BY ILANA SPERLING
It happens every time. Whenever I mention where I’m from, someone around me is shocked. It shouldn’t bother me, but the fact that I am so often judged by my appearance is disappointing. I have strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, a German last name, and an American accent. I used to love saying where I was born whenever I had the chance, but now that I’m older I realize how unfortunate it is that my looks determine others’ expectations.
I was born in Bogota, Colombia. Although I moved to this country when I was a year and a half old, Spanish was my first language and I speak it fluently. My parents were both born and raised in Colombia, and lived there until they decided it was an unsafe place to raise a baby. My family moved to the United States in order to pursue opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise have.
Moving to the U.S. gave my parents the freedom to practice their religion comfortably, and to not live in fear. I am Jewish, and this is mainly how I identify myself. As a Jew, I’ve learned that my ancestors suffered persecution and discrimination, and my parents have instilled in me the idea that education is the one thing that cannot be taken away. Even as a young child, I strived to do my best in school, and I earned the label of gifted. This led to an even greater struggle with my identity. I became a Jewish, Colombian gifted student.
I have had mostly the same people in my classes since middle school, and at one point or another my peers have found out that I am Hispanic. Although some are surprised but try not to act it, I often receive very dramatic reactions from those who have just met me.
Usually after people first find out, I am asked to speak in Spanish. This question makes me uncomfortable since I’ve lost my Spanish accent due to constantly speaking with my American friends in English. My Colombian family makes fun of my accent, so in a way, I’ve become ashamed of my language.
My traditions are more Jewish than they are Colombian, making it difficult for me to relate to the 2,165 students at school who are from South American countries.
As a Colombian Jew, I often find it difficult to fit in, and I feel as though I don’t belong in many social circles. This is extremely difficult because of the preconceptions people have and the stereotypes they form in their heads when I talk about where I was born and what my religious affiliation is. This has led me to feel uncomfortable when filling out questionnaires, especially on college applications.
Being judged by my appearance has caused me to fear being judged by my representation on paper. Although colleges won’t know what I look like when they read my application, they should develop a sense of who I am from the information I provide and the voice in my essays.
Identity is integral to one’s sense of self, and because of the struggle I have faced in deciding who I am and what I should portray myself as, I feel as though my sense of self is fragmented.
Being Colombian is like my secret weapon, but it’s one I’m not always comfortable carrying. I love being able to understand those around me who speak Spanish, and communicating with people in two languages is a skill in which I take pride. But being Colombian and Jewish has also made me self-conscious.
When I was choosing which college to apply to, one of the biggest factors I considered was whether or not there was a large Jewish population. Being involved in the Jewish community has allowed me to feel a sense of belonging, and this involvement with my religion is something I will take with me when I am no longer living at home. However, I know that in the future when I have my own family, I will want my children to speak Spanish, because being bilingual is so beneficial.