My status as a U.S. Hispanic
By Rafael Prieto Zartha
September 21, 2011
Years ago, while hanging out on the terrace of a Quito building, looking out at the perpetual snowcaps of the seven mountains where frozen water rests, the girl I was going out with at the time asked me why I answered that I was “of Colombian origin” when asked where I came from.
She, Ecuadorian and a patriot to the bone, chided me that the logical thing to do would be to respond simply with the nationality: Colombian.
I had to explain to her that my nationality would never leave me, that it was inscribed in my blood and my heart, that some of my ancestors had arrived in Nueva Granada practically with the conquistadors, that the others had been natives and that my last name un-capitalized is prieto, a synonym for black.
As far as why I used the words “of Colombian origin,” my argument was simple: I reminded her that as of that point I had lived in the United States for thirteen years, and that with time I had become more concerned with what was going on in the country I lived in than in the land of my birth.
This was the last straw. She called me a traitor to Latin America, a North American stooge and a man without national identity. What I told her next bothered her even more. I told her what I would end up being: a U.S. Hispanic.
I publicly confirmed that same self-description during an event, organized by Mexican cultural promoter Lucila Ruvalcaba, at the old Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC—the city where I live now. I have been living in the United States for 32 years and I decided to become a U.S. citizen.
I adore this country. I hate it when people speak badly of it due to preconceived prejudices—like I always say, the gates are very wide for those who don’t like it here and want to leave, and very narrow for those who want to come.
I rejoice in the Preamble to the Constitution, which talks about the pursuit of happiness; in the amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression; and in the poem engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, acknowledging that this is a nation of immigrants.
Here is where I found the true north of a just cause: the defense of honest undocumented immigrants who live defenseless in the shadows, for which I am constantly bombarded with hate mail online.
My friend Maria Peña, from the news agency EFE, defended me from some of these attacks a few days ago: “Immigrants like us who love our adopted country criticize and denounce injustice and inadequacy precisely because we are called to build a better country and—why not?—a better world.”
I have lived in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Washington, and Charlotte—where I grew to understand the majority community, and those of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. And there is not a single Hispanic nationality with whom I haven’t worked or had contact with over the three decades I’ve lived in this land of liberty.
To the Hispanic women who were foolish enough to love and support me, I thank them their kisses.
Today I share the joy of celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with 50 million U.S. Hispanic compatriots.
I wish for us to try to lay our ghosts to rest, to be more tolerant of each other, to repudiate Latinos who are ruffians, and that our “strength in numbers” refers not just to the size of our population, but to our political and economic power, our education, and our civic and social responsibility.
Rafael Prieto Zartha is the editorial director of Qué Pasa-Mi Gente newspaper, in Charlotte, N.C. He writes a weekly column that is distributed and published nationally on immigration and other relevant issues related to the Hispanic community.