Awhile back, I heard Joe Jones speak, and among other things, he said, “There’s something to be said for growing up in a space and a place where success looks like you.”   And that’s something I think about all.the.time.  Because I didn’t have that growing up.  To a large degree, I still don’t get that even now– turns out there is not an abundance of Colombians running around Grand Rapids (though thanks to Laura and her Colombianitas WhatsApp group, I’ve got a few more in my life now).  

Last night, I had the opportunity to go to the kickoff reception for the Grand Rapids Latin American Film Festival.  This year, the festival brought Catalina Mesa, the Colombian director of Jericó: El  infinito vuelo de los días, which will screen on tonight, April 6 at 8pm.  She spoke at the reception, and the part that really struck me was when she talked about what it means to have made a film that represents Colombia the way hers does.  She talked about colors.  How so much of Colombia is under a shadow, and how the world only sees that part of us– the dark, complicated part.  She was quick to acknowledge the reality of that shadow, but it’s clear that the power in her work, and her passion for it, comes from showing the colorful parts of her Colombia, the women featured in her film and their stories, and how they are woven together to form a part of her memories of that space, and that place.

After the formal part of the program, everyone wandered off into small groups to chat, and this theme of representation continued to be present in the conversations that I was part of.  One person talked about what it means to see Latin American films made for Latin American audiences, films that existed outside the gaze of mainstream U.S. culture.  Films that were made by and for Latinos.  #representationmatters

I’m lucky to have friends that, upon hearing how much I wanted to meet Ms. Mesa and knowing me well enough to know I’d probably just lurk for the rest of the night if left to my own devices, were willing to make their way toward her, little by little, and eventually just push us together with a 2 second introduction: “This is Erika, she’s Colombian, too.”  Basically a nightmare for me, but it worked.  I managed to pull myself together enough to introduce myself in Spanish, and thank her for what she’d said.

My friends rescued me after a minute or two, and we started this amazing conversation with her and a bit later with Gustavo Rondón, a Venezuelan director and editor of two other films in the festival.  They talked about archetypes, and universal story lines, and I think MAYBE Ms. Mesa referenced a master class by Aaron Sorkin of all people (aka my dream). I was reminded of something I had read once about a woman who did counseling for refugees in camps, and how when she started she had been worried about what it would be like to hear such terrible stories.  She said she was surprised that so many of them wanted only to talk about the person they had fallen in love with, and their relationships.  Universal experiences.

Then Ms. Mesa used the word acá.  In Colombia, they use acá for what most Spanish speakers in other places say aquí– here.  Ven acá.  Come here.  I haven’t heard it used like that since I left Colombia almost two years ago. It was loud during the conversation, and I was having a hard time understanding parts of what was going on, and I didn’t chime in much because my Spanish is still so limited, but the whole experience, that moment in time…  There’s something to be said for having a space and a place where success looks like you.  Last night, that space and place was the GRLAFF kickoff at the Wealthy Theater.  I’m so grateful.


Being Latina

Tonight, I had the awesome privilege of sitting on a panel called Being Latina, put on by the Latina Network of West Michigan.  I spent some time getting ready this afternoon because I’m SO not an off the cuff speaker.  Since I think best when I write out what I want to say, I typed up my responses to two of the questions we were asked to address, and I ended up sticking pretty closely to them tonight when I spoke.  I’ve written in greater detail about some of the things I talked about earlier on my blog, and I’ve told a lot of these stories many times, but I wanted to capture this for future Erika, as I continue to work out who I am, and for anyone else who might be interested.  

What does it mean to you to be Latina?

For a long time, being Latina didn’t mean anything to me.  I was adopted from Colombia when I was two months old into a very stereotypically West Michigan family, meaning they are all white, blonde, and like six feet tall– super Dutch.  You can’t be what you can’t see, and I definitely didn’t grow up seeing people who looked like me.  Moreover, my brownness wasn’t acknowledged in any meaningful way.  My parents always thought they were doing a good thing for me when they told me they didn’t see any difference between me and my siblings.

Time passed, and then being Latina became something that was bad, or at the very  least, something that separated me from the people I loved and cared about, something that made me different.  Being Latina meant that when I visited my brother’s school, the teacher didn’t believe I was his sister.  Being Latina meant that when I showed someone a picture of my adorable nephew, they commented that he was too white to be my nephew.  Being Latina meant that I didn’t fit.

