. In a series of essays, reported articles, and stories for Refinery29’s #SomosLatinx, we’ll explore the unique issues that affect the community during Latinx Heritage Month from September 15-October 15.
Assimilate, or else. For generations, immigrants have been told that to make it in America means abandoning our heritage at our port of entry. It’s not just history: Those holding the highest offices in America are telling us to “go back to where you came from,” giving racists free reign to harass Latinx people. So, when even speaking Spanish in public becomes a dangerous activity, there’s a special kind of statement that comes from visibly honoring our roots.
But it’s not about choosing sides. The Latinxs of this generation know that you can have one foot in our family’s home country and one foot in America, which creates a multifaceted and powerfully unique identity. And we’ve proven that we have the range to pull it off.
Five Latinas — with different backgrounds, nationalities, and upbringings — share how they’ve found pride and joy in wearing style statements that not only connect them to their heritage, but also acknowledge the mixed, modern influences that make them Latinx. From head wraps to hand-woven bracelets, consider this their love letters to their Latinidad.
Interviews throughout were edited for length and clarity.
Carolina Contreras, Dominican
A Love Letter To: My Curly Hair
“Growing up, straightening my hair was normal; it was almost like brushing-your-teeth normal. It was a part of everyday life, so of course I grew up thinking that my hair was not pretty — that it was this tedious thing I had to always tend to. I hated it, and believed that I was cursed. It wasn’t until nine years ago when I decided to cut it all off and let it grow naturally that I developed a deeper bond with my hair. It was reconciliation with this part of me that I had been fighting against for so many years.
“It’s been an incredible journey because it didn’t happen overnight. Now, I know my hair, and my hair knows me. I feel like I define my hair: I mold it, and I make it into what I want to be.
“But I do feel like I have a lot of history tangled up in my curls. The fact that my hair is coily is an indication that I am of African descent. Knowing that I am the legacy of the people who were brought here against their will and were so resilient, is really powerful. I am also a descendant of immigrants. I am an immigrant myself. I am the wildest dreams of my mom, who brought me here, and now I’m opening up a business in the U.S., Miss Rizos, that’s all about hair. My hair represents something more significant.
“My hair is very loud. It says I’m not going to shut up. If someone is ever uncomfortable because of my hair, then they have some stuff that they have to deal with, not me. I’m not going to straighten it to make anyone comfortable. I’m not going to conform. I’m always going to be me.”
Karina Hoshikawa, Puerto Rican and Japanese
A Love Letter To: Red Lipstick
“My father is Japanese and my mother is Puerto Rican. In my household, there was always a lot going on. My dad would have Japanese television on all the time, and my mom would be making tostones.
“It was really important to my dad that our Japanese heritage was a big part of my and my twin sister’s life, so we’re both dual citizens, and grew up visiting my grandma in Japan for summers. But my mom always wanted us to know how proud she was to be from Puerto Rico. She always told us her memories of being on the island. My name, Karina, was my mom’s way of giving me a part of her culture.
“My parents wanted us to know about our cultures, and be exposed to it so that we feel like it’s a part of us. But they also didn’t want me and my sister to feel like we were different from everyone else in our school. They wanted us to feel like we were growing up in America with our version of normal. Biracial people can relate with feeling like you’re neither race. It’s sort of, Where do I fit in? Where’s my tribe? I struggled a lot with that growing up. I would want to engage with my Asian friends on a level and my Latinx friends on a level, and sometimes it felt like I was neither. From a young age, my twin sister and I were typecast, because she ‘looks more Asian’ and I ‘look more Puerto Rican.’ But being Latina is not a percentage.
“I’ve always been obsessed with my mom’s old photos from when she was younger. When she was out with my dad or getting dressed up for special occasions, she always wore red lipstick to feel more like herself. When I’m around my Puerto Rican relatives, all the women are in red lipstick. So, I associate red lipstick with all the best qualities of Latina women, like strength, femininity, and a very strong sense of confidence. When I wear it, it makes me feel like I look like her. Beauty does that. It has the power to bring out a side of you, and for me, that’s the Puerto Rican side.”
Martiza Medina, Mexican and Guatemalan
A Love Letter To: Traditional Dresses
“Growing up, we would go as a family to Guatemala and Mexico where I saw so many beautiful, traditional items like purses, earrings, bracelets, and shirts. But the dresses were what really caught my eye. My family would buy them for me, and although I found them to be beautiful, I would never wear them because I was scared of being ridiculed at school in Los Angeles.
