I didn’t know I was different right at first. It wasn’t until I moved from Florida to Chicago, from Chicago to Detroit that I started to realize I wasn’t like other children my age.
My difference wasn’t incredibly significant, on the surface you probably wouldn’t have noticed it, but as the other children spoke of their families that had lived in the same area of suburban Michigan for decades, as they spoke about Irish or Polish pride, showing me traditions I had never heard of or been a part of, I started to realize the truth: I didn’t fit in.
For one I was Hispanic in an area that was predominately black and white—but even then, I was only half Hispanic. If there had been a Mexican community near us, I’m sure I wouldn’t have felt like I belonged there either. My mother had never taught me Spanish; she’d never raised me to feel that close to my heritage. My biggest claim to being Hispanic was going to visit extended family in Texas and eating authentic Mexican food my aunts and uncles would make.
My father’s heritage was always a bit of a mystery to me growing up—I didn’t even learn his people came from Appalachian, Scotch-Irish territory until I was in college. Though I had been told as a little girl that my great-great grandmother was the daughter of a Cherokee chief, sold to an Irish man (who turned out to be a Scotsman—my father didn’t even know his own history).
So this left me with no real cultural identity. I was part Mexican, though I barely understood what it even meant to be Mexican. I was part “hillbilly” as my dad used to say—a vague term for a family ancestry he was uncomfortable discussing or just uninterested in. I was growing up in a place where I had no extended family, no grandparents (my one surviving grandmother lived in Texas until she passed away in 2006) and no siblings. I was a stranger to the ways of the Midwest. I was a stranger to the ways of the suburban Detroit middle-class. I simply didn’t fit in.
As I grew, I craved some sort of community. A part of me craved a large family, a culture that I could be a part of, but I felt like I had none. In stead I searched out social communities. I jumped on a variety of bandwagons, went through many phases and different identities, always looking for like minded people, people I could call my own, people I could say “really got me”, who were like me, who understood. But nothing seemed to fit. I continued to be the odd one out—a bit of a black sheep.
Finally I ended up in New York City and a new kind of cultural displacement fell upon me. I had moved into an area that was very big on race and culture, and a bit exclusive. In Crown Heights I live right in the middle of a large Hasidic community and a large Caribbean and Jamaican community—though both are made up of very kind, hard working people, there was no place for me in either. It was very clear I was still the outsider. Around the time of this relocation, I also started getting interested in Korean culture, even deciding to start learning the written and spoken language. But what did this all mean? In the end, I found it confused me more than ever. Who am I in this big world? Where exactly do I fit? Will I ever find a community, a “family” where I can belong?
I had a brief period of feeling plugged in, feeling like I was a part of something bigger than myself, part of a true community. In college I was a part of a large group of artists, filmmakers, writers, and musicians and for the first time in my life I had thrived, no longer the lone black sheep but one of many black sheep. Together we were different, and therefore we were the same.
But all good things come to an end. I parted ways with my group of artist friends and we all scattered to the four winds.
Now, living in my interesting, diverse neighborhood I am sans community once more. Not that I don’t have friends—I have many and I love them all dearly; they are my family more than anyone (except for my mother who I still speak with daily). But there is still no sense of belonging, no cultural identity like I always craved as a young child growing up. It’s certainly not the worst thing in the world, but it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
Maybe the answer is to start my own community, one that will welcome all those who are displaced, confused, and feel like outsiders. A new culture for those without a culture. Who wants to join me?