It was the beginning of my junior year at NYU. I headed downstairs in an elevator with my friends when we stopped on the 10th floor. A group of visibly tipsy people enter, evidently on their way to a night out. The elevator ceases from closing because my friend Tony* keeps accidentally pressing the “door open” button, as opposed to the “door close.” An Indian guy, one of the party-goers, gets visibly upset. He looks at me and my friend Tony. In the most pretentious and mocking tone I’ve ever heard someone speak Spanish, says “Que es tu probl-eh-MAH?”
Momentarily shocked, I froze while my friend Tony started spewing accusations towards him. Then, with as much control as I had in me, I said, “Woah. I’m Hispanic. I speak Spanish. And what you just said and did is not okay.” He spent the rest of the elevator ride quiet. I internally fumed the rest of the night.
I had never been mocked because of my ethnicity before. Growing up, I was always surrounded by other Latinos and minorities. Being stereotyped because of who I was and where I came from wasn’t really a possibility in the neighborhood I grew up in. My high school was 75 percent Hispanic and my household was 100 percent Cuban. Being an immigrant and Latino was anything but hated; it was accepted. It was a norm; I had no need to be over exuberant about it.
When I decided to come to NYU, a university located in the most culturally diverse and international city in the world, I didn’t expect to ever be attacked for my ethnicity or my culture. I thought it would be just like home, where everyone accepted each other (quite the naïve, freshman year thought).
But—no matter what city you are in—there will always be a level of hate and anger towards the “other.” I was just lucky enough to not have experienced it before.
To think that another minority was the one to open my eyes is both saddening and confusing. Aren’t we on the same team? I don’t want to say that the “elevator incident” changed my life because I was then and still am extremely aware of the discrimination and xenophobia that plagues this country. I had just never experienced it first hand. However, it did spark something in me that I did not really have before college: An excessive pride and joy at being a Cuban Latina.
As I said, growing up, being Hispanic was the norm; I didn’t need a defense mechanism for being who I was. Going to college on my own, being surrounded by so many different races and ethnicities, and dealing directly with the ignorance and hate in the world (without any parents to shelter me away from it)—my “Cuban-ness” became my superpower. I have gained such a pride for who I am and where I come from. Amidst all this “otherness” talk, amidst the white majority at NYU, and amidst this darkness in the world, I have forged my own space in the narrative of the “other” by just being more of myself. Because despite all of that negativity, I’m still here.
I made it to one of the top universities in this country as an immigrant who also happens to be a citizen of the United States of America. And who’s going to tell me that I can’t? Nobody. Because I already did.
*Name changed to protect privacy.