Trying To Look "American" Made Me Lose My Real Self

by Carla Roman

When I turned 13, my mother told me how she got from Colombia to New York. She showed me pictures of herself at 20, right before she left Colombia for Mexico, as she walked me through her story — one which she believed she survived, untouched and unharmed, because of her looks.

I always knew that my immigrant mother had a migration story, one that I would never have to endure. I knew that I wouldn’t ever physically suffer through the fear and agony of leaving home at 21, on my own, to go live somewhere new, the way she did. What I didn’t realize was that I would carry the psychological and emotional toll that that experience took on my mother, in my own mind and body.

Her trip to America lasted three weeks. She, along with a group of 10 other Colombians, trekked swamps, farms, and mountainous jungles, all at the mercy of a connector she had never met. Once in Panama, on a raft boat, her group was handed over to three men who would get them from Panama to the border of Guatemala and Mexico. These smugglers, also known as “coyotes,” would either get them safely to the Mexican border, or just as easily could strip them of their money, the few belongings they carried with them, and traffic them into forced labor or prostitution.

My mother tells me about the care she put into each moment of each day, to smile, laugh, be flirtatious, and to look clean and beautiful, no matter how long they had been walking in scorching heat.

My mother knew the risks. Rape and trafficking were common elements in the narratives she’d heard back in Colombia, from others who had either crossed to America successfully, or who had been turned back by immigration.

The gritty details of the week she spent with these three men, my mom doesn’t discuss. Instead, she looks at her photos and points out her slim waist, curvaceous hips, and plump breasts. My mother tells me about the care she put into each moment of each day she was with these men to smile, laugh, be flirtatious, and to look clean and beautiful, no matter how long they had been walking in scorching heat, or crawling through dirt and mud.

None of these men, she recalled, wanted to see my mother bruise her knees, scrape her arms against barbed wire, or go hungry. Some nights, some of the people were forced to spend the night in the outdoors as lookouts, and some were abandoned when they didn’t have the strength to keep walking. But the men took a special interest in her. And during the whole week, they made sure she was always as comfortable as possible, and available to talk and dance and eat with them during the breaks on their journey.

Of the 10 in her group, only five of them made it to El Salvador. Of those five, only three of them made it to the Mexican border: my mother and two other men, who were in their 40s, who had barely spoken during the trek. My mother tells me the other women that had originally started the journey with turned back at the border at Tijuana, when the coyotes asked for more money to finish the trip, and they had none to offer. My mother was never hassled at any point of the trip for more money than what she had already paid. The other women on her trip, she said, barely spoke to anyone, were dressed in very humble attire, and unlike her, did not want to accept what she had absorbed long ago — that getting ahead can depend on how you look and how you carry yourself around those with more power.

Once in Mexico, the coyotes handed my mom over to their partners and left her with their contact information. Her following week was just as brutal — but, she believes, she made it through Arizona and then New York unscathed, because of how she looked.

Once she arrived in New York, my mother saw that her fight was not over. Assimilating and becoming the “American” she saw in magazines, so that she could become successful, was her next feat. My mother dieted, permed her hair, and spent time at American bars. When she met my father, who had already been in New York for years, she found someone already assimilated and just as interested in starting a family and home in a new place.

The author in elementary school. Photo credit: Carla Roman

When I turned 10, my mother signed me up for private ballet and gymnastics lessons to be taken twice a week after school. Another great opportunity for me to stand out, according to her. As a kid, I already felt like I didn’t fit in with the girls in my class. Unlike them, I was very plump, very short, had long and untamed charcoal black hair which I refused to brush, and liked to read Lois Lowry books instead of talk about the Spice Girls. But during those classes, I noticed how the other girls around me were tall, lanky, and white. I would always be the last one to walk out of the changing rooms. When I joined everyone at the bars or mat for stretches, I’d stare at the floor, embarrassed by how different my body looked from everyone else’s.

Throughout my lessons, my mother never said anything about how bad I was at ballet or gymnastics. I now know that she intended the classes to make me aware of the difference between my body’s shape and those of the other girls in class. On the days she’d stay for the class, she would point out one girl and begin comparing the size of my waist, my thighs, and butt to hers. At first, I worked hard to not let her comparisons consume the rest of my night. I’d talk to my dad about the book I was reading, or what history lesson I had learned in class. But eventually, I gave in. My mother’s remarks became my truth. Later that year, I started dieting.

As I got older, my mother continued to place me in settings in which I was always the “different one”. If I wasn’t the “fat one,” I was the “short one,” or in most cases, I was the “ethnic one.” Whether it was while taking jazz classes or after my mother rezoned me to a junior high school in a predominantly white neighborhood, I started to become aware of my difference. I was not only different among those around me because of my race; I was also different from the other girls around me, because I had a different body shape and darker, rougher features.

When I was 15, my mother reminded me I was now old enough to learn the truth about the “way of the world”: that I would be overlooked by many in this country because I am not white; that I am minority and a first-generation Colombian American, so I am already at a disadvantage.

My mother pointed out my dark hair, round face, tanned skin, and dark eyes. I take after my grandmother. She then pointed out the young women on the TV in the background — my brother was watching High School Musical.

