Sembrando Cultura: This is How We do It!

Maria Luna, a Dominican American residing in London, speaks to four Latinas in the United States, Scotland and England to find out what it means to be a Latina and how a Latina maintains or compromises her culture when she starts a new life so far away from la patria.
By Maria V. Luna

The Super Latina: She speaks Spanglish and makes music out of mundane sentences. She dances as she cleans and gesticulates wildly. The party starts when she enters the room and when she’s gone so goes the intoxicating spirit of moxie.

Natacha Ginocchio packed her bags and moved from Cuba to Miami to New York City, settling in the suburb of Westchester. Seemingly, she navigated further and further away from her Latin culture. Or could it be, she carries cultura in her heart and takes it everywhere she goes?

Natacha, Public Relations Specialist and Founder of Azúcar Communications, was born and raised in Cuba for 21 years and loves being Cuban. “I have a strong Cuban identity and I bring that pride with me everywhere I go around the world. I am very, very Cuban and therefore Latina. But I don’t think I am too Latina. Even if I am, and maybe I am for some people, I don’t know how to be any other way.”

Her two daughters, ages 2 and 4, are growing up bicultural and Mami is doing her best to make sure Cuba features prominently in their upbringing. “It is difficult to keep up the culture in Westchester but I speak to them in Spanish. Sometimes I go to daycare to pick them up and their teachers tell me things like, ‘I can see your daughters are learning how to dance. They move their hips like Latinas.’ The teachers who are educating my kids are Americans.”

And how did Natacha receive these comments from her daughters’ teachers? “I felt flattered. I would feel like a total failure if my daughters didn’t dance well.”

When asked if she feels her daughters are Latinas, Natacha responds, “You can tell they are Americans, that they are not La—.” Natacha doesn’t finish the word because it is an idea she cannot bring herself to say. “I feel that they will always walk a line between this American and Latin American identity. They won’t be regular Americans in the U.S. and when they go to Cuba they won’t be Latinas—they will be Americans. And that’s fine with me. It’s a line that they will need to learn how to walk.”

The Beauty Queen: She’s flawless. She occupies that lofty platform of transcendent beauties that represent entire nations. In contests of grace and charm, so often the crown goes to Latinas—reinas de la raza cósmica.

Latinas in Latin America and in the U.S. undoubtedly garner the most airtime in the collective imagination, media and entertainment. Tara Hoyos-Martinez, a Londoner born and bred, shares her experience as a Latina en Londres.

The first thing Tara does though, is distinguish between the term Latina and Colombian. “I am Colombian. We call ourselves Colombians in general but in the UK, I think it is easier to describe yourself as a Latina because so many people don’t even know where Colombia is on a map. But if you’re talking to someone who is more cultured then we say Colombian and that is the first choice.”

In 2010, Tara was crowned Miss Universe Great Britain, making her the first titleholder of Latin American ancestry. She was the pride of both Colombia and Colombians in the UK. When asked if she played up to the Latina ‘Beauty Queen’ stereotype or whether she broke with the enduring label she says, “I think both. I played up to it because I’ve been brought up in that culture, so I watched Miss Universe and Miss World my whole life and that was a major factor that made me pursue the pageant. But I broke against it because I did not grow up in Colombia and I did not train to be a pageant queen. I just felt like it worked in my favour on both sides because it gave me a little bit extra—something different to talk about to the press.”

Tara says her upbringing was very Colombian, so much so that she was bullied for it while at school in London. She notes too that when she returns to Colombia, she is not exactly “Latina enough.” “Yes. When I land in Colombia, it feels like home. The air, the people, the culture, the food—everything tastes, smells and feels like home. But there is something I sort of missed out on. People there refer to me as la inglecita because I wasn’t born in Colombia and they still hold that against me.”

The Maternal Latina: She does what is best for her family even if that means making compromises. She raises her children in a better place than where she grew up and though she misses her patria, and her children may not speak her mother tongue, her tierra querida is never too far from her pensamiento.

