“Blink182 is your favorite band? Oh my god, me too!”
Not really, though. They’re much rougher and screamier than Skank, my favorite band at the time; Skank is brazilian reggae meets rock, gentle with all the right beats to dance to. I wasn’t big on bobbing my head and listening to rushed ramblings I could barely understand. But it didn’t really matter. I learned to love the 182; I would look up the lyrics online, repeat-until-I-memorized the refrains from the top hits. It’s really helping my english, I’d tell myself. And I think it did. But I’m not sure I needed to trade in Skank for Blink, churrasco for a BLT.
I did it, though. Assimilation was acceptance and at sixteen there was nothing I wanted more. As you can probably imagine, though, it didn’t work out as planned. My mom bought me a Tommy Hilfinger shirt and some Uggs, but my friend group was still entirely composed of immigrants and first-gen latinx folk. I took Honors and AP classes with the most privileged kids in the state, but I was still not invited to any of the class parties (hosted by those same cool white kids). I had a brazilian boyfriend for the last two years of high school; we spent our weekends eating his mom’s delicious homemade feijoada, listening to Eminem and watching Law and Order: SVU. I felt out of place and disconnected from the Westchester reality; I was attempting to mimic social behaviors while observing them from a seat in the fray. At 19 I graduated from high school feeling neither brazilian nor american, displaced and hungry for a community.
My freshman year of college I was randomly assigned to a suite with five other girls. All american but me. Two african americans, three white girls, and me. Beatles fans, Beyonce worshipers, and me. Together we spanned the socio-economic spectrum. I was introduced to Kendrick Lamar, Juicy J and Trey Songz. Shots of cheap vodka floated around the room, and we started deconstructing and battling over the power of privilege from day one. Which struggle is heavier: being black or being a woman? Does wealth make racial struggles more manageable? We pointed out the differences that separated us, but often found ourselves embracing what we had in common. We shared a semi-clean bathroom, carb-filled meals, anxious cries and skepticism of the institution we had just joined. Despite painful disagreements, a Suite favorite reminded us that here comes the sun.
Through the years, The Suite grew progressively more colorful and varied in interests, behaviors and virtue. We became increasingly glued by our shared history. We learned to explain, make space, and charitably interpret our differences. We dedicated more time to learning, sharing and unburdening each other through that which separates us. It wasn’t until I was fully capable of assimilating into american culture that diversity started being accepted in my mental ecosystem. I attribute that transition to The Suite, to aging, and to our collective realization that homogeneity generates gaping intellectual blind spots.
Junior year of college I started de-colonizing my itunes playlist with some bossa nova, samba and funk. A few years after college I played Naitiruts at a party without being DJ-dethroned. After moving to Brooklyn I came to the realization diversity wasn’t merely accepted. It was celebrated. Fetishized. Anyone wanted anything but to be standard. The norm was mocked and the exotic was crowned. This cultural shift both fascinated and nauseated me. People are so interested in my story! But… we are still fostering bigotry, just towards a different demographic (think: the man who mansplains or “white trash”). We’re collectively developing a more accepting perspective! But… we are screaming the americanah queen Taylor Swift off the stage for being celebrated in Beyonce’s place.
I was at a work party a few years ago when my slightly-tipsy boss started off on something like this:
“I really love samba”.
I bit my tongue so as to not roll my eyes and faked a wide smile. What’s next? Is he going to ramble on about how he had the best time at carnaval last year?
“Like jazz, it reclaims the struggle of the oppressed and captures a cultural minority in its most vulnerable, beautiful moments”. I was stunned. I didn’t know much about jazz history. This white man from Iowa opened up my eyes to an undercurrent that colored both of our cultures.
Similarity doesn’t imply assimilation. It requires an attentive ear and the ability to find commonality within difference. That is a crucial step in the recipe to make a community: in a Suite, a neighborhood or a country. Fundamentalism, Kyriarchy and Hipsterism are missing this not-so-secret ingredient. They disrespect the inherent diversity among us and ignore the commonality that unites us.
I found wisdom not in compartmentalizing, differentiating or protecting culture but in sharing it. Sharing my past and being an open vessel to the present, ready to learn about new ways of being. For me, it looks like constantly smiling, dancing often, doing my work with style and pride: jogo bonito. It looks like being direct in my communication, being on time, believing that perseverance turns a challenge into a plan–my prostestant work ethic. It looks like training myself to focus on the collective instead of the individual; it looks like brooming when I wake up, incorporating cleaning as a cleansing meditation to start my day–seiri is my zen. It looks like honoring the beautiful ground we walk on, and making offerings to pachamama in my daily life.
Being a new american is being a new vessel everyday: ready to take in the world around me and sift through the similarity and novelty to be found in all interactions. Being a new american is actively being: embedded and inseparable from my environment, constantly in transformation by learning from my surroundings. Being a new american is being me. A global citizen that wants to treasure and highlight the virtues found in our collective wisdom, across cultures and oceans.