FRAGMENTS Episode 1: New Place, New Identity

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Caballero’15 grew up in Paraguay but came to the U.S. for high school and college. He says his identity is “complex, not hard to understand.” Photo by Josh Marcus’17.

Caballero'15 grew up in Paraguay but came to the U.S. for high school and college. He says his identity is "complex, not hard to understand." Photo by Josh Marcus'17.
Caballero’15 grew up in Paraguay but came to the U.S. for high school and college. He says his identity is “complex, not hard to understand.” Photo by Josh Marcus’17.

Everyone’s heard the myth: you go to college, you find yourself, you grow into your identity. But what happens when you’re at college, or on your way there, and someone finds it for you? Today, we have two stories about people confronting an identity they didn’t choose. This is Fragments: Just Part of the Story.

Part I: Complex, but not hard

Come SAT season, students across the globe brush up, hunker down, dog-ear and prep. They have this in common. They can commiserate. There is one thing, however, that not everyone has to do before the SATs: soul searching. Enter the story of José Caballero-Ciciolli ’15.

He sat there staring at the blank box on his answer sheet.

“What am I? I am Hispanic? I am Latino?” he remembers thinking. The test was asking him to identify himself, but reality didn’t fit in a nice round bubble.

“Those were the only options. But I’d also always considered myself as white … I’m not brown, I’m not Asian. I am,” he said after a pause, “white. But I’m not white for U.S. standards, so that’s really interesting.”

According to American categories, Caballero is a Latino. He was born and raised in Paraguay and speaks Spanish. But coming to America, what Caballero saw didn’t quite match up with what everyone else did.

Before moving to the U.S., Caballero says he’d introduce himself as “just a guy from Paraguay.”

Of course, his identity is more nuanced than that. He has strong Paraguayan pride – of the bustling family parties around his backyard quincho grill, the sidewalk chatter in Paraguay’s indigenous Guaraní, the stoic national character.

He’s of diverse descent, politically and genealogically. His mother’s family, Italians, are intellectuals, some of whom were harassed during his country’s mid-century military dictatorship. On his father’s side, the Spanish/Paraguayans, his grandpa was a cardinal in the army.

All this is to say, on a pristine scantron or a first introduction, the label ‘Latino’ wasn’t a perfect fit. He understands why the label is thrust on him through.

“For Americans,” he said, “to make it easier to understand you when you come from such a remote place, they have to somehow categorize you.”

He just wasn’t comfortable accepting the term and all it brought.

“At first, I was not accepting it,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘What does [Latino] mean?’”

One thing he did know was how certain sectors of the American public directed hate and judgement towards Latinos, and he wasn’t going to willingly invite that for himself.

“I was reluctant to accepting that part of my identity,” he said, “because I didn’t want to draw those connotations. But I guess after a while I just learned to accept that was a way for people to better understand my background, so I just started owning it.”

He thinks terms like Latino – and Asian and white and black – are all over-generalizations, but he doesn’t let the politics drag him down.

He says he knows people judge him on what he does, not where he comes from. He also says that this issue isn’t so tough that he’s “going to write a book about it.”

He just thinks people need a little push to comprehend his full identity.

“[My identity] is complex, not hard to understand,” he said. “People just need to be willing to make that mental leap to truly understand.”

For identity is a constellation; it’s composed of disparate, distinct parts, but it often paints a simple picture.

After spending her childhood in Senegal, Diouf'17 moved to Norway and then to the U.S. She deeply misses her home country and its culture. Photos by Josh Marcus'17.
After spending her childhood in Senegal, Diouf’17 moved to Norway and then to the U.S. She deeply misses her home country and its culture. Photos by Josh Marcus’17.

Part II: Fullah the leader

Sophomore Yacine Diouf’s story can begin just before a standardized test, too. Diouf’s 15, and exams are about to start. She’s watching TV with her mother back in Dakar, Senegal, when she confesses what’s been on her mind.

“Hey Ma,” she says, “it’s really hard for me these days. I can’t really focus at school because of the pressure.”

In Senegal, community is a central value. That means a whole community of pressure, though, not just Mom and Dad.

“When I do an exam,” said Diouf, “it’s like whole neighborhood’s doing the exam. Whether you are from a poor background, a rich background, anything, it’s just community, so everyone knows you’re doing an exam, and will say, ‘Oh, how are studies?’”

Her mom listened, reminded her daughter of all the work she’d done so far in class then said, “No matter what happens, if you do your best, nobody will weep or care about the results, because you do what you can.”

This two-way street of knowing who you are and where you’ve been, and getting respect back, that’s a Senegalese value called fullah. It’s helped guide Diouf through new locations and the identities that come with them.

“When I was in Norway [for a United World College high school program],” said Diouf, “I was no longer a little girl from Dakar, I was an African girl.”

She’d introduce herself there, like when she was a leader at a children’s camp, and that word, African, would overshadow other parts of her identity.

“It brings a lot of conscience to you,” Diouf said. “What you do or what you say might be how they interpret people from your country or continent act. It becomes a little bit weird.”

She didn’t mind the extra scrutiny, but she paid close attention to how she broadcast herself to make sure people got the right impression. This was, in others words, a type of fullah.

But Norway wasn’t the last time her identity was given a new wrinkle. In Europe, the affable woman from Dakar became an African. In America, she became black.

That became clear one of her first days at Macalester as she stood in the crammed line leaving the Minnesota State Fair. A man turned to her and said, “Hey, Rosa Parks, get to the back of the line.” His brand of racism lumped a 21st-century Senegalese woman together with an African-American from the civil rights struggle. Welcome to American race politics.

“I was black at home, but who cared?” Diouf said. “Everyone was black. I knew it. You wake up with your ears, but do you really ask yourself where they come from? It’s just a matter of fact. You’re born like that.”

But in America, it wasn’t just a matter of fact; race is a day-to-day consideration.

Her fullah was encountering outside tests—“crap” about Muslim women and the hijab, which she aspires to wear someday, and the pressure of representing her continent—but coming to America also forced her to look inward.

“Love grows with distance,” Diouf said.

She misses her family, and also the subtler parts of her Senegalese life, like car rapides, the brightly-painted, jam-packed buses that zip around Dakar.

Coming home she thought, “I miss this, I miss my people, I miss the conversations. It makes my country what it is.”

She’s talking about buses, but it could stand for any of the parts of her identity challenged abroad.

In the face of cultural friction, she keeps things straight with a traditional proverb, one she muttered right as the tape recorder went off and the campus was nodding to sleep.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, go back to where you’re from,” she said. “As long as I have an identity, I know which well to go back and fetch water from.”