One of the most exciting things about 6th grade was knowing that it was the year I got to do a country report. Each student in class got to pick a country and do a written and oral report on it. This was a huge deal because our teachers expected maps, drawings, photos, charts and anything else that would support the written report.
I counted the days until the day finally came to pick a country.
I grew up in northern Westchester in the 70s and 80s. Practically all my friends were the children or grandchildren of Irish and Italian immigrants, so naturally those two countries were the most popular choices. Everyone was assigned a turn based on the alphabetical spelling of their last name, and mine started with an “S” — which was so frustrating! I knew I was the only Puerto Rican in the class, but what if someone else chose it before it was my turn?
And then it happened, my teacher Mrs. Sunheimer said,”Denise Soler.” I was so relieved that no one had chosen La Isla del Encanto before me. I beamed as I said “Puerto Rico.”
Then, there was a pause.
It was as if I’d confidently risen my hand to answer a math problem and got it wrong. But there was no right or wrong answer here, or so I thought.
Although I can’t remember her words exactly, I’ll never forget how I felt. In front of the whole class, Mrs. Sunheimer told me that I couldn’t choose Puerto Rico because technically it wasn’t a country, but instead part of the United States.
Instead of saying what I might say now like, “You go to PR and tell me it’s not a country!” I felt embarrassed. Instead of sparking up an interesting conversation about what defines a country as a country anyway, I felt ashamed. There was no convincing her and I didn’t even try.
The next few days were marked with phone calls to the school, at least one in person school meeting with my mom and a conversation with my teacher letting me know that everyday my parents fought this, I was losing time to work on my assignment. No concessions would be made for me, and she suggested I should just pick another country and not make such a big deal about it.
I’m proud to say that the country report that I turned in was about the country my mother was born in — Puerto Rico. A country that I’ve never been able to call home, but one that is still very much a part of me.
During the oral part of my presentation, I remember wowing my classmates as I shared the history of this beautiful island and my personal stories about my experiences there. I remember that gorgeous yellow book made out of construction paper with glued pictured of La Isla, handwritten paragraphs about this magical place that was such a big part of my life, pictures of the island that I’d colored in with pencil and photos taken straight out of our own family albums.
I am happy to say I made that book with the help of my mom, over the course of many nights. I remember sitting at a clean kitchen table after she had made delicious cocina criolla and we had cleaned every dish by hand because we couldn’t afford a dishwasher.
Thirty four years later, I still remember how it felt to be told in front of the whole class, I couldn’t do my report on Puerto Rico, the country I most identified with as a person. It was the very first time that I wondered if my history mattered, if my family’s roots mattered. It was the first time that I saw my parents defend that history and I witnessed what they were willing to do to defend it and me. I’m grateful that my parents stood by me and that I was able to do the country report that I wanted to write.
Looking back, I realize that the seeds of my present day social activism began in 6th grade when I realized that my cultural roots were being challenged. I have no problem admitting that it took me years to settle into my ‘Latinaness’ the way I’m settled into it now. Today, I’m about learning other people’s stories and sharing them with the world.
To date, I have had the honor of interviewing nearly 80 Latinos from all walks of life and origins through Project Enye (ñ). I’ve noticed a few things. One is that most ñ’s have a story like the one I just shared with you. Two is that after sharing their story with me, many remark that they’ve not only never shared it with anyone, but they haven’t thought about it since it happened. For the record, I’ve never shared this country report story since it happened 34 years ago; yet, it has had such a profound effect on the woman I am today.
I find there’s a remarkable sense of relief and power when people share these early memories. And there’s something uniquely special that happens when we become vulnerable enough to share these things with one another.
Why? Because these stories matter. We as Enyes (ñ) matter.
Follow Denise Soler Cox on Twitter: www.twitter.com/projectenye