My name always gave me away.
With a name like Jomaree Fernandez, I never quite blended in with the Smiths or Johnsons in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of my childhood.
With a name like Jomaree Fernandez, the pronunciation of my name was oftentimes butchered by strangers. Or I was simply referred to as “last name Fernandez” during class roll call.
With a name like Jomaree Fernandez, I’m still asked to this day “what nationality are you?” My answer of “American” is typically met with faces of confusion followed by, “well, where are your parents from originally?”
To set all records straight: I was born and raised in Atlanta, GA to two amazing Puerto Rican parents. But I was never just from Georgia, and I definitely wasn’t just a Puerto Rican. My appearance and name gave away that my roots weren’t in the South. The way that my tongue stumbled while I spoke Spanish and the fact that I asked so many questions about my island revealed I wasn’t raised in the Motherland either.
Growing up, I never felt that I was enough.
Instead of seeing myself as a blend of two cultures, I saw myself as a reject of both. I was the only Latina in most of my classes from elementary to high school, and it was easy to be ostracized by others. I’m blessed to have parents who always instilled in me a sense of pride for where I came from, but so many people in school questioned why I was so proud to be different at a time when all kids want was to blend in. Being asked things like, “are you from a tribe where you get engaged as a baby?” stuck with me more than they should have, and it was because I constantly felt like I was being asked to defend my heritage, one that I was so proud of. I was raised to be nothing but proud of my roots, but it was hard sometimes to overcome that sense of fitting in. Sometimes I can still hear the sound of my classmates snickering as I walked into the room like a Miss Universe contestant, wearing a dress handmade by my abuela to look like the Puerto Rican flag for a project. I would use any excuse to talk about Puerto Rico in class presentations because it was the one thing that I thought couldn’t be taken away from me. But even that wasn’t entirely true.
Once I finally got to a point where I was able to meet other Puerto Ricans, I learned that acceptance wasn’t going to be easily found with them either. I would get asked which city I was born in, and hearing “Atlanta” just confirmed their suspicions: I wasn’t really Puerto Rican. My ears buzzed whenever I heard other students talk about the island I wanted so much to fully claim as my own, but I was swiftly ignored and removed from the conversation once they labeled me as an imposter. They questioned how I could truly have pride for a place I had never lived, and how I claimed to be from a place without knowing the culture in all its glory. The worst part of this experience was feeling like I was being robbed of the one bit of identity I had.
I was Hispanic, and I was a Gringa.
I wasn’t from here, but I wasn’t from there.
I wasn’t American enough to just be a girl from Georgia, but I wasn’t Puerto Rican enough to just be a Boricua.
All the people who criticized me actually helped me understand myself a bit more, but probably not in the way they expected. After years of seeing myself as an inadequate part of two cultures, I realized why I never felt enough.
I saw being whole as being a part of something greater, something large like being from Georgia or being Puerto Rican, but that was naive of me. In seeing these aspects of my life as all-or-nothing, I was depriving myself of truly being whole—in being myself. In being Jomaree Fernandez.
It is a disservice to say that I am just a girl born in Atlanta to Puerto Rican parents. I’m a strong woman, one in a long line of strong Puerto Rican women who came before me. I might not have been brought into this world amongst the song of the Coquis or with the ocean breeze greeting me, but that song and salt still runs through my veins. While I might be a Latina through and through, that doesn’t discredit that the South is my home and that Atlanta is a part of my heart. I cannot be one without the other. To divorce those aspects of my cultural identity is to refuse to see me as I wholly am.
So for all of you out there struggling to know your fit in the world, in society, in the groups you are so familiar with, understand this: not every box is going to fit you perfectly, and it shouldn’t. Reject the damn box, kick it open.
I am a proud Georgia-Rican.
I am enough. And you are too.