It was the second week of my sophomore year of high school. I was feeling triumphant — a little cooler than my freshman self, since I was no longer the new girl at my New York City private school. During a free period, my friends and I were sitting in a quiet hallway doing algebra homework. And then, from the murmurs at the end of the hall, I heard one word come from the mouth of one of my white, male classmates: “Spic.”
I could see the recipient of the insult awkwardly laughing it off, but my face started burning with anger. I’d never heard someone say that word out loud before, other than when my mom told me about the time someone mumbled it under their breath after hearing her accent. I walked up to the bully and said, “You can’t say that. It’s a derogatory term.” His response? “Why do you even care? You’re white.”
It felt like a punch in the stomach. Thanks to my blue eyes and blonde hair, that arrogant kid had no idea that I’m Latina, and he was not the first or last person to make that assumption. And of course, even if I was just "white", I’d still have a right to call him out for using language like that. But I was born and raised in Manhattan to an Argentinian mother (who didn’t become a citizen until I was in high school) and an American father. My first language is Spanish thanks to my mami, who convinced me that Spanish would be our “secret” language (despite the fact that over 37 million people in the U.S. also speak it), and always taught me to feel proud about my roots. And summers in Buenos Aires with my tia ensured that I can cook riquisimas empanadas better than the best of them.
Yet, “Wait, you’re Hispanic? You don’t look it!” are words I’ve heard regularly for as long as I can remember. By high school, I’d realized that in the U.S., there’s a stereotype of what it means to “look” Latina, and that’s a caricature I don’t fit into: brown eyes, skin, and hair, with a detectably Spanish last name. My father’s surname “Kerrigan” and my fairer features (which, for the record, are common in Argentina and other parts of South America) led most people to not just doubt my Latinidad, but deny it. Obviously, the fact that I am a white Latina means that I have a certain privilege that many others do not. But that day in high school started me on a journey, one that may have been inspired by anger, but in the end, pushed me to define for myself what it means to be Latina.
I was already brooding about my identity before the encounter at school (you might be familiar with this stage; it’s called teenagehood). And I’ll admit that, thanks to the way I looked and the fact that other Latinos often assumed I wasn’t one of them, I even sometimes hesitated before openly labeling myself Latina. But the feeling I got when I heard another classmate call one of my people that slur helped me realize that no matter what other people thought, I was a proud Latina. So I joined a Spanish for Native Speakers class at school. While my Puerto Rican and Dominican friends made fun of my accent, I felt right at home. We all bonded over not knowing where to put an accent and how our moms were replicas of Gloria from Modern Family, and every meeting included a fight over which of our countries had the best empanadas. (I still say Argentina, hands down.) Soon, my AOL Instant Messenger icon (which, for any Gen Z-ers reading this, was like a badge of honor back in the day) became an Argentine flag. And when sweet 16 season came around? I threw the most lit quinceañera ever. And quinceañeras aren’t even part of the Argentine tradition!
When I was a junior in high school, I joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an organization dedicated to defending the rights of young undocumented immigrants and fighting for the passage of the DREAM Act. One morning, I skipped school to take a three-hour bus ride to Albany to rally at the New York State legislature and spend the day alongside DREAMERS — many of them girls my age, college hopefuls with ambitions as big as mine — yelling “undocumented and unafraid!” and “out of the shadows, onto the streets!”
Now, years later as I watch the news report that DACA is in danger (that’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-administration policy protecting the children of immigrants), I think about those girls often. The only difference between us was that they lacked a social security number — a difference of nine digits that could have them kicked out of the only country they’ve ever known.
That day back in Albany, I’d documented everything on my camera, and the local Telemundo station asked to use my footage for their evening news. That was the moment when it clicked for me, that even if I didn’t look how certain people expect a Latina to look, I could still make sure my Latina voice was heard loud and clear. For me, it isn’t enough to just be Hispanic. I also have a responsibility to my community to be involved, to champion our issues, and to tell our stories. So I started working on a documentary called 9 Digits. Although I was never able to finish — classes and college applications got in the way — the project led me to meet some incredible people.
I attended a rally protesting a pending deportation for Julio, an undocumented radiology student at Bronx Community College. Originally from El Salvador, he fled to the United States in fear of gangs who harassed him due to his sexual orientation; he was detained during a school break while travelling on a Greyhound bus because he lacked an ID and “appeared to be illegal.” I interviewed Julio about his experiences several times — in Spanish — and I was the only person sitting in at his hearing. Months later, I got a voicemail from him, telling me he was granted asylum and thanking me for simply being there to hear his story.
After high school, I studied storytelling by majoring in English and visual media studies at Duke University, where I volunteered by helping the children of undocumented immigrants with their homework and started writing a feature length screenplay based off the stories in 9 Digits. Post-college, I started producing and hosting for Refinery29’s video department, a dream job for me. But when I realized there was little to no representation of Latino voices in our video content, I launched Celebrando with Serena, the first bilingual series for the site that set out to empower young Hispanic voices.
Through Celebrando, I shared the stories of Latinas like Lorella Praeli, the director of Latino outreach for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, who came to the U.S. from Peru at the age of 2; and Angelica Moreno, a makeup artist, who celebrates her Mexican culture by painting intricate skeletons for Dia De Los Muertos. Each of them inspired me with the way they connected their Hispanic identity to their work every single day. And though the way I look has posed its own set of problems even at Refinery29 — viewers who don’t know my background have accused me of cultural appropriation, and someone at work once asked if I’d ever considered dying my hair brown to look more Latina — I’ll never let what others presume I should look like stop me from doing what I think and feel is right.
In a way, I suppose I should thank that ignorant bro from high school. His vulgar, disrespectful slander was so infuriating, it pushed me onto a path of self-discovery, which led to the realization that I want to do everything in my power to help as many Latinos as I can — because these are my people. Our identities are ours to claim for ourselves. It’s not up to anyone else to decide what I am or am not.
I may not fit the stereotypical definition of what a Latina “should” look like. But I am Latina, I was raised Latina, and I am proud to be Latina. It’s the stereotypes that have got to go. And on November 8, 2016, when I joined my mother at the polls to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton, I couldn’t have been more proud to pose for the photo that my mami captioned, “Immigrants (and daughters of immigrants) get the job done!” I won’t stop fighting until more kids like me can have the same right.