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Penguin in the Sahara
Private school helped me rediscover my Latin roots
Sayda Morales
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It was my first day of high school and already I felt like an outcast.

I was standing in a corner with the other new girls, marveling at the sight of so many white people. The Nightingale-Bamford School was an all-girls private school on the Upper East Side, one of the richest neighborhoods in Manhattan. It went from kindergarten through high school, which meant most students had already known each other for nine years. As if that didn’t intimidate me enough, I was also on scholarship. Most of the other girls were rich, and I mean really rich.

If you had asked me before high school to describe myself in one word, “Hispanic” would have come nowhere near my lips. I attended a public middle school in the South Bronx where most of the students were black or Hispanic like me, and I took my ethnicity for granted. It just didn’t seem important. But when I entered private school and found myself in the minority for the first time, I had to figure out what it really meant to be a Latina from the South Bronx.


That first day, I arrived in my navy blue kilted skirt that reached my knees, shoes I got on sale at Macy’s and a book bag. Most of the girls wore skirts that ended right underneath their butts, so that you could see their shorts or underwear. They wore Lacoste polo shirts and Coach flats and carried LeSportsac bags. I felt like a penguin in the middle of the Sahara.

Some girls asked me where I lived, and when they heard the words “South Bronx,” their eyes widened and their faces elongated in shock. They wanted to know if I had seen people get shot, if I had seen people do drugs, if I had been to any wild parties. I chuckled to myself—did they really think that the South Bronx was that dangerous?

I decided to have some fun with them. I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen gangsters who kill you so quick, you don’t even have time to blink. And drugs? Please, even little old grandmas sell joints. And I never get enough of wild parties; that’s all I do on weekends.”

It was even funnier to see their gullible faces as they asked, “For real?”

“Uh, no. It was a joke. The South Bronx is about as dangerous as the Upper East Side.” (OK, that’s not exactly true, but I was frustrated that they thought the Bronx was as dangerous as it’s portrayed to be in movies.) It was only 8 a.m. and I was already being exposed to ignorance I’d never thought possible. But what happened later that day was even more eye-opening.

All the girls were crowded into our homeroom; the lights were off and the electronic whiteboard was on. Suddenly, a girl named Vicky walked in and started chanting, “Crank dat Soulja Boy!” Vicky was African-American, but had attended Nightingale-Bamford since kindergarten. She had a vacation house in the Hamptons and had traveled around the world. In other words, she was nothing like any of the African-American girls I knew from middle school.

Next thing I knew, Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” was pumping from the homeroom stereo and girls were imitating the dancing from the music video. I hadn’t heard the song before because I didn’t listen to hip-hop that much. Out of nowhere one of my new white friends, Delilah, pulled my arm and begged me to dance with her. I shook my head “no” because I had no clue how to crank that soldier boy or even what it looked like. But the other girls started begging me, too, and I was thrust to the front of the room.

I feebly tried to explain I didn’t know how to dance to that kind of music, but the girls started saying things like, “C’mon, that’s ridiculous. Of course you do!” and, “Just try it, it probably comes natural to you.”

image by Edwin Yang

I’m sorry to say that I didn’t stand up for myself at that moment. I just tried to remember my friend Ashley from middle school, who knew how to dance hip-hop, and I attempted to imitate some of her moves. It was quite pathetic, but surprisingly all the girls thought it was amazing. I was ashamed of myself for trying to fit into their stereotype instead of correcting them.

After that, I became known as the ghetto girl from the ghetto neighborhood with ghetto friends. Delilah would constantly ask me if she was more ghetto than Susie or if Martha was the most ghetto person, as if I was the expert on “ghetto-ness.” It didn’t really bother me that they called me “ghetto.” I figured they associated me with the black girls because I did hang out with the few black students at Nightingale sometimes. But it bothered me that they didn’t recognize my Hispanic culture. Then again, I guess I didn’t bother to recognize my Hispanic culture.


My mom is from Honduras and my dad is from Mexico. When I was little, we spoke only Spanish at home, ate Mexican and Honduran food, and listened to cultural music. Our lives revolved around Latin American traditions.

But I had slowly assimilated into white American culture over the years. I started listening to pop music and watching American TV shows until my Spanish was terrible and I became too embarrassed to speak it. In kindergarten, before I knew English, my name, Sayda, sounded to me like steamed rice, platanos and beans. By the time I entered high school, my name sounded more like hot dogs and hamburgers on the Fourth of July.

After about three months of comments from my classmates, I finally realized that if I didn’t stand up for myself and my culture, my classmates would continue to live in ignorance. But what was my culture, exactly?

I started thinking more about everything that made me Hispanic. For example, I still spoke some Spanish and ate Spanish food at home. I danced bachata and merengue at parties, and I had been to Mexico and Honduras several times. I was Hispanic at home, but not in school, and I realized that for years, even before high school, I’d been keeping that part of myself separate from who I was at school. But there was nothing to be ashamed of. So what if I watched telenovelas as well as Gossip Girl? So what if I loved listening to Anthony Santos and Ricardo Arjona as well as 50 Cent and Rihanna?

I began talking to my friends at school about my life and culture. I told them about how I had been in a bilingual class in kindergarten and wasn’t fluent in English until 3rd grade. I told them that in my house we eat foods like platanos, arroz con habichuelas and tamales.

Some girls thought I had an attitude problem and was being arrogant for talking about myself. But the girls who were genuinely interested in learning about Hispanic culture and were sincerely sorry for stereotyping me became my close friends.

I learned to embrace my ethnicity even more by getting involved with school organizations for students of color. That spring, I signed up for a one-day workshop with an organization called Diversity Awareness Initiative for Students (DAIS). Hundreds of other students from private schools in the New York area got together to attend sessions on topics like identity and homosexuality. It was good to talk to other private school students from all different backgrounds who cared about the same issues I cared about.

After that, I joined Cultural Awareness for Everyone (CAFE), a club at my school where black, white, Asian, and Hispanic students come together and talk about our cultures. Talking to other Hispanic students who had gone through similar experiences at my school made me realize I wasn’t alone.

My school makes a big deal about African-American History Month, but the most they’ve done for Hispanic students is celebrate Cinco de Mayo. There’s more to Latin America than Mexico. I’ve made it my goal to educate my classmates about Latin American culture, about how there’s a difference between being Honduran and Cuban and Panamanian. And that you can listen to rap or play golf or sing opera, and still be Hispanic.

I don’t regret going to private school because I’ve learned a lot about myself. Going to private school helped me to rediscover who I am and take pride in my ethnicity, and that’s the best lesson I could ever learn. Like Gandhi said, I must be the change I wish to see in the world. Recognizing and appreciating my own culture is the first step toward helping those around me see and appreciate my culture, too.

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(NYC-2009-03-08)



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