By Juan Garcia
“This caught me off guard. My whole life I didn’t plan to be ‘the First Latina Gymnast to Make the Olympic Team.’” It’s strange how easy it can be to forget how different we as Latin American citizens can be. Laurie Hernandez didn’t even realize how groundbreaking it was that her Puerto Rican parents decided to move to the US.
That decision set in motion the series of events that gave us Laurie Hernandez, the first US-born Latina gymnast to represent the United States in 30 years.
However, in her eyes, she is just Laurie Hernandez. “The truth is, I didn’t even know I was the first Latina to do this in thirty years. The even deeper truth is that I’d never even put much thought into the idea that I was a ‘Latina gymnast’ in the first place.”
She was just a hard-working girl who made the Olympic team, and with that call to the Olympic team came the eyes and expectations of the people she was representing: those of us that find inspiration and hope from those who come from where we’re from and succeed publicly.
In these excerpts from Hernandez’s essay in America Ferrera’s book, “American, like me,” I felt seen. Hernandez is a 2nd generation American with Puerto Rican heritage. As she wrote about her experiences, I recognized much of what she had experienced in my own life thus far.
In this book, stories like Hernandez’s, Ferrera’s, and many others, show that many aspects of multicultural life are shared by people with similar backgrounds, regardless of how those experiences were had. It shows that Latinos in the US share more than just similar languages, cultures, family dynamics and beliefs.
It is clearly shown in the role dancing took on Hernandez’s life. “‘When I was a young girl in Puerto Rico, this is how we danced,’ Grandma would say, while she demonstrated a very funny version of merengue, moving her body as confidently as she would have if she were forty years younger.” The aspect of this sentence that struck a chord with my memory was the merengue her grandma was dancing.
It brought back the mortifying feeling of being a teen pulled out to dance by my tia’s in Colombia during the holidays. The only time I have ever merengue’d was during one of these rites of passage for men in my family. It is how we are supposed to learn to dance, but my limited exposure to my family meant that I never quite got it down.
The common experiences we shared extended beyond that of just dance. My parents moved us around the world due to my Dad’s job, which meant my mom had to master English on the fly when our first destination was Scotland.
I was three, so I picked up English fast and had enough Spanish to say I was fluent in both (or became fluent eventually). My mom was in a difficult place, having previously relied on her Spanish. Her English is great, but if I start talking too fast she loses her place and asks me for Spanish (for which I happily oblige).
I wouldn’t blame my mom if she has to tune my rapid-fire English out from time to time, but she hasn’t missed news of the level Hernandez’s grandmother did when she told her she made the Olympic team.
She hits Hernandez with a ‘Great. Good job, honey.’ She didn’t realize what had happened until she saw her in a commercial for the 2016 US Olympic gymnastics team.
I tell my mom my news in Spanish, but my siblings make her work for it. “Even though her English was pretty good, she would sometimes tire of translating everything in her head and just kind of tune us out. She missed some major news that time.”
Clearly, the strong family dynamics are a parallel in multiple cultures, and her special bond with her grandma is something I identify with a lot. “My parents worked a lot, and my brother and sister are several years older than I am. So when I was a kid, I spent a whole lot of one-on-one time with Grandma.”
When I was born, my mom’s aunts and my grandma spent a lot of time helping her take care of me. I used to break my mom’s heart by asking her to let me spend the night at grandma’s house. I never got the chance to see that bond through, as I lost her when I was three to cancer, but I see the remnants of that period in how close I am to my family in Colombia.
It’s a bond that is unique in my family, one that I don’t think my siblings share. They all love each other, but they really helped raise me for the first few years of my life.
Hernandez writes that despite her close ties to her home in Puerto Rico, her grandma never made her feel bad for also having her home in New Jersey. “…she never tried to make me feel guilty for not knowing enough about it. She just let me be me and enjoy my life in New Jersey,” she writes.
My family allowed me to explore the many cultures and influences I was exposed to around the world with no pressure to learn or abide by my own.
I felt like I chose to connect to the culture of Colombia to the extent that I have, and that was greatly helped by having lived there for a few years after leaving the first time.
I now have a uniquely multicultural perspective that holds a special place in my heart for my origins.
As Laurie Hernandez’s grandma made her understand, she is uniquely her, and her writing shows the many factors that make her unique culture so dynamic.
Featured image by Juan Garcia.