“Build the wall, build the wall!” the boy cried out. I was on edge, sitting in my chair and loudly tapping my foot. My old, worn shirt was starting to constrict on my neck, and it felt like it was choking me. I pulled on the shirt countless times, but the air never reached the back of my lungs. It felt like the end of me. Everyone else in the room laughed while the teacher continued to write on the board, carrying on with the lesson of the day. In my mind, I said, “For God’s sake, you’re a history teacher!” I observed all of the other Hispanic people in the room. Their skin started turning pale. My breathing was quick. My eyes were blurry. For the very first time, I didn’t feel safe at school.
A few days later my parents had a conversation with me; someone had told the school about the commotion, and they sent a message to all the students who felt uncomfortable. The entire conversation gave me a sense of impending doom. I could feel each hard-pumping heartbeat of blood travel out of my chest, up through my neck, and down my arms and legs. I felt ashamed of my tan skin and my black hair. Confusion warped my mind. My parents tried to comfort and encourage me, but I felt lost and misplaced. “Jeffrey, I always want you to be proud of your heritage. I want you to remember that you come from an Ecuadorian family. Never be embarrassed by it,”my dad said.
The following week my family planned a gathering with delicious food and activities.
My style of Ecuadorian food is one of the few things in which I take pride. I walked into the kitchen, and I glanced over at my mom, who was rushing back and forth from the counter to the stove, carefully placing each ingredient into the dark-ashed pans. I’d always loved the care and time she put into preparing every dish. The smell of each dish coming out of the steaming pans was delicious. The dimensionality of rice, chicken and mote melting on my tongue as I plucked some from the pan. To the left was my family’s carne asada, a dish that made memories come to life.
As I watched my family devour the food we’d prepared, I asked myself, “Is this who I want to be?”
I smiled as I walked across my aunt’s backyard. In the distance, I saw my cousins playing Ecuadorian Boli. They were laughing and enjoying themselves. They asked me to play and I did; the ball was served, and I threw it to the other side; I felt alive and comfortable. After the game, we made our way back to the table next to the house on the concrete floor. Stories and jokes were told around the circle, memories of how far our family has come. It was a special moment for me to experience.
“Is this who I want to be?”
A whispered answer flew to my ears. I responded with a new confidence: “Yes, I am Ecuadorian.”
My eyes opened; I no longer felt ashamed of my heritage. I saw the happiness my culture brought to me, and I knew that I had found my place. I am a proud first-generation American, and I will forever be touched by my people and heritage. Yes, I am Ecuadorian.