Then I went to Colombia almost exactly two years ago, which is way too long a story for this panel, but while I was there, I had the opportunity to find out some information about the circumstances of my birth from FANA, the agency that facilitated my adoption.  Colombia was a pretty rough place in the late 80s when I was adopted, and there wasn’t much information to be had, but one of the details that the social worker who spoke with me told me was that my first mother, Blanca, had been born in the cafetera, in the mountains where the coffee is grown in Colombia, and that she had lost her mother when she was young.  She somehow managed to get all the way through 10th grade– no small feat for a girl in that place at that time, according to the social worker.  And then she moved to Bogota.  I don’t know what happened after that, but that one detail, that information about the education that my first mother had, helped me think about being Latina in a different way.  It reminded me that stubborn determination was in my blood.  And the fact that she made her way to FANA to make sure that I ended up somewhere safe when she decided that she couldn’t keep me, likely because she was struggling to provide for the two year old son she already had when she gave birth to me, reminded me that strength and resourcefulness are in my blood, too.

Finally, the last part of being Latina for me has to do with the people I’m surrounded with now.  I started working on the southwest side of Grand Rapids during high school and undergrad, but while I blended in, I still didn’t exactly connect.  I left for grad school at Michigan State, and when I got back, I started making a more conscious effort to get involved in the Grand Rapids Latino community.  In early fall of 2014, I got invited to this Latino Alumni event with Grand Valley, and I went without knowing anyone else who was going to be there.  You might not be able to tell from the super cool and composed way I’m sitting up here right now, but I’m actually like, pretty socially awkward and am terrible with strangers, so here I am, at this event, lurking in a corner texting furiously, trying to figure out how to leave, when this woman I don’t know approaches me, and introduces herself.  Her name was Paola Mendivil, and she effortlessly pulled me into the circle of people she was standing with and introduced me.  I was still wildly uncomfortable, but it was a start.  She subsequently invited me to the Latino Community Coalition, and eventually through Stacy Stout, who kept inviting me no matter how many times I made excuses because, you know, strangers, I made it to a Latina Network gathering.  And now, because of those two groups and others, I find myself surrounded and embraced by Latinos much of the time.  So I guess the third of part of being Latina now is community for me.  And I feel so lucky to have found that, even if it took most of my life up to this point to be able to do so.

Have you ever made feel that you’re not Latina or Latina enough? 

Language is a big part of this for me.  Now I sort of speak Spanish, enough to get by a decent amount of the time, but that wasn’t the case until I went to Colombia.  A woman in the parking lot of Cesar Chavez Elementary asks me a question in Spanish, and when I don’t understand, she gets upset and demands to know why my mother didn’t teach me Spanish.  I’m not trying to tell my whole life story in a parking lot, so I don’t explain.  One of my Spanish teachers in Colombia says that for her, language is the biggest part of culture, and if you don’t speak Spanish, you aren’t really Colombian.  A kid reads my nametag, which has my whole name, as Erika Carolina…ban-dee-kay?  That confused look on his face when he tries to read VanDyke in Spanish is my whole life.

So I’m used to people who don’t know me well making me feel not Latina enough because of my language skills– or lack thereof.  It’s worse when it’s someone I know and trust.  I was a happy hour with close friends when someone made a joke that I didn’t understand, something about the difference between white girls and Latinas, so probably another issue entirely, but I didn’t get it.  They laughed, and without even thinking, one of them said, “Well, it’s because you aren’t really…” and trailed off.  Not really Latina.

But I also have to acknowledge that being adopted came with a TON of privilege for me– economic privilege, social and cultural capital, education, and so on.  That sometimes gets used against me by other people of color, as though I somehow chose to be adopted.  And that’s complicated, because when I say that, it makes it sound like I don’t want to own my privilege.  But the piece that I think is missing in that conversation is that loss that kids who are adopted experience.  I lost a first mother, a brother, and who knows how many other family members.  And when people make me feel like I’m not Latina enough, that I’m too white, it feels like they’re saying that growing up in a nice neighborhood somehow is supposed to atone for the grief and total lack of choice that kids of adoption have to live with.  There’s a lot of space in our cultural narratives for happy, grateful adopted brown kids, but not so much space and acceptance for us when we grow up and push back against what happened to us.  And that can feel really isolating.

Similarly, I was recently at an event and the speaker was talking about how to survive and thrive as POC in a white world.  She was talking about friends, and she commented that, “If they get it, if they care about equity and social justice, great, but if not, then they don’t need to be a part of my life.”  But what does it mean to say that when the people who don’t get it are your family?  And what does it mean to get advice to take a step back from your family if you need to for your mental health, for someone who already lost her whole first family?  As an interracial adoptee, I can tell you that we get erased a lot.


