I recently attended the Therapeutic Conversations conference in Vancouver, BC, which left me with so many emotions about my work and the future of my professional development. Most importantly, there was one speaker that truly touched me. She left me experiencing rather peculiar emotions, but these were not just about my work, most of these emotions were personal as well, and perhaps too difficult to communicate through words, but I will try. Her name is Marcela Polanco, a professor and psychotherapist residing in San Antonio, TX. Marcela’s talk was not only beautiful, but life changing. There was someone in the conference who shared that her life changed in positive ways as a result of Marcela’s presentation the previous year, quite powerful.
The things that struck me the most about Marcela was 1. her genuineness and authenticity at the podium and 2. her understanding about the complexities of translating Narrative ideas into other languages. As a bilingual therapist, this has been one of the most testing experiences in my work. Although English is my second language and Spanish my first, using Narrative ideas in practice in Spanish doesn’t come naturally or easily by any means–Marcela knows about this struggle first hand and was brave to share her thoughts about it. There is one more thing that stuck with me; one which I could not stop thinking about throughout the whole conference. I will speak to this in this blog. (For reference, Marcela’s talk was at the very beginning of the conference.)
As those who know me personally or perhaps professionally know, I was born in South America and was raised in Perú. My mother is Peruvian and the man who fathered me, Cuban. I always struggled explaining my heritage to people who asked. Here was this lighter skin guy with curly hair and a thick accent; “he can’t be from here,” those American friends would say. My Spanish-speaking and Hispanic friends were also confused about me; why I looked the way I did, and how come I sounded the way I sounded. I never cared about any of this; however, it slowly created a distance between my cultural identity and myself.
Why is this important and how was Marcela’s talk relevant to this? I am going to try to answer this, but please, bear with me a bit. During her talk, Marcela seemed so proud of where she is from, her heritage, and the stories that connect her to her land–Colombia. Her deliberate use of some Spanish words and confidence while speaking to a room full of brilliant mental health professionals and academics was mind-blowing. All of this made me realize something. I rarely say “Soy de Perú” when asked. And why is this the case? Have I completely disconnected from my roots and the stories that remind me of who I truly am and how I became to be me?
I thought about the stories of my country, the people of my country, and the history of the country. I thought about all the narratives that have been told with the purpose of maligning and degrading my country, Perú. Some of these stories included, but are not limited to Peruvians being dirty people who wear dirty clothes and never take showers, Peruvians being disrespectful to one another and others, Peruvians being loud individuals who often result to fighting to get anything accomplished, Peruvians being ugly people with poor manners, Peruvians living off the government and not having jobs, Peruvians being uneducated and only working in factories, among others which are really not worth even mentioning. I want to apologize about this list because I know many of these stereotypes are not only untrue, but they are incomplete. However, I believe it is important to include in this paper for the purpose of making my point.
These stories convinced me that perhaps, it was not a good thing to be from Perú, and so I would say to myself, “Well, I am not really just from Perú, I am also Cuban and was born in Venezuela.” It was in that precise moment, during Marcela’s talk, that I also decided to call bullshit on myself–“bullshit” I said; and I heard my own voice in my head loud and clear. Yes, I was born in Venezuela and yes, my father is Cuban; nevertheless, I grew up in Lima and my family is from Lima. This land nurtured me and shaped me to be who I am today.
As a result of my internal experience during Marcela’s talk, I am eager to reconnect with my roots and to allow those stories I know about Perú to be spoken of by me, on my own terms. Next time you see me, ask me to tell you stories about what it means to be Peruvian. Stories that highlight evidence of infinite strength, like when the entire people of Perú fought to expose corruption in the government and accomplished the resignation of one of the most corrupt presidents that led the nation; or stories of perseverance, such as my friend’s parents who despite having a physical disability, moved away and left those they loved behind in order to provide my friend with a better education and future, or stories of celebration and happiness, like the people of Chincha, Ica, an Afro-Peruvian town that welcomes all visitors with open arms and a glass of refreshing Chicha. I can always tell you about our food. For instance, have you tried Papa a la Huancaina? it’s a creamy, spicy, and cheesy sauce that’s smeared on boiled potato slices, or how about Causa Rellena, a mashed potato casserole with chicken salad, one of my favorites. Most people don’t know that we have a special type of food that mixes Chinese and Peruvian ingredients called Chifa–you can find an endless number of Chifa restaurants in Lima’s China town. A visit to any part of the country will guarantee you a delicious Pisco Sour; and a visit to any of the historic restaurants and pubs in Lima will guarantee you a spectacle of Festejo dancing, an Afro-Peruvian music style that everyone in Perú loves. These are stories that have been obscured by the false and incomplete stories that I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
I went into this conference with professional ambitions and left with perhaps one of the biggest gifts I have received in a very long time. Sometimes the stories of us and where we come from become invisible; invisibility that is caused by shame; a type of shame that never comes from within and rarely speaks of our truth. I commit to speaking my truth and re-telling my story, which begins with the words “Soy de Perú.” I don’t want to end without thanking Marcela Polanco for this opportunity to liberate myself from the social and cultural chains that kept me from embracing my true self for too long. If any of my readers find themselves ashamed of who they are or where they come from; think about how these feelings came to be. Is it truly fair to feel that your stories are incomplete and told by others? I hope that you find this blog helpful for you in your own journey. Thank you for reading.