What I learned about Latinos (and myself) when I moved out of Florida

Note: This is 3 of 3 essays that was written for and published on The Flama last year. However, the site has since shut down (mostly) and my essay has disappeared… But the internet gods allowed me to find it in its entirety, so I am re-posting it here since a) it was fun to write & b) I live in Florida again and it’s… well, different. Enjoy!

I was 17 years old when I first made real friends with another person of Hispanic heritage, and in my early 20s when I made friends with another Latina.

That might come as a surprise, but the truth is that it took me a really long time to realize that not all Latinos share everything in common. An embarrassingly long time, actually.

My family moved to Miami, Florida, when I was just eight years old. I didn’t know much about the world, but like all kids what I knew came directly from my parents. Living in Little Havana, and later in Southwest Florida, the only Latinos I got to know were the other Cubans that were friends with my parents.

If you came to my house growing up, you’d probably find me snacking on guayaba y queso crema on crackers, helping my mom clean while Celia Cruz played in the background or yelling at the top of my lungs for my little brother to come over.

“I’m not yelling, I’m just Cuban!” was the motto of the house, and one that I had to gently explain to any friends that came over for dinner. No, really, we can’t talk any quieter. Sorry.

But for all of the things I loved about my family and culture, I never quite connected to other Cubans on a deeper level. Sure, we all enjoyed La Caja China for Christmas and cortaditos are a way of life, but the Cubans I knew were mostly papi’s friends and they, like my dad, were a bit machista. And Republican. And I didn’t understand why.

In my young experience, I was the only Cubanita I knew that was a proud Democrat who didn’t really love coffee (shhhhhhh!) and had a pretty huge aversion to the subtle racism and sexism spouted by some of the people who surrounded me. Somehow, I began to associate those traits with all Latinos.

It wasn’t until I met the whitest Cuban I’ll ever know, and the guy who quickly became by gay BFF, senior year of high school that I started to suspect I wasn’t the only one.

The next year, I moved to New York City for school… and things quickly started to change.

I started to meet other kinds of Latinos. Latinos who spoke Portuguese (thank you, Brazil!) and who didn’t have a Virgen de Cardidad del Cobre statue in their home. Latinos who loved spicy food and introduced me to tacos. Latinos who were second or third generation and those whose Spanish sounds a little different from my own. Seriously, what’s with this órale business?

In New York, I was able to meet Latinos who were fellow feminists, who introduced me to bachata and who argued with me about why tequila is superior to rum (as if!). Slowly but surely, I learned the differences between mangú, fufú and mofongo.

Most of all, I started to meet Latinos who were my age and who shared my open mindedness and values when it came to politics, and life in general.

It’s no surprise to me that the two Cuban presidential candidates for 2016 are Republicans, but it’s a fact that I honestly kind of hate. They remind me of the Latinos I grew up with in Florida, and not the diverse group of pro-gay rights, pro-women’s rights and pro-immigration Latinos who I am proud to call my friends today.

When I go back to Florida now, after almost twelve years of living in New York City, it feels as if I am stepping back into my youth. I’ve found new things to appreciate about the state now, like the occasional fun-filled visit to South Beach or having a truly authentic cubano sandwich that I can’t find anywhere else, but it still doesn’t feel like home. It never did.

Thankfully, some of my parent’s views on politics have changed. But my papi will never stop supporting Rubio and I’ll never stop hating his conservative politics.

Instead, I consider myself pretty darn lucky to live in a city where I can interact with all kinds of different Latinos. Some that grew up religious, and some that didn’t. Some that are a little conservative, but most that are socially liberal. In fact, Latinos tend to lean a little more to the left on issues like abortion and homosexuality – especially when they’re second or third generation. As a bisexual Latina myself, this is a pretty important distinction.

And so, while visiting Florida isn’t as much of a pain as it was when I lived there, I’m glad to have grown up in FL if only because the Latinos I met helped me to realize who I am and who I’m not. And the Latinos I’ve met since have given me a better sense of community and pride than I ever could have hoped for growing up.

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The reality of dating as a bisexual Latina

Note: This is 2 of 3 essays that was written for and published on The Flama last year. However, the site has since shut down (mostly) and my essay has disappeared… But the internet gods allowed me to find it in its entirety, so I am re-posting it here since a) it was fun to write & b) I hate sexism and want to bring it into the light. Enjoy!

My first ever date took me to Johnny Rocket’s for burgers and shakes, and then put his hand over my shoulder at the movies while simultaneously trying to cop a feel. I wasn’t having any of it. It wasn’t a particularly great experience, and dating hasn’t gotten much better since.

Dating as a Latina has always come with some challenges for me, thanks in part to the stereotypes of the over-sexualized curvy girl with her boobs popping out of her too tight dress. When people find out I’m Cubanita before a first date, more often than not I’m expected to show up looking like some fantasy dream woman. These stereotypes are only made harder when I came out as bisexual at 16 years old.

Facing a whole lot of other stereotypes as a bisexual woman (i.e. it’s “just a phase” or I can’t be happy in a monogamous relationship or I’m only doing it to turn on straight guys), dating as a bi Latina often means coming face-to-face with the craziest assumption of all: that I am crazy promiscuous.

One of the worst dates I ever went on was when I thought I was having a great time with a guy—until he told me the truth. Not only did he actually have a girlfriend, but she was around the corner and waiting for him to bring me over for a threesome. Disgusted, I made an excuse about calling it an early night and left.

What I really wish I had done at the time is thrown my drink in his face and ran.

Thankfully, not all of my dating experiences have been like that. Mostly, I am quizzed about my sexual past – especially if I have ever had, or would ever want, a threesome. It wouldn’t be so bad…if it wasn’t for the fact that these questions almost always come up over drinks on a first date. A first date!