I’m so grateful for having had the opportunity to reflect on these questions and share my story alongside four other Grand Rapids Latinas.  Gracias, Latina Network!

Justice, Charity, and Protesting

Update January 2018: This post was turned into a chapter in the anthology Grand Rapids Grassroots.  Thanks to Dr. Ashley E. Nickels for helping to make that happen.  Check out the book here!

This past weekend, someone close to me asked how I would be spending my Saturday.  I said I would be participating in the Women’s March rally taking place in my city in the morning, and that later in the afternoon, I would be working, helping a family. 

In fact, I would be delivering furniture to a family at the school where I work as a family resource coordinator.  This family has had a rough year.  This past summer, mom was picked up and had entered deportation proceedings. They shipped her to Florida, and while she didn’t say exactly what happened, we know that somehow she made it back.  She’s a single mom, two young kids.  When she got back, she had to double up with a family member, in a house that was too small for both families.  She had a difficult time getting work, because she doesn’t speak English, and of course doesn’t have papers.  Finding housing was difficult for the same reasons.  I’ve had a lot of families lately, both documented and undocumented, struggling to find housing.

A couple of weeks ago, we found out that another family from the school was out late buying this family food, because there wasn’t any in the house.  As I contacted her to find out how I could help, she told me that they had finally gotten an apartment.  She told me they didn’t have very much furniture. I pressed for more information, and she said there were two small beds— for the children.  When I asked if there was one for her, she looked away. 

Part of my job is helping families like this one— finding furniture, handing mom a Meijer gift card, asking about winter clothes and kitchen supplies.  Thanks to some generous partners in the community, I was able to track down a couple pieces of furniture, including a new bed.  That won’t come in until next week, but the couch and dresser that were donated could be delivered whenever I found someone to come pick them up, and coordinated a time with the family to drop them off.  The mom to whom we would be delivering the furniture works all the time— Saturday is her day off, so a Saturday delivery it would be.

I can’t do my job without the help of partners and volunteers, and when it comes to transporting furniture, it’s part of my job to find someone with a truck and some muscle to do the heavy lifting.  Luckily, we have an amazing mom who volunteers at my school.  Just the other week, she offered me her truck if I ever needed it to help out a family.  She and her husband were willing to give up part of their Saturday afternoon to help me lift and transport the furniture to the new apartment.  They did it because that’s how a community works.  We have to help each other out. 

So I replied that I would be rallying in the morning, and helping a family in the afternoon, and I got this response, “Rallying sounds lame but helping families sounds good!”  I can’t get it out of my mind.  Because a response like that says to me that to this person, justice sounds lame, but charity sounds good (to borrow the words of a friend helping me process all of this today).  It displays a total disconnect between those two ideas.  It refuses to acknowledge the link between why I felt like I needed to go out and participate in the protests, and the situation of the family I was serving. 

Let me be clear, none of this is new.  Families like this one have been living under the threat of separation because of deportation for years.  As a woman of color, this mom faces an even larger gender-based wage gap than her white female counterparts.  Housing costs continue to rise, and minimum wage fails to keep up with inflation, so more and more families experience homelessness.  A lack of affordable daycare options in the United States mean that we had to sweet talk our (underfunded, understaffed) after-school program into accepting the kids so mom could work.  Did I mention the wait list for that program is like 50 kids long?  The kids that attend our school do so in overcrowded classrooms, because public education funding keeps getting cut. 

All of these things, and more, have been true and threaten to get worse as the current administration appoints people whose qualifications are laughable to run things like the Department of Education or Housing and Urban Development.  So yes, I’ll hunt down furniture for these families.  I’ll make sure a mom who works 12 hour shifts has a soft place to sleep at night.  I’ll recruit volunteers and community partners to meet these and other needs.  I’ll do these things on nights and weekends and any other time I am asked to, because our families deserve it. 

But here’s the thing.  If I’m not also out there protesting and advocating and demanding better, than I’m not doing anything more than putting a bandaid on, or worse yet, obscuring the much bigger, systemic issues underlying those needs.  This isn’t to say that participating in a Women’s March yesterday was the correct or only way to protest or to demand better.  Indeed, there are a lot of very smart, thoughtful people who had real objections to the march itself, with its lack of intersectionality, among other concerns.  But the larger point, that I’m not doing my job if I’m not both meeting immediate needs and advocating for long-term, systemic changes, stands.  We have to do both.  If we can feel good about delivering some furniture, or dropping off some food, or donating to the cool nonprofit of the moment, than we’re missing the point.  We’re refusing to acknowledge why those problems exist.  And when we do that, everybody loses.   


