When I was young, I always wanted to look different. I wanted to be different. Where I’m from, people don’t look like the girls everyone sees on TV (even in Mexico). We don’t have blonde hair, blue eyes or fair skin. My people simply don’t look like that. Our features are much more prominent. I come from an indigenous background in a place called Oaxaca, Mexico: the most beautiful place on earth. A place that—although economically poor—is incredibly rich in culture and tradition. Some of our Mexican brothers and sisters may also know us as “Oaxaquitas,” a term I heard over and over as I grew up—and still do, sometimes—used to make us feel some sort of shame of who we are and where we come from.
When I was ten, I moved to Los Angeles. My father had migrated a year earlier to begin a new life for us. He had opened a small restaurant that had taken off and he decided to bring his family along for this journey. Our restaurant was in Koreatown, a place where, in those days, cholos and thugs roamed the streets—a life my father wanted to keep us as far away from as possible. His sister had married an American man whose family lived in the Brentwood Hills, and with their help, we were enrolled in their local school, Palisades Charter.
My first year in the US was in the fifth grade, and I entered as an ESL student, a program for kids who had English as their second language. I really had no idea what being an ESL kid would be like. Before my first day of school, I remember thinking that maybe this was my chance to be part of the “white world.” I remember seeing girls my age with long blonde hair and bright blue eyes that resembled those of my Barbie doll walking up to school and kissing their parents goodbye. But as I walked up to my classroom, all the white faces quickly began disappearing, and more and more faces that looked like mine began popping in. When I took my seat, I realized I was in a different class. My class was almost 100 percent Latino, with kids who didn’t really speak English, but whose Spanish wasn’t really all there either. I was confused. Time came for recess and we all made way to the playground, and the Barbie doll look-alikes resurfaced once again. Who were these girls, and why wasn’t I sharing a classroom with them? The bell rang again, and I went back to take my seat in our classroom, feeling shame for being an “ESL Kid.”
After school, I visited the girl’s room and took a long look at myself in the mirror. I made myself a promise: to get out of the ESL program as fast as I could. My assimilation took about two years. By the seventh grade, I tested out of the ESL program and moved to the “regular classes.” I had worked so hard to get there, in a class with all the blue-eyed girls, and although I had tested out of my program, I never tested into theirs. I was an outcast.
My Latina friends didn’t take a liking to me, because I was a “Oaxaquita” in their eyes, a girl who ate chapulines, wore hand-me-downs and danced in a folkloric group on the weekends. My white classmates never related to me either. My English wasn’t as proficient as theirs, and we really had nothing in common with one another. I worked every weekend, and every summer. They took music lessons on the weekends and long family vacations during the summer. Our lives were very different. Even when some of them included me in a birthday party or some sort of celebration, I always felt as if I was the “token Latino friend,” and couldn’t help but to feel a sense of pity coming from their parents. Middle school definitely held my hardest years as a kid.
In high school, I began to figure out who I was. I constantly tried to prove myself to my non-Latino friends, striving every day to be a little more “white.” That day never came. One day, an English teacher told me that I would probably end up pregnant like every other Latina; so long as I didn’t, I would be considered an overachiever. I couldn’t graduate high school fast enough. At some point, I even considered taking my GED and checking out of there early, but my parents never agreed with me. I would take comfort in telling myself over and over again that high school and my classmates’ approval wouldn’t matter in the long run.
When I began college, it felt like a clean slate. None of my high school peers attended the college I was going to, and I felt as if I could really begin writing my own story. I attended an all girl college with a large Latino community. I joined a club named “Voces Latinas,” and quickly began taking pride in who I was and where I had come from, gravitating to these new girlfriends. I stood tall and said I was from Oaxaca, and for the first time in my life, I was looked at as “cool” for having a rich cultural ancestry. As I matured, I came into my being and gained confidence in embracing where I came from. I visited Oaxaca more often and began to see the beauty of our traditions and people. I rediscovered its food, architecture, textiles, art, music, traditions and the people who make Oaxaca so magical.
Today, I, along with my siblings, run the restaurant my father founded over 20 years ago. We pride ourselves in not only being an authentic Oaxacan restaurant, but being a cultural hub for all of our Oaxacan brothers and sisters. My siblings and I have made it our mission to keep our culture alive and maintain strong and proud of where we come from. I’ve stopped trying to be someone else, and have embraced who I’ve always been supposed to be: a girl with an Oaxacan heart and American dreams. The word “Oaxaquita” no longer affects me. I don’t take shame in someone calling me that; to the contrary, I stand tall and proud to say I am from Oaxaca—as should any girl, no matter where her Oaxaca is.
— BRICIA LOPEZ X UDD
SUPERPOWER BELIEVING IN MYSELF
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I’ll admit, I’m an inspiration junkie; I search for inspiration, hunger for it, and can never get enough of it. As a “casual” editor, I’m always on the lookout for people who are—well, living inspirations—seeking nothing more than a life rich in passion and purpose. So is the case with Miss Bricia Lopez.
As I sat across from Bricia at her family’s restaurant, eating some of the best mole I’ve ever had (no kidding!), I discovered a woman with purpose. I found a gracious host full of passion, with a sense of responsibility to herself, her parents’ sacrifices and her people. I instantly adored her. Bricia is a woman who is Latino proud. By the way, it’s always interesting to me when “proud” is used in this way. Like, shouldn’t we all be proud of who we are—our cultures, faces, features and backgrounds? These are the things, after all, that make this world such a rich, colorful place worth exploring!
Bricia is a mom, wife, chef and entrepreneur. She is Latina, Oaxacan and an Angeleno. She wears many hats and represents many things, humble as pie and grateful for her beginnings. In her early years, she experienced isolation in just about every way: culturally, racially, economically and academically. Yet I feel, that makes up one of the very things which propels her; and, I think, allows her to connect with just about anyone and choose to be a place of “community” for her community.
Bricia is a voice, from cooking shows sharing authentic Oaxacan recipes to hosting a podcast for modern Latina mamas. She uses that impact to empower her community and educate others about the ancestral charm of her heritage.
Bricia is, as Bricia believes.
Bricia, I’m glad you never tested into assimilation; because of you, so many of us now know the beauty of you & Oaxaca.
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