Being American means adapting to diversity


By Marissa Higgs

Born a several generation mutt, my culture can only be traced back to others in the United States. When people ask what I am ethnically, I have no choice but to say I am just American.

I have never had a problem with this exactly. The tiny town I come from in Florida is not really known for being the most culturally diverse, so for most of my life I never even questioned it.

Moving to Chicago changed everything. For the first time people were asking me where my relatives were from, if English was my first language, or if I had any interesting traditions. As the years went on, my same, general, not-so-interesting responses began to take their toll on me. I craved a new culture. I love my family with all my heart, and I love what we do together, but I wanted something more.

My step-grandmother, who has been acting as one of my only grandmothers since I was born, is first-generation Italian. When I was old enough to understand this fully, I latched onto it faster than a toddler does to cake. I researched where they were from in Italy, I started taking Italian in school and eventually I started telling people I was Italian, even though no Italian blood runs through my veins.

I finally had a culture to call my own. The story did not end there though. While in high school I developed many close bonds with Latino people. My greatest friends were Mexican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Ecuadorian, and many others. Although I am almost 50 percent Mexican on my father’s side of the family, I was never raised in a Latino focused home.

I grew to adopt my friends’ cultures too. I would go to their family parties and eat their foods, learn their dances, try to understand their languages. I was mesmerized by their culture.

I will never forget the night I realized I was in love with their sense of culture. I was at one of my friend’s birthday parties and different Hispanic dances were constantly being played by the DJ. I had been to other events with them that involved all night dancing, but it was not until I decided to move off the dance floor for a break that I looked around and finally saw just how incredible their cultures were.

Here we had people that had only known each other for a few short years. While they almost all danced in a variety of Latino clubs at Lane, these in-the-moment routines were not things that could have been practiced or rehearsed. They all had been raised in environments where the Bachata and Salsa were dances they mastered before they knew how to walk. The dance steps were so ingrained into their minds that their feet did not care who their partner was, they just moved freely to the beat in almost a perfect fashion.

I had learned the basic steps of the few main dances, but they came far from natural for me. I spent every moment thinking about my hips moving and if my left foot was keeping up with my right. My friends never had to focus on such things.

On Valentine’s Day weekend I was honored to watch my friends compete in the Chicago International Salsa Congress. They danced their hearts out and all did extremely well. A few of them even came in first place. I was happy I was able to see them actively involved in their own cultures.

I feel adopted. I feel adopted by countless cultures. For years I worried about that, uncertain if I would ever be happy identifying myself with these cultures and feel as though I never really belonged. Thankfully that is not the case.

I learned with age that the point of being American is adopting and accepting as many cultures as possible. They say our country is a melting pot, and if that is so, then it would be a shame if its citizens did not try to identify with more than one culture. I am lucky I was able to blindly accept other traditions and ways of life.

So, when people ask me what my ethnicity is I still say American, but this time with a greater understanding of who I really am.