Traveling While Latino

As a child of immigrants, how should I answer the question, "Where are you from?"

Rohit Ganda/Flickr

Whenever I travel abroad, the conversation with locals almost always starts with the same question:

“Where are you from?”

I never have a definitive answer, and so instead, each time, I stumble through many:

“My mother’s from Mexico…”

“My father’s from Ecuador…”

“I was born in California…”

“I grew up in Florida…”

As a daughter of immigrants, I find that no answer seems entirely right. My father came to the United States at age 21, searching for opportunity and hoping to break away from the small-town claustrophobia he felt in his Ecuadorian hometown. My mother arrived in the U.S. at age 15 with her siblings and their mother, who had struggled to find work in Mexico after her divorce. My brothers and I were the first in our family to be born in the United States, which puts us among 36 million second-generation Americans—U.S. citizens who have one or more immigrant parents. We account for 8 percent of the American adult population and 14 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29. We are a group of people who have many countries to claim we’re “from,” and the choice of a variety of answers.

The Argentine singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral famously sang No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá—“I’m neither from here, nor there.” For the immigrant and second-generation traveler, “where are you from?” is a question loaded with complexity in ways the people who ask it don’t always understand. The people I've met while traveling have often perceived my American identity far more simplistically than I myself understand it. I have been asked: “If your mother is from Mexico, then you’re not really American, right?” Outside of the United States, my second-generation identity is practically invisible, as I rarely reflect people’s perceptions of what “American” looks like or means. I am neither from here, nor there.

As a result, taking a year off in my 20s to backpack around the world wasn’t as emotional an experience as I imagine it would be for many American travelers. Though I had lived in the United States my entire life, I never felt entirely at home. Television shows and movies rarely depicted families that looked or acted like my own; my classes in school seldom discussed the background or culture of immigrant families; finding restaurants and stores that sold my family’s traditional food sometimes meant driving to the other side of town. We were minorities, and our values, habits, and even physical appearance were not necessarily what the dominant culture depicted as “American.” And so “American” could never fully encapsulate who I really was.

It appears that many second-generation Americans feel similarly. In a 2013 Pew Research survey, majorities of both Asian and Hispanic second-generation Americans said they mostly described themselves by their races or the countries their families came from—as in Asian American or Mexican American—with only around a third of respondents in each group saying they called themselves “American” without another label. For me, too, my family’s heritage has always felt like an important part of the answer to where I’m “from.”

Travel therefore comes naturally to me. Having internalized the idea of never completely belonging in any single place, I am comfortable with the concepts of movement, adaptability, and change that are so fundamental to my family’s story. In the past eight years, I have visited 29 countries, lived in seven cities, and spent almost three years getting by with only the possessions that fit in one suitcase. I’ve learned that sometimes life is at its most passionate and beautiful during these moments of utter displacement.

When I set off for my year of travel, I visited South America first so that I could explore my roots without the inhibitions I occasionally felt in the States. Initially, my travels in the region came as a relief. People listened to my family’s music, ate my family’s cuisine, spoke my family’s language, followed my family’s customs. People hugged each other often and didn’t think twice about inviting you over for dinner or drinks. Communities gathered in plazas on weekends to chat or listen to music, and even older people and parents of young children stayed out socializing late into the night. When I visited bars on weekends, it seemed like everyone was dancing.

But ultimately I was not quite at home in Latin America either. My Spanish had a bit of an American accent; I preferred American folk music to Latin American rock; and my independence was foreign to many women I met. Older women would approach me when I rode city buses alone to ask in confusion: “Where is your boyfriend? Where is your father? Why are you alone?” When I attended a birthday party with my female cousins, the conversation was not about whether to leave your career to get married and have children, but when. They were shocked to hear about my two years living and working in San Francisco: “You lived in an apartment on your own? So far from your family?” Locals began calling me gringita, claiming I had become too Americanized. And even though we shared a heritage, many people I met in the region didn’t seem to understand what it was like to be in the minority. When I told my family members about my political views or my previous job as a teacher helping immigrant Latino students gain access to education, it was difficult for them to understand how Latinos in the United States were at such a statistical disadvantage. They didn’t have to defend their culture, or work for its equality. Meanwhile, I could only understand my culture through its position in the United States; my second-generation identity could not exist anywhere but there. That made me feel more American than anything else.

Yet travel also encouraged me to accept the paradox that it had exposed. My friend Karina Lopez, who also traveled throughout Latin America as a second-generation American, once told me: “Traveling is a form of resistance to being defined by only one thing. The ultimate freedom in travel lies in the fluidity in identity that it offers, and the opportunity to define who I am for myself.” Travel taught me that I didn’t have to pick one place where I could fit.

In her novel Americanah, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes immigrant ideology as “conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else ... hungry for choice and certainty.” Maybe this was what I inherited from my family: not a new nationality or country to call home, but a form of restlessness, a need for exploration, a constant longing for something more.