Marlena Baraf explores her complex identity in her new memoir of growing up in Panama, immigrating to the U.S.

Who am I?

Hispanic, Latina, Latinx, Jewish, or garden-variety American?  

I’ll answer yes to all of these.

Arriving to the U.S. on a student visa in the 1960s, I was one of six international students at a small high school in a Pennsylvania paper mill town. I naturally gravitated to students from Central or South America with our shared language, families rich with stories of tíos, tías, and primos, and a side-lined, supportive role earmarked for girls and women in our respective countries. We sang romantic boleros and danced to congas and merengues. We thought of ourselves as ColombianaChilena, o Panameña. Even still, I longed for easy conversations with American girls, to crack a funny joke — nearly impossible when you share zero cultural history.

I graduated to Hispanic when I was out of school and a green card holder in New York. The term Hispanic was adopted by the U.S. census to count the Spanish-speaking immigrants in this country — the triumvirate then being Mexicanos, Puertoriqueños, and Cubanos, each with long and complicated histories with the United States. In the 1990s, I began to notice what seemed like an explosion of other nationalities around me. They were here in my new American homeland, with lilting accents and idioms specific to their countries of origin. At the food trucks in Red Hook in Brooklyn, I ate stuffed pupusas from El Salvador, arepas from Peru, and salchichas Colombianas.

Though I felt Panameña at the root and by now was an acculturated American, close contact with other Hispanics grounded me in an extended family of sorts. I began a series of conversations, interviews with other Hispanics, that I call Soy/Somos: I Am/We Are, published first with Huffington Post.

The terms Latina and Latino identify people of Latin American origin. These terms pull heavier political baggage than “Hispanic.” They have taken on an air of pridefulness, after experiences of toxic discrimination for skin color or ethnicity that are felt by many. I too am proud to be una Latina, to arrive from these rich cultures. I feel a strong sense of solidarity, though I don’t always feel fully worthy of this label as being a white Latina did not cause me struggles of this kind.

I first noticed Latinx on Twitter when reading tweets by Latino poets and novelists. It’s a gender-neutral term meant to replace “Latinos.” The plural form for Latina or Latino in Spanish takes the masculine form, and Latinx reflects the growing acceptance of gender fluidity in our American society. A young, first-generation immigrant from Peru explained her preference for Latinx to me in a in a surprising way: “Latinx helps me differentiate myself from Latinas and Latinos from back home in South America and me and others of similar heritage raised in the United States.”

My family traces our history to Spanish-Portuguese Jews who left Spain and Portugal after the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. They have been in Panama since the mid-1800s. I grew up judía, an insider/outsider in a Catholic country.

I’ve written about this part of my story in my memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, an intimate mother-daughter story that explores the impact of mental illness on a family — and a family’s resilience. I am grateful that I was exposed to my Catholic friends (and years of study at a convent school) in addition to my Jewish upbringing. These experiences arrived with the gift of access to both communities and a penchant to look beyond labels to our common humanity. Panama City was and is in some ways like New York City, a port city where different groups have mixed, learned to tolerate one another’s differences, and thrived on that difference. Seminal words for me are hybrid, hyphenated, bilingual, multicultural, synthesis.

I am the smell of Ylang-ylang flowers that tickled my nose in the countryside of my tropical homeland. I am cumbias Panameñas and also a garden-variety American, who immigrated to the United States in my teens, worked and married here, raised two boys, and exercised my right to vote. I held up my right hand with trembling emotion when I pledged allegiance to the United States of America. I roast a turkey on Thanksgiving — with ceviche to start.

Marlena Maduro Baraf was born and raised in Panama but chose to leave her native country for the United States in her late teens, gaining citizenship years later. She worked as a book editor at Harper & Row Publishers and McGraw-Hill Book Company, is a devoted alumna of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute, and has established her own design studio. Over the past 10 years, Baraf has dedicated herself to the compelling art and craft of writing. Her memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World (She Writes Press), was published earlier this month. Marlena lives in New York. You can find her at

Source from above interview:



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