By Briana Dominici
In a generation that is focused on labels and seemingly obsessed with self-reflection, it’s difficult to truly figure out who you are. What labels apply to you? Who really are you? The culture you grow up with and your ethnicity play a giant role in answering these questions. But making that connection between the culture you come from and yourself proves to be a challenge for many.
This is especially true for 15-year-old County Prep student, Alyssa Velasquez. From her last name alone, you’d assume she was Hispanic or Latinx. You’d only be half right.
Ever since she was little, Alyssa never had a close connection with her Filipino heritage. A lot of what you learn about your culture comes from experiences your family shares with you, the languages they choose to speak around you, the foods you eat and the religion you practice. For Alyssa, this was only the case for half of her heritage. Her father was never able to share stories about Filipino traditions, so she grew up entirely immersed in the Hispanic side of her ethnic identity. She learned Spanish before English, and for a large chunk of her childhood, she didn’t even realize she was also Filipino.
She’d spent so many years surrounded by Hispanic culture that she was afraid to delve into learning about her Filipino side. She outgrew this fear as she got older, and was curious about another side of things she’d never learned about or experienced.
But while trying to make that connection between the two, it’s easy to feel fake. It seems like you’re neglecting the culture you focused on growing up, that has always surrounded you. It seems like you’re not enough of one thing or the other, you’re simply stuck right in the middle.
Alyssa remembers talking to her family about what she’d learned in her search to connect with her Filipino heritage. It was like they were judging her for it. She knew if she explored more about this side of herself, she would be faced with more judgement from her family for not sticking with what she was taught. There were many instances where her hispanic grandmother told her, “You look so asian, it’s almost like you’re not Hispanic anymore,” which caused Alyssa a lot of inner conflict.
As a child, it seemed to me that being biracial meant that you must choose one ethnic background or the other, which is most definitely not the case.Alyssa Velasquez
Alyssa has always had a struggle with figuring out her identity. She has never been able to look at herself and think that she could embrace both cultures without being conflicted internally. She has no contact with any of her Filipino relatives besides her father, with whom she doesn’t have the strongest relationship either. She’s always had strong relationships with her mother and sister, who she says have played a major role in helping her become who she is today. But while Alyssa appreciates all they do for her, she feels like they do everything they can to avoid discussing her Filipino heritage with her.
While exploring her Filipino heritage, she’s also faced extreme judgement from her peers. Some called her a “wannabe Asian,” and she’s been asked many intrusive questions. If her last name is Velasquez, how can she be Filipino? If she’s Filipino, why can’t she speak Tagalog? If she’s Asian, why is her skin so tan?
On the flip side, photographers have asked her to open her eyes a little. And now, with the current global pandemic, bystanders have told her to “stay away,” some even laughing at her, claiming, “You have corona!”
“I’ve been told that I’m too Hispanic to be Asian, but too Asian to be Hispanic.”Alyssa Velasquez
Art has always been a big part of Alyssa’s life, and has been a key component of her journey of self-identity. Her grandfather used to make replicas of paintings for museums and made art of his own, hung up in galleries and in his home. Ever since she was young, Alyssa would see the paintings hung around his house, and became inspired by them to pursue art.
Music has also been an interest of hers, influenced by her sister, Sophia, who played the violin during her middle school years. Alyssa loved it— the idea that you could simply pluck a few strings and make music. She currently plays the piano and flute, as well as guitar, with hopes to pick up violin in the future. Both music and art have served as creative outlets for Alyssa. They’re incredibly fluid mediums, where anyone is free to express themselves and their emotions without judgment.
However, the Hispanic/Latinx and Asian communities have always looked down on the pursuit of art, even as a hobby. This is heavily influenced by racial stereotypes, especially in the Asian community, where medical and technological career fields are praised. Even thinking about pursuing a future in art or music is seen as a disgrace to the family. Alyssa’s mother readily supports her interests in music and art, but merely as a hobby. She has brought the topic up many times, only to be shut down by her family. Because of this, Alyssa’s interests have remained as hobbies, despite her passion for them.
“I’ve brought this matter up with my parents, talking about wanting to venture after a career in art or music, only being told that I need to work in a field that makes a good sum of money instead.”-Alyssa Velasquez
It’s no secret that Gen Z has shifted a lot of focus onto mental health awareness, despite descending from generations that have always kept that conversation very hushed. As more people come forward to tell their own stories and discuss their journey with their mental health, it has inspired others to talk about their own struggles and reach out to get help. Alyssa herself has experienced this, and her mental health has played a large role in her self-discovery.