The author in high school. Photo credit: Carla Roman

My mother pointed at Ashley Tisdale on the television and said, that’s how society thinks every American teenage girl should look. She pointed at Vanessa Hudgens and told me she is their token minority for the movie. But even this token minority has soft features, is slender, has smooth hair and bright eyes. I didn’t know my grandmother, but at that moment, I began hating the features I had inherited from her. I grew angry in the coming weeks, asking myself why I couldn’t be the “right” type of minority. After that day, I avoided anything related to the Disney Channel, and especially anything related to High School Musical.

Looking back, I am unsure if I was angry because of how embarrassed she made me feel about myself, or if it was because part of me feared that she was right. I was different. I was always the shortest one, in my dance classes and in school. I was often the curviest one in the classroom. Many times, I was the only one that had to translate for my mom when teachers spoke English too quickly.

I had tried so hard to assimilate into this idealized image of an “American girl,” that I had lost what made me unique.

After that conversation, I allowed my identity, both inward and outward, to be guided by my mother. I dyed my hair five shades lighter, I stopped eating rice, and I began actively seeking friends that looked like the Disney Channel characters that I both hated and envied. I started to starve myself, and bought makeup to contour my skin tone so it looked like I had “a California tan,” according to my mother. I began letting go of the things that made me who I was. I no longer danced Salsa with my dad on random Sundays during family BBQs. I stopped watching Spanish soap operas or eating the Colombian food that once brought my dad and me together.

By the time I graduated high school, I was a different person. My mother felt proud to bring me around her friends, to point me out among a crowd — a young woman she believed looked like what Western culture wanted.

When I left home for college, I realized how absent I had become. I had tried so hard to assimilate into this idealized image of an “American girl” for my mother’s sake, that I had lost what made me unique. What hurt most was meeting many other first-generation Hispanic-Americans during college and recognizing how immersed they were in their parent’s ethnicity and heritage, how proud they were to represent it. They spoke Spanish a lot more than I expected, knew about Spanish pop culture and trends, danced and ate the food and music I had pushed away. I felt like I didn’t fit in while I was around them.

Simultaneously, I felt disconnected from the friends I already had. None of them knew what it was like to be a minority. None of them could explain that “otherness” I had to live with when I was the only non-white person in my classes. None of them could understand what my mother had convinced me I needed to do in order to succeed in America.

I began taking as many Latin American & Caribbean studies classes as I could fit in my schedule. I started to write in Spanish in my down-time. I dyed my hair back to its natural color. I stopped wearing foundation to contour my skin tone, as well as the heeled boots I had previously worn 24/7 to look taller. It took four years to begin to gain back the parts of me that I had worked to erase — and to begin to understand the psychological effects that being a minority in the U.S. had not only on my mother, but me.

The author today. Photo credit: Carla Roman

Today, I look at my mother and see someone who only wanted to protect me. My mother chose to come to a country in which she would be viewed as different, in which she felt she would have to let go of her background and natural features in order to have a chance at success. What was considered lovely and beautiful in Colombia was not the same here in America. And my mother’s constant dieting and obsession with her skin tone and hair were all part of retaining what it seemed to mean to be attractive and “normal in a new culture. My mother’s acculturation manifested through her physical looks, and for her, that was how she thought she would survive and get ahead in America.

The after-effects resulted in an unhealthy obsession with the Western ideals of beauty that she forced on me from a young age. My features, my curves, height, and dark hair all reminded her of what she had left behind. My features reminded her of what she had to teach herself wasn’t attractive. My features were not American, they were Colombian — and to my mother, this meant I wouldn’t be accepted in the country she had now made her home.

Today, like many first-generation minorities, I am constantly learning how to find who and what I am in relation to the cultural norms prevalent around me. I am constantly learning how to own my difference and embrace my ethnic features, even when I am the only minority at work or in social situations. I still struggle with accepting parts of my body. I still find myself not mentioning my ethnic background and hiding my natural features in certain professional situations, like job interviews. But I am also starting to talk more openly about my difference. I am working more and more each day to love the dark features that show the world my Colombian and South American roots. Every day, I get a little closer to healing the body I fought so hard to change.

Perhaps other first-gens have felt the same internal conflict between what they look like and what Western culture deems beautiful. As I get older, I recognize that certain cultural arenas are becoming much more inclusive of all ethnicities and shapes. It makes me happy to see that my nieces have a Disney princess that has their skin tone in Elena of Avalor and that they are obsessed with Raini Rodriguez’s singing voice. Although it is just film and TV, this is far more representation than what I had at their age.

And now, in the midst of the political chaos and anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House, I am seeing more first-generation Americans than ever before courageously owning their curves, natural features, and natural complexions. I’m witnessing a community, one I am a part of, demanding to be heard and demanding to be seen as they naturally are. My mother sees it too. Maybe now, witnessing the bravery of the women around us with their Latina AF shirts, my mother and I can work together on reclaiming our bodies and our appearances from Westernized beauty standards — beauty standards that only served to hide the very things that made us beautiful.