I grew up surrounded by water in Michigan.  My grandparents lived on a lake, and we spent a lot of time there in the summer when I was little, fishing, swimming, and taking pontoon rides while vigorously protesting the life jackets Grandma always made us wear.  When I was in fourth grade, we moved to a house with a small lake out back, and my middle and high school years were filled with paddle boats, ice skating parties, and campfires near the water.  And of course, living in the Great Lakes State, I have memories of many, many days spent at our beaches— Grand Haven, Holland, South Haven, and north in Leland, Traverse City, all the way up to Mackinac Island.  One of the reasons I hated living in Lansing when I was at Michigan State was that rather than a 40 minute drive to the beach, it took easily 90 minutes to get to the sand and the water that I loved.  I’ve always said that I want to live near water someday, and that Lake Michigan is in my blood.

During our time in Colombia, I’ve discovered that mountains are in my blood, too.  In Bogotá, I used the mountains to ground myself— navigation was easy when I could remember that the mountains are always east.  In the city of Medellin, the mountains are all around you, green and covered in many places with red brick houses and buildings.  At FANA, they told me that my birthmother came to Bogotá when she was 16, but that she was raised in the mountains, in coffee country.  These are the mountains we saw when we visited a coffee farm about a month ago with Sue and Mike, Dan’s sister and brother-in-law.  These mountains are a patchwork of vibrant shades of green, covered in coffee plants, teeming with brightly colored birds.  It’s almost always sunny there.

I can’t get enough of the Colombian mountains.  In the same way I can’t resist taking pictures of the waves and the sunsets over Lake Michigan every time I’m at the beach, I took photo after photo out our window in Bogotá of our view of the mountains, especially when they glowed golden in the late afternoon.  Everywhere we go, I make Dan stop to look at the mountains with me, at the clouds, at how the light hits them, at how bright a shade of green they are.  You would think that after awhile, all the mountains would look the same, but for some reason, I just can’t stop looking. 

We’re spending our last week in Colombia in Medellin right now, and we had our last full day in Bogotá this past Sunday.  Dan and I visited all our favorite restaurants one last time, and we also visited my favorite place in the city— the top of Monserrate.  When I’m up there, looking out over such a vast city, breathing clean, cool air, I get the same feeling as when I’m sitting at the beach in Grand Haven.  I feel calm, I feel alive, I feel whole…I feel like myself.  In my blog post from our first week in Bogotá, I wrote about my skin turning brown from the sun.  Maybe that’s what unites these two place where I feel most like myself.  The sun setting over the lake, the sun lighting up the mountains across this beautiful country.

I don’t know how to leave Colombia.  A dear friend of mine made me laugh before I left because she always referred to this place as my “mother country.”  She said maybe I wouldn’t get sick here, because maybe my body would recognize the mother country (she was mostly right).  She said maybe learning Spanish would be easier for me here, because it is the mother country (she was mostly wrong).  This same friend also told me that I was having a hard time with all the information FANA shared with me about my birth family because I was grieving a loss.  And she reminded me that grieving what I lost when I was adopted didn’t mean that I don’t love and appreciate everyone and everything I gained when I ended up in Michigan.

She’s right.  I think I needed that last piece of the puzzle the most.  I needed her to remind me of the power of both/and.  I can grieve for the woman who spent nine months carrying me, then gave me up so she could provide enough for her other child to survive, while also feeling love and gratitude for the woman who raised me.  I can feel angry at an economic and social system that forces a mother to make that kind of a choice for her family, and joy when I think of the family I have now.  I can wonder about a man who was taller than most Colombians (the woman at FANA told me he’s why I’m “so tall”), and cherish my relationship with the man who gave me my sarcastic sense of humor and my tendency toward stubbornness.  I can feel sad for the loss of the mountains, while also loving the lakes.

I suppose that is the only way I’m going to be able to get on my flight away from here on Friday.  I have to continue working to accept my place in the middle, to embrace being both Colombian and a Michigander.  Maybe someday, I’ll be back to visit Colombia again.  Maybe I’ll be able to convince my family to come with me.  Maybe I’ll get to show my parents how much it has changed since they came for me, show my nephews where Aunt Keekah was born.  For now, when I sit by the water in Michigan, I’ll also be remembering the mountains in Colombia.  They’re both in my blood.

