“gringa” by yasmyn lolis

One time, my best friend Anna came over to visit our new house. My mother was in the kitchen cooking chorizos in a tomato-based sauce to be paired with rice and feta cheese, a staple in our Salvadorian home. We were telling Anna that moving to our new area meant that we could easily shop at Latinx-owned butchers, bakeries and stores. We showed her our supply of Masa-flour and red kidney beans in the pantry and introduced her to Abuelita’s Hot Chocolate mix. At the end of her visit, she shared with me a simple observation; that in the span of our almost decade-long friendship, this is the most she’d come to learn about my culture from me. She remarked that I wouldn’t discuss my extended family, our cultural traditions, or even the type of food we’d eat. 

Growing up in Western Sydney, I had an extremely diverse group of friends from so many different ethnic backgrounds. Almost everyone I’d encountered was loud and proud when it came to their culture – it was their identity. Anna was one of these people, so proud of who she was and where she came from, welcoming anybody who would want to learn and participate. When it came to these discussions about culture though, I never had much to say. I just listened. 

It’s not that I grew up distant from my extended family and relatives – I was always at family functions, or at my Abuelita’s house (my great-grandma, the matriarch of our family). My grandma, Lita, lived with us, cooking Tortillas and Frijoles every other night. We had mugs printed with the flag of El Salvador, my cousins and I were gifted with El-Salvador soccer jerseys, and while I could never speak Spanish that well (or, at all) my grandma and I were constantly exchanging in Spanglish. Yet I never shared about my ridiculously obnoxious uncles who’d sing Mariachi at 1am after a few too many beers while us kids would be lying down in the living room piled on top of each other, begging our parents to take us home. I never spoke about all the times my Lita would decide to make a monstrous stack of Pupusas, which we’d eat for a week straight until there was no more. No one really knew the intricate details of our Christmas Eve: trying to fit 50+ family members around the Christmas tree in the house in which my Abuelita has lived in since they migrated here from El Salvador. Us kids battling our exhaustion so we could open presents by 12am, my Tia trying to get us to sing Christmas Carols and my Abuelita praying for our family’s health and well-being for the next year. 

  Maybe it was the fact that I’d be called ‘Gringa’, because of my Greek father and my light skin. Maybe because my mum’s life trajectory challenged their conservative Catholic views, with me being born out of wedlock. Maybe it was the fact that I couldn’t speak Spanish. There were countless times I was spoken at by my relatives in Spanish, who knew I couldn’t understand and proceeded anyway. In those moments, I felt so small, and that I had failed the test I didn’t know I was sitting. That in an English-speaking country where my family migrated to in hopes of a better life, I’d be shamed for being able to assimilate. Even though my relatives were scolded and shamed for having accents and speaking broken English, they’d still scold and shame me for the inverse.  

Being half-Salvadorian, half-Greek means I pass as white. I didn’t stray too far from white, European beauty standards and I can sometimes navigate inconspicuously through white spaces without any suspicion. Even though my hair is dark, dark brown and my eyes are almost black, with bold brows and more body hair than the average Caucasian – I pass. I never felt that out of place in my high-school friend group, being the only non-white girl out of the four. It took me about two years after my high-school graduation to realise that I never really fit in. I was the one who really did stand out in photographs, the one who wasn’t so white after all. 

And the reason for my silence lay in this exact fact: speaking up and celebrating my culture felt like I’d finally be exposed as the other. I wanted to assimilate for so long, to blend in within the crowd of whiteness. Moving through these spaces as an empowered, (white-passing) woman of colour was to deny myself of my belonging to the white majority. My silence was a manifestation of my inner conflict: was it true that I was too much of a Gringa to be a proud Latina, or was I never going to be 100% white for the majority? 

Maybe over time, I woke up to the fact that I never really fit in, and that I didn’t want to. My shame was a conditioned response, from which my silence ensued. Maybe I am a white-washed second-generation Latinx-Australian. Maybe I am a white-passing woman of colour trying to navigate how to embrace my mixed heritage. I’m okay with the maybe’s. 

So, when Anna reminds me of my past silence, it’s also a reminder of how far I’ve come. I’ve been practicing my Spanish, and I’ve accepted that I’ll perhaps always stumble over some words in a Bad Bunny song. I’ve finally introduced my friends to Pupusas and Tamales. I live my life to educate the people I encounter about what it means to be a Latinx-Australian, in all its beauty and complexity. I don’t want to be compared to a drug-lord like Pablo Escobar. I am not an object of a white man’s hypersexual desires to fetishise me. I belong to a community of talented, hard-working, persevering and passionate people. People who will find any opportunity to celebrate, dance to Celia Cruz or Elvis Crespo, and eat Tres Leches cake from La Paula’s in Fairfield. 

I will always speak up about who I am and where I come from, even if that sets me apart.

Yasmyn hails from Western Sydney and is in her final year at Macquarie University. She is currently studying a double degree in Commerce and Psychology. She loves plants, dogs and finding cute places to brunch. She is passionate about diversity and representation in the arts. She has been a guest contributor for Mantra Magazine’s, The Studios of Western Sydney; about her experiences being a second-generation Latinx Australian.

Yasmyn’s Instagram: @yasmynemma