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Manolo Gonzalez Vergara Hispanic Heritage Month Essay

What Being Latino Means to Me: It's Like We're the Same, But Different, But Still the Same

Manolo Gonzalez Vergara is an actor and the son of actress Sofía Vergara.

Latino |ləˈtēnō| chiefly North American noun (plural Latinos) (in North America)
A person of Latin American origin or descent, especially a man or boy.

Hispanic |hiˈspanik| adjective
Relating to Spanish-speaking countries, especially those of Latin America. Relating to Spanish-speaking people or their culture, especially in the US.

noun
A Spanish-speaking person living in the US, especially one of Latin American descent.

— New Oxford American Dictionary

It's an interesting thing to be asked what is one's proudest moment as a Latino. The caveat is deciphering what exactly it means to be a Latino. Does the term refer to everyone who has a background coming from Spain? Or does the word refer to those of us who stem from the Southern countries of America? The waters get a little murky. A Colombian, as I am, is both Hispanic and Latino, but my Brazilian neighbor would only be Latino. My friend from Spain would be Hispanic, but not Latino. Perhaps all Hispanics are Latinos, but not vice versa?

As if that wasn't enough, once we have reached the decision of whether we are Hispanic, Latino, or both, we have to decide which flavor of Latino we are. Being a Latino/Hispanic from, say, Cuba is not the same as being a Latino from Argentina . . . not even close. It's two completely different worlds. The only thing these two Latinos really have in common are a shared language and the fact that they can trace their country's history to an overzealous Habsburg with an underbite. The African percussion in Caribbean music has very little to do with the strings of an Argentine tango, and yet here we are.

Latinos are one, but we are not homogeneous. If you're a Latino in California, people might assume you jumped over a river to get into the United States. If you're a Latino in Florida, they might assume you washed up on the beach like DiCaprio in the beginning of Inception. It's like we're the same, but different, but still the same.

Now, this leads me to another question: is POPSUGAR asking me what my proudest moment was as a Latino in general, or more specifically as a Colombian? This is also a sticky subject, since one Venezuelan may revere Simón Bolívar, while a Spaniard may hold him in less esteem, and yet they would both be Hispanics.

So for all intents and purposes, let's just say that you're asking me what my proudest moment was as someone born in the general area between the northern border of Mexico and Tierra del Fuego. I was born in Barranquilla, Colombia — mentioned in Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere" . . . why? . . . no one knows — so my version of what being a Latino is and what being Hispanic is centers around salsa music, rum, deep-fried food, human rights violations, and beautiful women.

We tend to stick together, and we like to stick together.

Being from Colombia is different than being from Mexico. Mexico has a very strong identity and global presence; everyone has an image pop up into their minds once the word "Mexico" is uttered, whether it be delicious tacos or sombreros or whatever. Everyone loves going to a festive Mexican restaurant, Taco Tuesday, and margaritas. Alas, I am not from Mexico.

Not many Americans are feverish to go to a festive Colombian restaurant or drink aguardiente. Unfortunately, when one mentions Colombia, the two images most people think of are (1) coffee and (2) Pablo Escobar. (Oh, and not to mention that atrocious misspelling of the country with a "u" where an "o" should be.) I have yet to see an arepa food truck parked outside the LACMA. Perhaps one day.

A lot of times, it is much easier to make a list of things we are not proud of as Latinos: the banana republics of the early 20th century, the atrocities that so many of the dictators who have ruled South America at one point or another have committed, the civil wars, the feudalism that still prevails, the machismo, the homophobia, the lack of education, the class divide, the lack of reliable WiFi . . . the list can go on and on and on, the same way that it can go on and on and on for every other culture around the world. But we have Desi Arnaz, so he kind of cancels everything else out.

We have some shining moments, as well. Guillermo González Camarena (Mexican) invented color television. Luis Miramontes, also Mexican, invented the contraceptive pill (blessed be the day). Domingo Liotta, from Argentina, invented the artificial heart (and gave it to my ex, apparently). Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Desi Arnaz revolutionized television. Alejandro González Iñárritu won back-to-back Best Director Oscars. Bolívar fought off the Spanish yoke and fought for freedom and democracy. We have Charo, Salma Hayek, Pitbull, Ricky Martin, Carolina Herrera, Carlos Slim, Jessica Alba, Robert Rodriguez, Jennifer Lopez, Rita Moreno, Sofía Vergara (hi, Mom!), Shakira, Daddy Yankee, Raquel Welch, Ricardo Montalban with his rich Corinthian leather, John Leguizamo, Andy Garcia . . . the list goes on and on of Latinos who have made an impact, both within the Latino community and abroad. And we should be proud of that.

