'No Soy De Aquí, Ni Soy De Allá' (I'm Not From Here, Or From There)
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I was just 5 years old when I began to understand what it means to be an immigrant.
2001. A time in history when the United States was in complete emotional disarray after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. National security was in focus, the negative effects on the economy were felt by many, and anti-immigrant sentiments had reached a fever pitch.
At the same time, my home country of Argentina was experiencing one of its worst financial crises. The country defaulted on its debt, the peso was heavily devalued, and about 50% of Argentines were living below the poverty line.
Many families weighed their options for economic survival. My family was no different.
That year, despite all that was happening in the U.S., my parents brought my older brother, Leandro, and me to Los Angeles.
At first, they told us we were just on "vacation." They even entertained the idea of visiting Disneyland. But it didn't take too long for us to realize that "vacation" would never come to an end. And for good reason.
Like most immigrant families, our parents saw a future filled with opportunity and hope in the U.S. And unfortunately, they could not say the same of their beloved Argentina.
So a few months into our stay, they decided to make our small 2-bedroom apartment in Koreatown our permanent home and enrolled us in school.
We were quickly immersed in American culture.
And it didn't take long from the minute my mom and I stepped into my kindergarten classroom to feel that I was different. For one: I only spoke Spanish, or as my mom likes to call it, castellano — Castilian.
English was a foreign concept to me, no pun intended.
Thankfully, when you're 5, you're a sponge.
Every word my teachers taught me, I retained somehow. And when I did struggle to understand something, they came to my rescue. They would try their best to translate things for me, and connected me to tutors who helped me improve my reading skills.
Nonetheless, while being young and having wonderful teachers helped me learn English, it didn't alleviate any of the thoughts I had of not belonging at my school — walking into the classroom and feeling like an outsider.
It didn't help that at home, my family continued living as though we had never left Buenos Aires. We spoke in castellano; ate empanadas, milanesas a la napolitana, and alfajores; listened to Argentine folk artists like León Gieco and Mercedes Sosa; and watched fútbol, not football, on Sundays.
It was like I lived in Argentina at home and as soon as I stepped out the door, I was in the U.S., like a light switch I could flip on and off without fail.
And, boy, was it hard to assimilate.
For years, I was bullied at school for my Argentine accent, the food I brought to the lunch table, and the fact that my parents didn't speak English. Every time a kid overheard me translating something for my parents, they'd mimic the way I spoke and laugh at me. Any word with the typical Argentine "sh" sound became a favorite on the playground.
And while I tried to drown out all the negativity, I will admit all of those encounters got to me. I became ashamed of who I was. I began to see being an immigrant child from Argentina as a fault that was causing me so much emotional heartache. I would've given anything to use Harry Potter's invisibility cloak.
Thank God for Shalena, my earliest friend; a young, rambunctious, incredibly smart Black girl with a heart of gold.
She saw me struggling to fit in at school and extended a helping hand, one that was most likely filled with gummy worms at the time.
She stood up to the bullies for me, spent hours playing on the monkey bars with me after school, and invited me into her home.
On weekends, we'd spend hours watching the Disney Channel; reading Harry Potter books, of course; eating popsicles; and playing with ladybugs we'd find outside.
Through the years, we'd spend holidays together, go to camp together, and dream up ideas on how we were going to become successful women of color.
Shalena helped me feel like I belonged. Everyone needs a Shalena.
* * *
Finding a way to feel proud of my Argentine culture and where I am from was a different story.
My parents were key in making that happen for my brother and me.
They shared stories that helped shape my idea of where we are from in a positive way: how much our family back in Buenos Aires valued higher education, why we became fans of the fútbol club Boca Juniors (if you ask my dad, there was never an option... River Plate who?) and how deep our sweet tooth ran (apparently most of our extended family always kept a decent number of alfajores in the home).
But my folks didn't stop with just the stories they told us.
They signed us up to attend an Argentine cultural school called La Escuela Argentina de Los Ángeles (LEALA) on Saturdays.
It was there that I learned how to read and write in Spanish from Argentinian teachers, and celebrated my home country's national holidays, including 25 de Mayo, Día de la Bandera, and Día del Amigo.
I also met other Argentine kids and families like my own. We all spoke Spanish with the "sh" sound.
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Attending LEALA for a couple of hours each Saturday and sharing experiences with kids that were like me helped me realize that being from Argentina was nothing to be embarrassed about.
At LEALA, we were all tied to one another by our culture — one that I would grow to be, according to my South American friends, obnoxiously proud of. But hey, being a little arrogant as an Argentine just comes with the territory, am I right?
* * *
Once I entered high school and later college, I began to understand how my story is the typical American story of an immigrant family.
No matter how isolated I felt from others growing up, my family was no different from all the others who come to the U.S. from Latin America in search of better opportunities for their kids.
The assimilation process is hard. Holding on to your roots and being proud of them as that's happening — even more difficult.
As most immigrants know, it takes time and a tremendous amount of effort to find your place in a new country. The learning curve sometimes feels insurmountable.
But if I've learned anything from my personal journey, it can be done.
When you least expect it, you meet people and have experiences that help you find your way — even if the dust never quite settles.
The title of this essay pays homage to the late Argentine singer Facundo Cabral and his iconic song, 'No Soy De Aquí, Ni Soy De Allá'.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Marina Peña is an Argentine American journalist who currently works for KPCC's Take Two with A Martinez. Her work has been featured on Yahoo! Finance, NBC L.A. and HuffPost, among other places. She loves strawberries and a good empanada.