When a Latina leaves her patria, she holds on to her cultura tightly for as long as she can, but sometimes she must let go in order to get ahead. Susan Young of South London was born in Venezuela and came to the UK when she was 21 years old. Her pursuit of integration in a new land included making a compromise. “At first, I used to try to maintain my culture. But with the years I didn’t feel that I was excelling as I was only around Latinos and speaking with Latinos. As parents, many of them could not speak to their children in English or help them with their homework. That made me nervous and I didn’t want the same for my children. So I spent some time away from Latinos and that’s how I learned English.”

Of her daughters who are 2 and 9 years old, Susan says, “No I don’t think I would consider them Latinas. I am, but I don’t think they are.”

She offers unapologetic words of wisdom for Latinas exploring and living outside of Latin America. “I think it’s important that when you travel that you don’t let your own culture consume you. I didn’t feel the need to bring my Venezuelan culture to England. I am in the UK, not in Venezuela. I don’t feel that I am losing my Latin culture by not always being around Latinos. Whoever knows me, knows I am Latina.”

The Resourceful Latina: She makes it work. She doesn’t sweat the small stuff and is not easily shaken. Her practicality is unmatched and her creativity unrivaled. 

Sisy Leon Flores was born in Lima, Peru. She met her husband on his first day backpacking in her country. They came from two different worlds and marriage was the only way to be together. They navigated a challenging visa process and within a few months Sisy arrived in Scotland to forge a future with her new husband.

Sisy, an assistant teacher by day and Spanish teacher at the University of Aberdeen in the evenings, found interesting ways to incorporate her patria into her new life in the UK. “I cook Peruvian food and bring decorations from Peru to adorn my home. Also, I am part of a Facebook group called Cafe Latino/Aberdeen. We get together once a month and guests bring a dish from their country. I take salsa classes. Sometimes I give a dinner at my home and invite my friends, who are mostly foreigners, and I cook Peruvian food, which gives me pride. I cook arroz chaufa, a mix of Peruvian and Chinese cuisines; ají de gallina and papa a la huancaina. There aren’t any places for me to buy Peruvian spices here so I always bring a lot of ingredients back from Peru.”

Cultural hybridity also feature in Sisy’s thoughts of her future. A new mami in August, this Latina is planning ways to ensure her baby grows up knowing he or she is Latin American.

The Activist: She lures your gaze to the past and boldly narrates a family history that speaks to universal displacement, soulless politics, and fractured humanity. She is the moral compass of our future and the historian of our collective memory.

In 1975, one-year-old Carole Concha Bell and her family journeyed into exile. They fled Chile as refugees during the Pinochet dictatorship. “My grandfather Santiago Bell,” Carole recounts, “was a government official for the left wing president Allende. He was detained for no reason then charged with treason but the charges were dropped. He was held in a concentration camp in the South of Chile for two years.”

Carole’s formative years spent exiled in the UK stifled her sense of home and belonging as the family always hoped to return to Chile and they reminded Carole that the UK was not their home. In 1990, after Pinochet was deposed, the Bell family set off for the motherland.

“I found Chile terrifying,” says Carole. “What struck me was the machismo. The patriarchy. I did not feel like a foreigner but like a woman going back to a country that is conservative concerning women’s rights.”

Through exile and return, competing ideas of home and culture, Carole’s idea of Latinidad has been shaped in ways so abstract that she still tries to untangle them today.

She uses her blog and social media page to share ideas around identity, memory and painful truths. “It’s rediscovering the horrifying past. I knew my grandfather was tortured. But as I got older I found out my tia was raped and the other was held for a year and raped. I come from a traumatizing community.”

A persistent activist, Carole confesses, “One of the things I do every day—and that’s my little grain of salt in the mountain of resistance—is to keep people aware of what happened in Latin America so they don’t forget. It’s kind of a mission.”

The Typical Latina: She doesn’t exist. She is an idea that has been marketed and consumed. Anyone who knows a real Latina knows she is far too complex to bear labels and far too distinct to subscribe to stereotypes. A real Latina doesn’t let language or place define her. She simply makes a place in her heart for cultura to live peacefully and exist naturally.