We Latinos tend to find solidarity pretty much only when we're far from home. A Latino doesn't care if another person is Latino unless we're the only two Latinos in that place; then suddenly we're best friends. That's actually how I made most of my friends in a predominately white school.

"Hey, did I just hear you speaking Spanish? I'm from Venezuela."

"I'm from Colombia."

"'Kay, we're friends now. Lunch?"

We tend to stick together, and we like to stick together. We go to the Latin parties. We go a lo de uno, lo propio. We go with what we know. Since we surround ourselves with ourselves, we are inundated with the Latin-ness all day long. No matter where we are, one friend has a bottle of Ron Medellin at their house, another may have the flour to make arepas, another may have the queso criollo — we all have little bits and pieces from the motherland that we share with one another now and then. It keeps it present.

This is why it is kind of jarring, and exciting, when we see something of ours in a place where we wouldn't think it would belong. You have no idea how excited I get when I see a can of Manzana Postobón at a random 7-Eleven in Miami. It's silly, but for me, in my mind, there is no reason a Colombian soda should be found at a convenience store in the United States. It blows my mind; it's a very pleasant surprise. It's the little things like that that sometimes make me stop and think and go, "Oh, sh*t — I guess we're not just amongst ourselves . . . other people know about us, too!"

About four years ago, when I was still young and fresh and my skin had the youthful bounce of collagen, I went to Japan with my mother and some friends. A very good childhood friend of mine — who I guess would be considered an expat by this point 'cause he's still there — was also in Japan. So I gave him a call (see, back then people had to call people), and he joined us in Kyoto.

Well, what does one do when one is young, full of hope, and exploring an unfamiliar country such as Japan with an old friend? Drink. We drink. Now, Kyoto is a wonderful, beautiful place. It has labyrinthine alleys and streets, and each little opening contains a restaurant or a bar or something wonderful that I couldn't tell you what it was because I couldn't read the signage. So, as my friend and I were walking up and down this little downtown area, we get tired of trying to decide which bar to go into and literally just stopped and walked into the first door we had on our right, without pause. We walked up these narrow stone steps, and what I saw once I walked in I will never, ever forget.

It was a salsa bar. In Kyoto. Like, a real salsa bar. "Chan Chan" was playing on the speakers; they were drinking Havana Club rum; instead of peanuts, they had plantain chips; there were pictures of Celia and Tito on the wall; and there were people dancing. Never in my life would I have thought that I would get to see a Japanese couple dance salsa better than I do.

The barkeep turned out to be the owner, and he was very proud of his bar. He was even more proud to show me a picture of him and Celia Cruz, signed by her. He asked where I was from; I said Barranquilla. He stopped for a moment, then his eyes went wide. "Joe Arroyo! You have Joe Arroyo on your iPod? Plug it in!" And I did. I played Joe Arroyo, in Kyoto, because the bartender was a fan.

It may seem trifling and mundane, but that moment blew my mind. It's one thing to hear salsa or get any inkling of Latino culture when you're in the United States or France or Italy, or somewhere else in Western Europe — there's a lot of shared history, shared tongues. For me, it's like assumed that an Italian would know about salsa because we both speak a Romance language, you know? Like, we're cousins; you're stuck with us. But to be in Japan — a place where in my mind there was absolutely no connection between our culture and theirs, a place where the language has absolutely nothing to do with Spanish — and hear Celia Cruz playing at a bar was reaffirming.

It showed me that we really are a global influence. The Japanese aren't stuck with us the way the French would be stuck with us. Like it or not, if one speaks Spanish, one can kind of make their way sloppily around French. One cannot make their way around Japanese in such a way, and vice versa. These salsa bargoers in Kyoto were there, listening to our music, drinking our liquor, enjoying our culture because they chose to. Because they wanted to. Because they like it. I really felt proud to be Latino in that moment — the world outside our own cares for us. And that was really something to realize that after so many years. That was my proudest moment. We should all be proud.

Also, "Despacito".

Image Source: Getty
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