By Mya De La Rosa
What identities do you perform in your day-to-day life and how have they changed over time? How can you care for others as they perform their identities with honesty?
I attended third to seventh grade at a private school in the capital of El Salvador. The school was rife with animosity between Salvadoran students resentful of the Civil War—a Cold War proxy conflict that challenged the oligarchy—and children of American diplomats. During school earthquake drills, children of American diplomats were escorted to a spot where a helicopter could land and airlift us to safety, while others would blur into specks below. One year, when a boy questioned this arrangement, my friends and I shouted at him, “The United States is the greatest country in the world!”
Despite these tensions, I clicked in El Salvador, bonding with teachers and my fellow Americans. Our parents demanded academic achievement, frequently reminding us that our day-to-day behavior reflected on the United States, and absorbing elite Salvadoran and American cultural norms, we mastered respect and formality. When my family returned to the United States, we settled in a city near the US-Mexico border. At school, I found domestic Americans loud and superficial. I craved the tenderness of my former teachers, who had saturated conversations with terms of endearment—mi vida, mi cielo, mi corazon—and missing the Salvadoran greeting of a kiss on each cheek.
Furthermore, my values differed from those of my peers. Whereas I had watched skinny kids on corners selling bread and coffee at the bus stop, middle school class seminars in the United States were rife with comments from sweet suburban Christians like, “Well, I don’t think racism really exists anymore.” When I began high school the next year, I did not mesh with the Chicana group, lacking previous exposure to Chican@ culture, yet my brother and I began to experience racial prejudice in the United States. We had looked forward to the freedom of walking on sidewalks, which was unsafe in El Salvador, but walking home from a fast-food restaurant, my brother and I were followed by a police cruiser. I quickly became disillusioned by the United States, and I became quietly insecure.
During the pandemic, I began working at a restaurant where most of my co-workers are Mexican, and we are a community of displaced peoples caught between cultures. As soon as we punch in, we wipe down counters to the cadence of our Spanish pasts and passions, diciendo, “Como andas, mija?” I am recognized in fleeting moments, like when a joke lands, and I relish an unguarded intimacy I hadn’t experienced since I lived in El Salvador.
On break once, at a broken booth in the back of the restaurant, I met a cook hunched over with the weight of wisdom and old age, who shared that he left Acapulco due to the organized crime and corruption there. Somehow, we began lamenting that leftist experiments the world over have devolved into dictatorships. He blinked at me and rasped, “Governments are all the same, and the people are armed with nothing but machetes, y pues, what can we do with a machete when we’re up against guns,” and he chuckled. This discussion sparked a lasting bond between us, and he has since become like a grandfather to me. While before moving to the United States, I ardently defended my nation and exalted an uncomplicated version of it, I’ve come to a finer appreciation of the ideals of this country, and in identifying weaknesses of the United States, we can address them with love and bring our values to reality.
At the end of each shift, we turn the corridos up as we scrub steel counters spotless and gab. The cooks and I belt our hearts out to slow romantic ballads. In this community, I am not a racial stereotype or an ambassador of the United States. Rather, with my languages and cultures, I am free to express myself without performing toward the expectations of others, and I try to embrace vulnerability in all of my communities to forge meaningful connections.
This piece began in a Girls Write Now industry workshop with Meredith Corporation. We were prompted to share a simple realization that has shaped our lives. When I presented a messy outline to the group focused on reconnecting with my Latin@ roots, insight from my mentor for the day and fellow mentees encouraged me to continue developing the work. Several of their notes have remained in this draft, such as the changing references to music and the special attention to sound throughout it.
In each draft, I have attempted to balance social commentary, aesthetics, and my own story to write something of existential meaning and vulnerability. My mentor Jessica Errera, in this piece and beyond, has kept me interrogating myself and continues guiding me to write with clarity and focus.
Mya De La Rosa /2005/ was born in Los Angeles and has lived in Honduras, Virginia, El Salvador and SoCalifornia. Her work reflects on multiculturalism, gender, queerness and the effects of colonialism. An ongoing project of De La Rosa’s is “An Investigation of Sivar”, which delves into Salvadoran history through blog posts and interviews with Salvadoran diaspora and foreign policy experts, to contextualize the development of an authoritarian government there today. Her time abroad has enabled her to appreciate the importance of global democracy and national self-determination. She is a thespian, computer programmer, polyglot and traveler.