Opinion

A Student’s View on Asking ‘Where Are You From?’: I’m a College-Bound Nuyorican High School Grad With a Unique Identity. Here’s What It Means to Be Where I’m From

By Elvis Santiago | July 21, 2019

Elvis Santiago (Courtesy of Achievement First)

I am constantly hit with the question “Where are you from?” It used to be that I was never sure what to say. People would see my brown skin, and they’d know they shouldn’t ask, “What are you?” and so their question would take this familiar shape and my answer would falter.

Do I say I am Puerto Rican because my parents are from Puerto Rico? Do I say I am from Bridgeport, a city where I have spent the majority of my life but that never has truly felt like home? Do I say I am from the Bronx, where I was born and spent my early years, where I can walk around comfortably, visit Abuelita’s house and walk along La Tercera (Third Avenue) to get groceries?

As I get ready for college, I’ve found my answer. And it is important.

My answer is something I thought about as I did overnight visits at some of the most elite schools in the country — Williams, Vassar, Occidental, Dartmouth, the University of Richmond and more — on my way to earning more than a dozen college acceptances. I still think about it now as a new high school graduate. I am getting ready to major in economics and Latino studies to prepare for a future as an investment banker with aspirations of also opening a nonprofit focused on financial literacy or a restaurant in the community.

I am Nuyorican.

The dictionary definition of “Nuyorican” is a Puerto Rican living in the U.S., especially in New York City. But to me, it means I could listen to the latest Latin trap music, like Bad Bunny, or I could listen to the most recent rap, like A Boogie, never forgetting the lyrics to “Empire State of Mind” by Jay Z. I could watch Al Rojo Vivo on the Spanish-language Telemundo or local TV news station PIX 11. I could tell you to take the No. 6 train uptown to 138th Street in the South Bronx or I could tell you that my family is from Ponce. I know about Crotona Park y tambien el parque de bombas (an important fire station in Ponce). Most of the time I do not speak English or Spanish — I speak Spanglish.

My identity is an asset.

I am a young man with a unique viewpoint. A lot of times, whether it’s on a college campus, in political discourse or on the news, people discuss low-income communities but they don’t understand our communities.

I come from the projects. I come from one of the poorest voting districts in the country. A lot of people I grew up with didn’t make it to college or even out of high school because of the influence of drugs or violence, and because they didn’t have the opportunity to go to great schools like I did. “Where I’m from” is a place that allows me to see the world in a different way and help provide solutions. “Where I’m from” is a place where my family instilled in me the determination to break the generational curse of poverty, to work hard to get where I want to go.

I have always known that I have a lot to contribute. I want all the other students like me to realize the same. Be proud of where you’re from. Know that it’s cool to be smart. Don’t feel like your identity needs to fit into a single box. Take who you are and use your unique perspective and make it, so there can be more clarity and better decision-making in the dynamics of our world. Make it so that we can have representatives who know what it’s really like to be from our districts. Make it so there are leaders across society who represent the interests of people in our community.

Be proud of where you’re from. Be proud of where you’re going.

I’ll be proud to be a loud, talkative Nuyorican from the South Bronx projects when I am feeling the California weather and attending one of the most selective liberal arts schools in the country: Pomona College.

Elvis Santiago lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and is a 2019 graduate of Achievement First Amistad High, a public charter school in New Haven.

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