I have become a Velcro ball.
Artist Simon Starling approaches research informally, dabbling in and exploring various things with the belief that what’s significant will stick, as fuzz to Velcro. His advice stuck to me, and I am using it to guide my explorations of identity this semester.
A question posed by artist Cornelia Parker and class presenter Maren Greathouse has also stuck to me, i.e., is the past still present in the redefined identity of an object or person? Identity is a dominant theme within my teaching and writing, most currently in my preparation for teaching a summer course on Latino/a Culture and Literature and my work on an in-progress short story collection.
I believe history and memory each contribute to shaping new identities. For example, in the case of Latinos in the United States: I am of Puerto Rican descent, born and raised in New York City – pure nuyorican. However, defining who I am is not so simple. Maren’s presentation made me consider the parallels between defining cultural identity and gender identity, and the influence of external forces.
My identity and how I define myself is my social currency and, like monetary currency, it changes according to geography. I am not American enough in my nation of birth, and not Boricua enough on the island. I am spoken to very loudly in both geographies, in the manner people use when addressing foreigners or the deaf. Puerto Rican history is my past in the form of memory passed to me through family, and it defines me in the U.S., even though it is not the experience I lived personally. My actual experienced past of growing and learning in the U.S. defines me on the island, though I share roots with the people there.
I appreciated Maren’s example of not having an appropriate box to check on official forms and documents when asked about gender. The experience is similar to when I am confronted with the race and ethnicity boxes. Like many Puerto Ricans, I am multi-racial and that is not represented among the standard options of Black, White, Asian, or Other. The question arises of how to define myself when I fall outside of recognized categories. Choosing not to check a box results in under- or mis-representation of my existence; in the case of government forms, such as Census documents, my identity is real currency that determines services and funding to my specific needs.
The blank gap between my reality and the recognized categories is the space of possibility, where conversations and creations can take place – whether the goal is cultural, racial, social, or gender identity. Opting out of this opportunity is not an option, and not a political statement. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to effect change if no one notices you.