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Why It's OK to Be the Token Latina

I Don't Mind Being the Token Latina — as Long as It's With a Purpose

Image Source: Omar Charcousse

Danielle Alvarez is the founder of The Bonita Project, a public relations agency in New York City aiming to break barriers between general and multicultural markets.

I was born in Paterson, NJ, to Peruvian parents who migrated to the US in the mid-'80s. Paterson is one of the biggest Peruvian communities in the country, but during my early childhood years, the city carried a bad reputation for crime, violence, and gangs. As a kid, our car got stolen three times. It was rough.

Like most immigrant families, my parents worked two jobs each to make a better life — in clothing factories, late-night office cleaning, and retail, to name a few. When I started kindergarten, my mom had just landed a job as a nanny, caring for a Jewish family that lived in a picture-perfect suburban town called Wayne. It was the complete opposite of Paterson, and since my mom was scared to have me attend school there, she registered me at an elementary school in Wayne, faking our home address. We never got caught.

For the two years I attended that school, I was the only Hispanic kid in class. I was shy, but I managed to make friends . . . white friends. I remember going to their houses and admiring their massive backyard playgrounds, Barbie dolls, Disney movie collections — all the toys I would only get twice a year: on my birthday and Christmas.

Image Source: Danielle Alvarez

Little did I know that "being the only Latina" would be a thing for me over and over again throughout my life.

In that school, I was put in an English For Speakers of Other Languages class (ESOL). I was a bit confused because I spoke English, but now I know it was because I looked different than everyone else. My group was very diverse, yet I was the only Hispanic girl. Little did I know that "being the only Latina" would be a thing for me over and over again throughout my life.

In 1997, my mom and I moved to Coral Springs, FL. My parents had separated, and my mother chose to start a new life. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment because it was the only rent that my mom could afford on her teacher-assistant salary, and we stayed there for the next four years. I spent part of elementary and middle school in yet another predominantly white suburban town.

My first boy crush there was Brian, a white boy who never noticed me. He liked Jackie, who was a pretty blonde with blue eyes and clearly not at all like me (with my big, poofy, curly hair). That rejection stuck with me, and I longed for perfectly straight hair like Jackie's, convinced that was what defined pretty.

Image Source: Danielle Alvarez

Being the only Hispanic kid in my class, I often found myself in embarrassing situations. My mom would pack soup or estofado con arroz in a plastic container for my school lunch and would tell me just to ask the lunch lady to heat it up. OK, Mom — if it were only that simple. My friends would sit next to me and ask, "What is that?" and I found myself coming up with a defensive answer. That's one thing about me that hasn't changed: I have always defended my culture and spoken highly about being Peruvian.

Body hair was another highly embarrassing thing for me. One day during recess, I was going down a tube slide when this boy screamed, "Monkey legs!" and traumatized me. I came home crying, hating my hairy legs and arms that didn't look like anyone else's at school. My mom felt so sorry, she let me start shaving my legs at 9 to avoid more bullying.

Image Source: Danielle Alvarez

And then there were all the times I found myself being a teacher. When a "new Spanish kid" started school — why do they always call us Spanish? — my teacher would use me as a translator. But when I was asked by the teacher to be a guide, I realized I actually enjoyed being singled out for the task. For once, I could do something none of the other kids could, and that was speaking Spanish.

In 2001, my mom decided it was time to move to Miami. How could she take me away from my best friends? I had come to like Coral Springs, even though I stuck out at school and in the town, and thought I finally fit in with the "cool crowd" — I had recently discovered what a flat iron was and started wearing colored eye contacts, so I felt like a new girl. My whining and crying didn't do much, and we ended up moving.

I will always remember my first day of seventh grade there . . . the crowd was different. All the girls were saying hi to each other with a kiss on the cheek. Everyone was Hispanic. "Wow," I thought. "Finally, a community where I fit in." And so, I did. After years of being the only Latina, I was finally in a diverse Latinx community. I was finally in a place where my friends understood me, my culture, my music.

Image Source: Danielle Alvarez

I lived in Miami until 2009, when I moved to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida and found myself back where I was 10 years before. I majored in public relations, and my class was fairly white. I didn't make as many friends, except for my college roommates, who were also from Miami, and I found myself seeking the Latinx kids, which were few. I wanted that sense of belonging Miami had giving me.

Being the token Latina and always explaining our culture made me grow passionate about educating brands and building deeper connections between them and the Hispanic community.

But when I moved to New York two weeks after graduation, I ended up finding myself once again as the token Latina, even in a big city. I longed to work at a fabulous agency with fabulous girls. The dream came true when I landed at a very reputable PR agency, where I got my job partly because I spoke Spanish and was from Miami. I ended up forming the agency's first multicultural team and found myself educating again, this time my colleagues and clients, on the importance of the Hispanic market.

It was tough to constantly explain our values, our purchasing power, our charm, continuously defining why we matter. I struggled, and I was not always understood. I found myself breaking down my ideas into pieces so that my non-Hispanic peers could learn to appreciate the messaging I wanted to get across. I'm not going to lie — it got super frustrating at times, but it was worth it.

Image Source: Omar Charcousse

Today, I find myself as a small business entrepreneur. Six months ago, I launched my own PR agency, The Bonita Project, which carries a mission to break barriers between general and multicultural markets to reach women of all backgrounds. Being the token Latina and always explaining our culture made me grow passionate about educating brands and building deeper connections between them and the Hispanic community.

I am determined to show that Latinxs are more than just a "big familia" who love "color cosmetics." We're prideful, passionate, fearless, and warriors. It's in our blood. In the end, being the token Latina is not that bad . . . as long as I get to educate with a purpose and get our voices heard. Someone has to do it.

Image Source: Omar Charcousse
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