Being Prepared

No one prepared me for what it would feel like to sit in a room and listen to all the information FANA had about my birthmother.  FANA is the Colombian organization I was adopted through, and Dan and I have spent some time there during our stay in Bogotá.  I had a lot of mixed feelings about going to FANA at all. 

When we decided to come to Colombia for the first leg of our Spanish-learning trip, I wasn’t sure how I would feel when we arrived, something I wrote about in a previous blog post.  I had decided that I would feel Bogotá out, rather than rushing into finding and visiting FANA.  I was able to do that amidst the chaos of getting my proper papers from the various bureaucratic offices across the city to secure my Colombian ID card and passport. 

Finally though, that died down, and one afternoon, I visited the FANA website.  I found out that as an adoptee, I could take a tour and even volunteer if I wanted.  After exchanging a few emails with an extremely kind woman named Camila, Dan and I made an appointment for a tour, and agreed to learn more about volunteer opportunities once we got there. 

Our tour was fairly straightforward.  FANA currently functions as a place where youth under the age of 10 can be taken to if they are removed from their parents’ home and live while the court decides if they should be permanently removed or returned home.  This process can take quite a long time, and some kids end up staying at FANA for years at a time.  FANA also runs a home for pregnant, unwed mothers, where they can spend the last few months of their pregnancy and decide if they want to keep their child or give him or her up for adoption.  Abortion is not legal in Colombia except in cases where the life or health of the mother is at risk, if the fetus has abnormalities that are “incompatible with life,” or in cases of rape or incest.  FANA also runs a free preschool program for its own kids and those in the surrounding neighborhood.

Right now, FANA has around 90 children living onsite, and places about 50 kids in adoptive homes each year.  Back around the time I was adopted, however, they were placing upwards of 250 kids each year.  We were shown where the kids sleep, where they are fed meals, the classrooms where they do homework after school, and their playground.  FANA depends heavily on financial contributions from support groups in the United States and Europe, mostly locations where they have placed children over the years.

My feelings about volunteering at FANA were mixed, because the last thing I wanted to do was participate in the kind of voluntourism of which I (and many others) tend to be pretty critical.  I knew I wouldn’t be making any kind of long term commitment to FANA if we volunteered, but I also couldn’t afford to make any significant financial contribution, which might have been a better alternative and tribute to the organization.  My desire to volunteer was for purely selfish reasons— I didn’t have any illusions that my presence for a few hours was going to make much of a significant difference for FANA or for the kids with whom I might interact.  I wanted to volunteer because I missed spending time with kids at home, and because I wanted to see what my life might have been like if I hadn’t been adopted.

I don’t know if those are good enough reasons, but we ended up volunteering at FANA five or six times over the course of several weeks.  I spent most of my time with toddlers, and Dan helping out in the accounting office.  My limited Spanish was a barrier when interacting with the FANA staff, but it worked out okay when it came to discussions of colors and animals that I held with my group of two year olds.  I enjoyed my time at FANA overall, but each week, I left with more unresolved feelings.

During our initial tour, Camila asked me if I wanted to see my file.  She didn’t offer any information about what I would find in the file, but let me know that I would have to talk to someone else and set up an appointment if I wanted to do so.  I told her I would think about it, and spent the next weeks deciding what I wanted to know.  When I mentioned it to a couple friends (ones who were not adopted), they expressed surprise and confusion when I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the file.  I suppose I can’t blame them for not understanding the extent to which ignorance is bliss to a child of adoption. 

Of course, this isn’t true for everyone.  Some people want to know as much as they can about where they came from, feeling incomplete without that knowledge.  This certainly our right— so much about the beginnings of our lives was out of our control, and it can be an important step to be able reclaim some of the knowledge/power.  Some of use want to find our birth families, and some of us want nothing to do with any of it.  Some of us, like me, lie somewhere in between, and are just trying to figure it all out.  If you aren’t adopted, it’s your role to accept whatever we say we need, and help us explore what we need only if asked.

In the end, I decided that I wasn’t likely to be back in Colombia in the immediate future, and that I didn’t want to regret not getting the information in a year or two and be unable to access it.  This is just another example of something that you can’t control when you are adopted— it’s more than a little frustrating.  Last week Tuesday, I sat down with a woman named Maria Teresa (who incidentally said she remembered my parents from when they came to get me all those years ago) in a FANA office and took a deep breath when she asked me if I was ready to begin. 

