“Latino is a different checkmark”

I wrote about Nico in February, Nico Castañeda: The Education of a Musician. If you remember, Nico plays Colombia’s folkloric harp--el arpa llanera--and spoke to me about his broad-based music education in Bogotá and many years later at the Berklee College of music in Boston. The conversation was rich with feeling and detail, but I held back a small piece of it, a discussion that deserves its own space. In the room were my friend Rickey and Nico’s wife, Pilar, also a musician. We all weighed in.

There’s a sparkle behind Nico’s seeming shyness, a kind of compressed blast of energy just hidden enough

There’s a sparkle behind Nico’s seeming shyness, a kind of compressed blast of energy just hidden enough

I’d asked Nico how he felt about living in the United States. He’d said: I discovered that here in the United States hay un campo de acción was amplio. There’s a bigger playing field than I could have right now in Colombia. We are exposed to music from the entire world. If this existed in our countries in Latin America, we would have a deeper culture, perhaps less war, more education. This is what I love here.

 When I asked Nico what is difficult here, his smiling face changed. There was a deepening in his complexion—strong feeling rising to the surface.

Nico: Unfortunately, I’ve learned that my accent and my physical aspect invite people to react differently. When I go to the nearby Dunkin Donuts, I ask for bacon mac and cheese and coffee, and the lady looks at me like I’m nothing and throws the stuff at me.

When I have to ask for help from someone who is white and seems to have power over me, I feel like the white person is on top looking down and you are looking up. You are getting marked as “Latino.”

This happens much less in the music community because music is more important than color or ethnicity. Even so, at Berklee I had more international friends than American friends. Norteamericanos tend to hang together. It was hard to break into that. Culture is determining who is who.

Pilar and I don’t connect as well with people in their 20s like us. We’ve found a warmer welcome among people a little older—Hippie types. Where color and culture don’t seem to be important. It’s another type of American. They remind us of Latin America. Softer. Tienen mas nobleza.

Me: What do you mean by “nobleza,” Nico? The word comes from noble, but that is not enough to understand what you mean.

Nico: I mean, that they are humble, ready to accept you. They don’t feel superior. The personal is the most important.

Pilar: It’s all about labels. In this country people are labeled.

Nico: Let’s say that here there is a lot of individualism. Everyone for himself. At the same time there are people who appreciate you and help. We have some friends here who have been our moral support, norteamericanos, the people with whom we live in Boston, for example. Nothing is important other than the fact that we are all human beings. People adopt you. They become un apoyo incondicional. Pilar and I talk a lot about that. 

Rickey: In my dealings with people of other countries I see a deep feeling of humility that I don’t see in people here. Ready to accept and not feel superior, even if they are superior people. That’s got to be something about the culture.

 Me: I feel somewhat the same coming from Panama. With all the problems in Latinoamerica—and there are so many-- the human is the starting point. But—about this country—in spite of a terrible history of racism, there is also an openness. In our big cities mainly, because we are pushed together and have to find ways to get along.

 Nico: My experience with the Northamerican mindset is that it’s about groups that hang together. 

Me: Is it because people feel safe with people who look like them or have similar histories?

Rickey: Or that they they feel superior?

Nico: This separation of people mata la humanidad. 

Me: It hides our common humanity.

Pilar: It’s something I have never seen in another place other than here. In Europe you don’t have to be white or Latino.  Here you may be white, but if you are Latino it’s a different checkmark. In Colombia, too, that need to define one’s difference is not there.  

Me: Nico and Pilar, here in the US do you give yourselves a label? Do you use Hispanic, Latino, Latinx, Colombiano, Americano? Do you feel more one thing or another?

Pilar: I am not asked that, as I don’t look very Latino. As to Nico he is definitely not from here.  So I would pick Colombian. I haven’t been singled out.  I can pass. I have seen it more than felt it.

Nico: Only recently I made a change in my self presentation. At the Dunkin Donuts I asked for my coffee with much more forcefulness, and I got a completely different reaction.  That was interesting.


Readers, for another discussion about navigating identity when you are perceived as different, click on the link just above. Would love your thoughts on these tough issues. You can write in the Comments section below.