Melitza Ortega is a sophomore English major and Chicanx studies minor.
Growing up Latina-American in the United States was always challenging for me because I did not know how to find my place in my community. I often felt the pressure to choose to identify as Mexican or American, even though I had never felt that I strongly represented either group. The root of this hardship often came from where I was located at a specific moment. If I went twenty minutes south of my home, I was stared at and scolded for speaking English. If I went only twenty minutes north, deeper into Arizona, the same would happen if I spoke Spanish. Sometimes I would be gawked at for being too pale, and other times, depending on where I was, people would glare at me for being too dark. As a child, having to change my language and the way I carried myself was confusing and frustrating.
While I was born and raised in Nogales, a small town in southern Arizona bordering Mexico, where the majority of my community was Latinx, I had to travel almost 1000 miles to USF to finally learn more about the culture I had grown up with my whole life to find and embrace this part of my identity. The public education system in Arizona did not find room in their whitewashed curriculum to dedicate any time to Hispanic and Latinx history. Although my family did the best they could to teach me what they knew about my culture, learning how to simply survive in the United States was my family’s top priority.
For a long time, I had been unaware of the historical prevalence of the Chicanx community. Because of this, I realized that it takes privilege for BIPOC individuals to find fields like USF’s English department and Chicanx studies program, both of which highlight their culture and include writers from their community in the curriculum. For the first time in my life, I was introduced to Chicanx history and powerful written works by members of my community. As a freshman in the honors college, I took a popular rhetoric course titled Rhetoric Across Borders, where our main objective was to learn how rhetoric works at the borders of cultures, values, and experiences as well as age, race, gender, and ideology. The class was designed to explore and evaluate “border-crossing” rhetoric, something that resonated deeply with me. In Nogales, I was quite literally living in a world where I was constantly having to cross the border.
Rhetoric Across Borders, taught by Professor Michael Rozendal, initially introduced me to Gloria Anzaldua’s writing as we analyzed excerpts from her famous book “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.” This is also what first sparked my fascination with the Chicanx community. As the year went on, I was excited to see Anzaldua’s work reappear in my syllabus for my Literature of Social Justice class taught by Professor Christina Garcia Lopez.
This class introduced me to various Chicanx literary writers who used their words as a way to address various social inequality issues within the community. From here, my fascination grew and I then discovered that USF offered an entire minor dedicated to Chicanx Latinx studies. As I slowly discovered Chicanx women activist writers such as Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga through my classes, I learned that Latinx literature and performance are accessible and meaningful devices to connect my community. Through the substance of these courses, instead of feeling oppressed by having to identify with only one nationality, I have learned to embrace my mixed heritage and appreciate the freedom of my cultural identity.
Today, I feel great pride in being able to honor my culture after discovering Chicanx literature and the powerful narratives my people share. I feel driven to share my culture and my story with all who will listen so that generations after me will know their heritage and be able to actively embrace their roots. This is what inspired me to dive into this field of study. Not only is this something that I wish someone would have done for me, but I now realize that as part of the community, it is my active duty. We owe it to the generations who come after us to keep the culture alive through stories, values, and activism. This is what it means to me to be a member of my Chicanx community.
Fellow members of the Latinx community: as we celebrate National Hispanic-Latino History Month, I urge you all to channel your roots and reimagine what your identity and heritage mean to you.