A funny question, really.  Of course I wasn’t ready.  How are you supposed to be ready for this kind of information?  I’m sure there is all kinds of best practices research on how to prepare yourself and how a social worker should share what they know, but I hadn’t seen any of it.  I didn’t know if I was feeling scared or excited or sad…I suppose it ended up being some combination of all of this and more. 

I’ve spent the last week processing, or maybe not processing, what she told me.  Wondering what I’m supposed to do with what I know now.  The information Maria Teresa shared wasn’t much, just an intake form and a blurry photo, both of which she allowed me to make copies of when I asked.  It was enough though to raise all kinds of questions.  Before reading my file, the questions I had were general— now, they’re more specific, shaped by the nuggets of data contained on a single piece of paper.  Ignorance was definitely a lot less stressful.

Even if I decided I wanted to, the chances of being able to find my birth mother are very small.  Emotionally, I’m not sure it’s something I’m willing to undertake at this time.  I think I’ve earned the right to be very sure of what I want from here on out.  Maybe sometime down the road I’ll want to know more, but today, I’m going to sit with what I have.  That’s enough for me right now.


Bookstores feel like home to me.  When I step into them, memories of Friday nights spent with my family at Barnes & Nobel come to mind, memories of long hours spent at the public library as a child, memories of the many bookcases that line the walls of my parents’ house.  Here in Bogotá, we’ve wandered through several different bookstores, and each time I walk in, I wait for that familiar, safe, happy feeling.  Unfortunately, at least for now, the feeling is elusive.  I can’t read the books with any amount of ease yet, and until I can, there is a barrier around the comfort I seek in those places.

Having the ability to communicate is power.  Being able to express yourself, your ideas and feelings, your basic needs, is the be human.  When I was in India, more people spoke English than do here, and what’s more, we never really needed to speak Hindi or Bangla to get by.  We virtually always had our program facilitator Arnab or someone from one of our host families to help us navigate.  Here in Bogotá, Dan and I are on our own.

If we’re being honest, to a large degree, Dan is really the one on his own for us both.  He was the one who figured out how to buy bus cards.  He was the one who explained (over and over and over) why I needed to get my original birth certificate, and my Colombian ID card, and finally my passport.  He was the one who negotiated with the people at the U.S. Embassy to mail our absentee ballots.  He was the one who patiently helped me read menus, so I could have some semblance of choice in what I would eat for lunch or dinner.

Ironically, this last thing, not being able to read a menu on my own, is what really put me over the edge one day about 4 weeks into our trip.  We had just finished our umpteenth trip to the notaria on my passport journey, and we were both tired and hungry and irritable.  We stopped at a restaurant called Wok, and because I was tired and hungry and irritable, I couldn’t summon the humility it took to ask Dan to help me read my options for dinner…and I just got so, so mad.  I was furious that I couldn’t do something so simple by myself.

I’m a pretty independent human.  I’m not good at asking for help.  I had mentally prepared for how it would feel to be so dependent on Dan before we left Grand Rapids.  I knew it was going to be hard, and I knew there would be times that I would be frustrated.  I just didn’t expect to fall apart over a menu.  [Side note: Dan has been incredibly kind and patient during this whole process, way more than I could ever hope to be if our roles were reversed.  I’m really lucky to have him.]

It’s been interesting to watch how Dan and I have adjusted differently to coming to this new place.  As someone who speaks Spanish quite well, Dan has been affected by the culture shock in fairly predicable ways, growing irritated at how no one here lines up to get on the bus, or how it sometimes takes forever to get seated and served at a restaurant.  Meanwhile, I don’t have the energy for that.  I’m just really mad that I can’t read my menu.

I know it’s lame and cliché, but these weeks have reminded me how much language privilege I had in Grand Rapids compared to so many of the kids and families I worked with while I was there.  A week or two before the holiday break, I watched a mom walk into the Sibley school office with papers in her hand and ask for help, and get turned away by the woman at the desk because it happened that the two people who spoke Spanish in the office weren’t there at the time.  The injustice, the fact that this happens daily to our families in Grand Rapids, still takes my breath away. 

Not being able to communicate easily is exhausting.  It means constantly watching for body language and context clues to help you.  It means wondering if the person approaching you is going to ask you a question that you won’t understand, and if they’re going to be upset or irritated that you can’t answer.  It sometimes means wondering if you’re in danger, and having absolutely no way to tell for certain.  It means having to trust that prices and rules and people are being fair, because you don’t know how to ask for clarification.    