It’s not that I want to be dishonest or deceitful, but shouldn’t a guy at least buy me dinner first before suggesting we take the hot waitress home with us?

Dating women isn’t all that much easier.

There was an awkward date with a lesbian who kept asking about my history with men. I was happy to share during the conversation, until I realized that she was really concerned that I just wasn’t that into girls. When I asked her about it later, she told me an ex had left her for a man and she was afraid of it happening again.

Hoping that this wouldn’t happen to me again, I tried going on a date with a bisexual woman. It sounds like it would be easy, but to be honest I had a difficult time getting replies from women who listed themselves as bi on various dating sites. That whole “doing it for straight guys” stereotype started to feel really close to home.

So I started to look to the other half: bisexual men.

Unfortunately, there aren’t as many of them around as I would have liked.

Once, I went for tacos with a bi guy. We had a great time over drinks, food and even a little making out at the end. But all of those things didn’t stop him from not calling me again. I can’t say that didn’t hurt a little bit, but I learned my lesson: you can’t hit it off with someone simply because they check off a particular sexuality box on your (or their) profile, and dating struggles are sometimes the same as if I was straight.

My last long-term boyfriend, who I met at a friend’s party and not through online dating, turned out to be bisexual and Latino himself. It felt like finding a unicorn, because it was a unicorn who understood me on a level that I didn’t even know I needed to be understood on.

He joined me in making my abuelita’s moros y cristianos, and he could joke with me about the ridiculous hotness level of Mario Lopez’s abs.

Although it didn’t ultimately work out in that relationship, now at least I know what I am looking for: a unicorn who can understand exactly where I’m coming from. Someone (guy or girl, I’m not sure yet) who won’t expect me to look like Sofia Vergara all the time, but who can appreciate me appreciating her. Someone who won’t assume I am going to leave simply because I expressed interest in another person. Someone who won’t mind that I need to put on Celia Cruz while cleaning on Saturdays, cook all day on Sundays and am perfectly happy sharing my time just with them.

And, ultimately, someone who will appreciate me just for who I am, bisexual and Latina and proud of both.

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How my Latina shame kept me from going to therapy for years

Note: This is 1 of 3 essays that was written for and published on The Flama last year. However, the site has since shut down (mostly) and my essay has disappeared… But the internet gods allowed me to find it in its entirety, so I am re-posting it here since a) it was fun to write & b) it’s an important topic to talk about. Enjoy!

Mental health is a difficult issue for anyone to talk about, but it has been especially difficult for me as a Latina. I didn’t grow up in a household where mental health issues were ever discussed, and many of us do almost anything else instead of going to therapy.

I used to be be just like you, avoiding therapy at any cost. I would prefer to drink gallons of  de manzanilla than admitting to the fact that I had some issues I needed to work on with a professional. That would make me loca, wouldn’t it? And I would never admit to being crazy.

Instead, for years I leaned on friends and family with all of my problems, I had an extra glass of wine (or three) when I was feeling particularly stressed, I danced and I ate and I even cleaned my kitchen until it sparkled — anything to avoid actually talking about the issues that concerned me. Issues that deep down I knew were something that I couldn’t solve on my own, but doing it all on my own was what I tried year after year after year.

It turns out I am not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Office of Minority and National Affairs, fewer than 1 in 11 Hispanics with a mental disorder contact a mental health specialist while fewer than 1 in 5 contact a general health care provider.

The truth is I didn’t grow up hearing much about mental health. Although my family isn’t very religious and are big believers in Western medicine, mental health issues were never discussed. There was always an air of “it’s not okay to talk about this,” and so we never did. The only time I remember it even coming up as I was younger was when my parents and I went to family therapy to deal with issues that had nothing to do with anyone’s mental health (primarily, my coming out as bisexual).

It was years before I thought about mental health as an option. After college, and as I went into the workforce and my stress and anxiety became apparent, I started to notice how some of my white friends (for lack of a better term) embraced therapy. One of my best friends had been seeing a therapist for years and raved about the experience, while others started to deal with depression due to various life circumstances and seeing a therapist seemed to be helping them.

After getting over my initial shock that not only were my non-Latino friends going to therapy but also openly sharing about their positive experiences, I started to think that maybe this is something I should consider doing too. But my guilt and shame over admitting that I needed some help kept me from making any changes for many years.

As I grew in my life and career, my stress and anxiety kept getting worse. I didn’t know how to deal with all of it because I had never learned how to talk about it properly or how to manage my anxiety. Finally, when it reached a breaking point earlier last year, I got up my courage and sought help. And it’s the best thing I have ever done.

Since then, I found a reliable therapist that I truly enjoy visiting every week. We spend our sessions talking about all of the things that I already talk about with friends and family, except now I have a professional who helps me to see things differently, clarify my thoughts and feelings on the situation and who helps me to set goals to better myself.

And that’s what it all comes down to, isn’t it? Bettering oneself.

I’m now thrilled to report that I am happier than ever and doing better every day. My family is on board and supportive, and my friends have seen a real difference in my demeanor.

Since starting therapy, the number one thing I learned is that we all could use someone professional to talk to. It’s lovely to have friends and family to depend on, and I still certainly do, but it’s not the same as an outsider who can provide a different perspective and a different kind of help.

My biggest surprise came when, during a recent lunch with my uncle, he mentioned once having a professor in Cuba who had a revolutionary thought about mental health: if we go to primary doctor once a year for a physical checkup, why are we not going to a therapist for a yearly mental health checkup?

For me, I know that right now I need more than that. As I progress, I expect to eventually need to see my therapist less. But I know one thing: therapy and all of the benefits it provided me will continue to be a part of my life. I’m no longer ashamed of asking for help and I am all the better for it. And that’s all I want.

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