IMMIGRANT: identifying my identity

When I was eleven, my social studies teacher assigned us an essay on immigration. We had to write a page on whether we thought immigrants were a positive or a negative influence on our country.

I ruled against them.

In my paper, I regurgitated everything I’d heard from the people around me: Mainly, how immigrants were taking away our jobs and our opportunities and our safety. Pretty proud, I shared my finished essay with my mom that night, and we read it together so that I could translate any words she didn’t know.

I’ll never forget the look she gave me when we finished reading. There was so much pity in her expression…she must have seen in that instant that a decade into my stay on this planet, I still had no idea who I was.

And she said, “Romi…nosotros somos inmigrantes.”

We’re immigrants.

It was then I realized I’d been working so hard to memorize the English being spoken around me that I hadn’t slowed down long enough to make any connections. Apparently, the fact that I’d moved from Argentina to the United States with my family six years earlier made me an “immigrant.”

I guess it never occurred to me that I could be one of those people my new countrymen didn’t want around.

Even though I wasn’t a citizen at the time, I still felt like an American. For most of my adolescence, I didn’t think I was any different from the rest of my classmates—that is, until I was one of only two students in my competitive senior class to be accepted to Harvard, and I found out many were whispering “affirmative action” behind my back.

I realized then that despite my un-accented English, my classmates would never fully see me as one of them. My dual labels—“Argentinian” and “American”—make me powerless to define myself because people can assign me the identity that best suits their narrative at any given time.

I published my debut novel a few years ago, ZODIAC, when the message of diverse books finally started gaining traction in the YA industry. My series is about a collection of cultures that share one universe but live on different planets: Racism is rampant, and everyone distrusts those who are different from them, but the protagonist is doing everything she can to unite her worlds. In that universe, just as on our own planet, it’s difficult for people to immigrate to new nations. And as someone with dual nationality, the question of ancestral memory and to what point the land we’re born on can define us is a very personal one. That’s why I was incredibly hurt when I wasn’t invited to participate in a single diversity discussion, despite approaching my publisher multiple times about wanting to get involved.

I’m fluent in Spanish, and I post on all my social media channels in both languages. I’m apparently Hispanic enough to be sent on tour to Argentina, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, but not enough to be listed in any round-ups of diverse authors. And I can’t help wondering whether this is because my own cover can’t convey my full story.

Does my immigrant perspective matter less simply because my skin is pale?

I know this might not seem like a big deal to a lot of people because it doesn’t affect the majority, but it matters to me because by being excluded, I’m being cut off from teens who could benefit from hearing about my experiences. Teens who don’t care that my author photo doesn’t market my diversity because they just want to hear proof that it’s possible for someone who comes from their world to write a book in her second language and see it translated into nine others.

There’s a line my dad used to say to my sister and me growing up that’s had a huge effect on me: “A pesar de todo lo que el universo te quite, no te puede arrebatar lo que llevas dentro de la cabeza y del corazón. Eso te pertenece para siempre.” (“No matter what the universe takes from you, it can’t take what’s in your head or in your heart. Those are yours forever.”)

I wrote it into ZODIAC, and when the book came out, barely anyone noticed it; but when the Spanish translation was released, I started seeing the line cited in blog entries and reviews—and it felt like those readers had heard me in a way that English speakers hadn’t. It occurred to me then that a sentiment like that one might resonate less in a nation that takes for granted its freedom of speech than in countries that have seen military dictatorships spring up overnight.

A year and a half ago, I participated on a YA panel at two public middle schools in the Los Angeles area with a group of amazing women authors. The student body at both schools was heavily Hispanic, and when I shared my story of coming to this country and having to learn English, the students—not the faculty—broke into spontaneous applause. Afterwards, students approached me in private, and as they described how they felt—like they didn’t belong to their new world or their old one—I felt like they were talking about me.

And it got me wondering if maybe an immigrant can never fully belong to a place again—because the moment we cross the border, the whole construct of nationalism falls apart. Maybe being an immigrant is really about moving beyond the arbitrary categories that cage us, like coloring outside the lines or falling under a thirteenth Zodiac sign.

Maybe immigrant isn’t a label so much as a state of being: If the outsider’s task is to offer a new perspective, then it could be that being an immigrant is what makes me a writer.

And perhaps I couldn’t define the word when I was younger because it had already come to define me.