This past weekend, not being able to communicate meant that when we had to go to the ER late one night because Dan had a high fever, I couldn’t argue when they wouldn’t let me go back with him to see the doctor, even though I hated the idea of him going alone.  It meant that four hours later, when I started to worry because he hadn’t come back, I was scared to ask for information at the reception desk.  It meant five hours later, when I couldn’t wait any longer and went up to ask, I didn’t understand much of what the woman told me, beyond that Dan was okay, and I just had to accept that, until he reappeared another hour later. 

Having a language barrier is hard.  We all know that in theory.  Experiencing it in medical situations, in citizenship situations, in menu situations…it takes that theoretical knowledge to a whole new level.

Transformational Leadership

This past fall, I was honored to be chosen as a member the Transformational Leadership Program’s third cohort.  TLP  was designed to create a pipeline of leaders of color and equip them with “critical skills and knowledge required to fill positions of influence across Grand Rapids to support systematic change and to achieve racial equality.”  As part of our graduation requirements, we had to write a final reflection paper answering several questions about our learning and experience with the program.  The following blog post was my response to the question, “What has been your most significant area of growth of the course of the program?”

TLP Group.jpg

TLP Cohort 2015-2016

EDIT:  This blog post was republished in a slightly updated form over at Rapid Growth Media.  Thanks to editor Anna Gustafson for making it happen!

One of the first things Paul said to us when he was explaining where our TLP sessions were going to be held was that sites are chosen for a reason.  He said that it was important for people in those places to see groups of people of color.  That us being there mattered, that it was powerful.  I felt the power of being part of that group from the beginning of TLP.  My most significant area of growth of the course of TLP has been the impact it has had on my identity as a person of color. 

I’ve talked in class and on Basecamp about the complexities of my identity.  I was born in Colombia, and was adopted into a white family when I was eight weeks old.  My primary and secondary education was at a school affiliated with my parents’ church, and I can count the other kids of color on one hand.  Even Grand Valley, while more diverse than anywhere else I had ever been, was still mostly white.  Growing up brown, surrounded by white faces, is complicated.  Being adopted makes it even more so.  Imagine my dismay at discovering that the authors of Black Faces, White Places made “establishing a strong identity” their first step in achieving success and finding greatness.

I first found myself surrounded by other people of color toward the end of my Grand Valley years.  I started volunteering at the Cook Library Center, and then at Cesar Chavez Elementary, both on the southwest side of town where a vast majority of families are Hispanic or Latino.  In those spaces, no one was confused by my presence— no one did a double take when they saw me, wondering why I was there.  Indeed, parents would turn to me with questions, expecting me to speak Spanish. This was the first time I learned that sometimes, people are upset if you don’t speak a language they expect you to speak.  I learned that sometimes, they will mutter rude things about your parents, thinking that they somehow betrayed the group by not bothering to teach you.  I learned that sometimes, you will feel a little betrayed by the inquiring party AND by your parents, both failing you in some way that you can’t quite explain. 

For awhile, being a person of color started feeling like something I should be embarrassed of, or try to casually reject.  Those feelings would come after someone made me feel like being Latina somehow made my accomplishments worth less.  For example, I was chosen to be in the Grand Valley commencement video the year I graduated.  When I mentioned it in passing, a faculty member told me that I had only been chosen because I was brown.  While Grand Valley (and really all universities) does have a habit of pretending to be significantly more racially diverse than it is, this comment, coming from someone I trusted and respected, cut deep.  Of course, this wasn’t the first time I had heard comments like that; it was along the same lines as the people who took issue with me receiving certain scholarships.  That professor’s comment made all of the hard work I had done during my time at Grand Valley seem small.  My study abroad trip, my strong grades, my invitation to do research with a professor, my involvement in student organizations…it was all reduced to nothing.  In his mind, the only reason I could possibly have been chosen for that video was because my skin was brown.  Too brown to be good enough on my own.