“It wasn’t until I was in college that I started embracing traditional, handmade items like wallets or headbands. The dresses came in my mid-20’s when I started understanding so much more of the history of the dresses and the way they’ve traveled throughout Latin America. I’m Mayan from my mom’s Guatemalan side, and Aztec from my dad’s Mexican side. Oaxaca is close to the Guatemalan border. Many people believe that these indigenous tribes were all connected, and I think that’s beautiful since I”m part of both cultures.
“I’ve learned so much more now about the history of the women who make these dresses. I always talk with the owners of the shop to make sure that the women are being compensated in the way that they should be — especially with how stores are now selling them as a trend.
“These dresses empower me. They make me feel like I’m carrying my entire family around with me. I feel proud to wear the real thing. When I have something special going on, or something that I’m nervous about, I wear them. It’s almost like an armor.
“But I can’t lie; There are times I don’t feel comfortable wearing them. It’s not so much about what I feel; it’s always going to make me feel powerful. But at times, I get unwanted attention and unwarranted questions. I make it a point not to wear it to certain spaces, like airports, where I can be profiled, or a neighborhood that’s not Mexican-friendly.
“Although I still need to protect myself, there’s power in wearing them. I feel fully charged when I do.”
Lauren Salazar-Rivera, Guatemalan
A Love Letter To: Woven Bracelets
“My grandfather passed away last summer. He had been living in the U.S. for ten years at that point, but for him, his home was always Guatemala. So while we had his memorial here in the U.S., we had his funeral in Guatemala, which is where he wanted to be buried. That was such a big loss for my family, and many of us were seeking permanency in his memory to try and hold onto something. My family always talked about getting tattoos of phrases that he would say, but I memorialize him with bracelets from el mercado that I bought after the funeral.
“I found a woven bracelet with a leather piece, and I had the artist engrave my grandfather’s name onto it with a heart. He would always say, “I’m puro Guatemalteco,” and always tell us stories about growing up there. So, it was my way of having a piece of the country and having his name with me always.
“The bracelet is made by Mayan artists, leather makers, and weavers. It was very important for me to shop from the people who are the essence of my country. There’s been this erasure of Mayan culture in Guatemala, despite their being the majority of the country. People like to deny, forget about, or use Mayan culture for tourism money, but it rarely benefits the people behind it. I had a responsibility.
“Much like the mercado artists, my grandfather’s story is one of hard work and perseverance. It’s something that he instilled in us. Although all his grandchildren are in the U.S., he showed us that we need to carry a certain work ethic and that we need to remember where we come from. It’s his legacy.
“As a Latina, I’m constantly tested by living in the United States. This bracelet gives me patience. I don’t think that even in a professional setting someone could get me to take it off. It feels attached to me, almost like a tattoo would.”
Melanie Santos, Cuban and Dominican
A Love Letter To: Head Wraps
“My mother is Cuban and my father is Dominican. I’ve always been connected to both my African culture and the colonizer blood in me as well, which is awkward to say. But it makes us Latinos. But many Latinos have convenient amnesia that many of us have African blood.
“The African diaspora formed both Cuba and the Dominican Republic. I don’t consider myself Afro-Latina, but I know that I’m an Afro-descendant. I will proudly elevate Afro-Latinos because people need to remember that they’ve always existed. I wear head wraps because I’m comfortable doing so, but also in solidarity for all the Afro-Latinos in the world.
“For a long time, I had to explain myself to others, and why I was wearing it. I’m the one in the family that forces these uncomfortable conversations because they need to be had. I want to express that part of me, and that I want to encourage my daughter, who is a Black Latina, to know who she is and to express it proudly.
“Spiritually, many Cubans and Dominicans live by religious practices and superstitions that make us us. As a kid, I was taught that you should never touch a baby’s head, or let an adult touch your head, because your head is the epicenter of your energy. So now, when I speak to large audiences of people about wellness and spirituality, I cover my head. A head wrap keeps the good energy in and bad energy out.
“As I put on a head wrap, it feels like I’m wearing a crown. My brother recently passed away, and I’ve been trying to find ways to get out of bed and feel more powerful. Throwing on a head wrap does that. It makes me feel like I can do anything. Throw that on with some hoops and some red lipstick? Forget it. No one can tell me anything.”
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