Sometimes, I also felt embarrassed because it was clear that the way I had been raised excluded me from initially understanding certain experiences or feelings that people of color share.  I had to learn language to express why certain ideas were offensive, or worse, learn the hard way that certain things WERE offensive at all.  Every time I did, it was another reminder that I just wasn’t Latina enough.  For example, when I was an intern, I remember watching the Cesar Chavez Day parade on Grandville Ave. with my class of 3rd and 4th grade students, most of whom were Mexican and Guatemalan, with a few white and African American students mixed in.  When all the flags came by, they cheered for the flag they recognized, and asked me to point out “my flag”— they meant the Colombian flag.  Seconds later, things devolved into a yelling match between several different contingents of kids over who was best— some were chanting U-S-A, others Me-xi-co.  They were urging me to join in, demanding I pick a side.  I responded the way I had been raised— I told them that it didn’t matter where we were from.  As soon as the words left my mouth, and as soon as I saw the looks on the kids’ faces, I knew I had messed up.  Now, I have the language and the concepts to explain why the “I don’t see race” trope is problematic.  Then, I just knew it felt lousy, and I knew I had let my kids down.  Too “white” to be able to help those kids work through the ideas they were expressing. 

I’ve grown since those first experiences.  I’ve learned that sometimes, people of color will say they accept you as a Latina, until they’ve had a few drinks and they make a joke you don’t have the cultural frame to understand, and then they laugh and tell you aren’t really Latina.  I’ve learned that sometimes, being the only brown woman in the room means that everyone looks to you to speak on behalf of all people of color.  I’ve learned that both of those are pretty lousy ways to treat someone. I think the most important lesson I’ve learned over time is that I have to let myself be the only person to define me.  I’ve also learned that having other people, usually people of color, around to affirm that I’m not crazy, and that I’m enough, is incredibly powerful.

TLP has given me a much needed chance to feel proud to be a woman of color and powerful as a member of a group of color.  It was a place where I could watch people of color disagree with one another, reminding me that I am not required to think the same as someone else just because we look alike.  The people there made me feel like the positions I took were valid, and that my perspective mattered.   TLP has allowed me to feel like a valued contributor to important conversations. It was a space where I was admitted both because I was Latina and because people saw potential in me— at no point did I have to decide which was more important.  The kind of encouragement and affirmation that I have received, and that I hope I will continue to receive and pay forward as an alumna, has been more valuable to me than I can put into words.


Returning to a place you have no recollection of ever being feels strange.  Here in Bogotá, I look like I belong in a way that I have never experienced before, even in places on the southwest side of GR.  I see myself in other women.  This one has my curly hair, if mine were a little shorter right now.  That one has my nose.  That little girl looks just like me in pictures when I was five.  And yet, except for the people, things don’t feel familiar here.  I don’t know what to do with those feelings yet.

At school and at conversation meet up, the first question people ask is “De donde eres?”  Where are you from?  At home, when someone asks me that, they don’t want to hear Michigan as an answer.  They want to know where I’m “really” from.  They want to hear me say Colombia.  Here, I find myself answering “De los Estados Unidos.”  It feels strange to say that.  It feels even more strange when it’s a fellow Colombian asking, though I’m not sure I can pinpoint why.  I don’t know what to do with those feelings yet.

Being here with Dan is an additional layer.  I’m accustomed to people expecting me to speak Spanish, and even to them being displeased with me when I don’t.  That part is the same here.  When Dan and I are together, people address themselves to me.  They expect me to be the one to answer, and even when Dan consistently is the one to speak in a conversation (after I shoot him a look indicating I have no idea what’s going on— he’s grown very used to that look by now), they continue to look to me to respond to their questions, as if I’m just letting him practice his Spanish or something. 

The other day, Dan and I were walking down the street after class speaking in English, giving our exhausted brains a break from Spanish.  And elderly man took it upon himself to chastise Dan, ordering him to learn Spanish to be respectful.  Oh, the irony.  Dan has helped me survive this first week in more ways than one, and of all the things a random stranger might take issue with, it’s both hilarious and terrible that he would pick Dan’s language ability to be offended over. 

In the moment, I laughed it off, but those kind of reactions also feel strange.  Imagine that man’s horror if he found out that I’M the one who doesn’t speak the language.  What kind of reaction would THAT information earn me?  Should I feel bad that I don’t know Spanish?  Should I give in to the justifiable fear that it’s way too late to ever learn to speak well enough to fool people into thinking Spanish is my language?  Should I feel resentful that I was never taught when I was little? If I do, does that make me ungrateful for all the other opportunities I had growing up, despite not having this language as my own?  I don’t know what to do with those feelings yet. 

This is what I know so far:  the skin on my face is slowly losing its Michigan winter pallor and turning a golden brown from the Bogotá sun, and that makes me feel happy.  It makes me feel more like myself.