Before my Human Relations class, I never really understood what my cultural identity was. Sure I was aware of my minority status (as a latina) and that my proclivity for the arts made me a hipster of sorts but I couldn’t attach much meaning to either of those things. So when I was asked to sit down and write about my culture, I struggled to rise to my professor’s challenge: to discuss my cultural identity beyond the scope of food.
I found my culture by leaving it behind. As backwards as that sounds: its true. It’s also why I encourage everyone to consider going to college out of state. Because after being on campus for half a year, I realized it wasn’t my Hispanic roots I was longing to replenish—it was a need for my city. What I idenitfy with, first and foremost, is being a Chicagoan. That is my culture.
And while I’m sure my Chicagoan peers may see this statement as painfully obvious, going away to college made me appreciate my city in ways that I never could before. When last august came around, I was leaving my downtown job and catching the orange line home. As I looked up at the buildings and the elevated platforms, I acknowledged that in a few weeks I’d be leaving all of this behind and entering a completely different world. While I could speculate about it, I now realize that its impossible to fully comprehend what moving 200 miles away is like until you actually do it.
Leaving everything that’s familiar helps you gain a new perspective and allows you to look back on your home with fresh, appreciative eyes. Now that I’m back home, I know my time in Chicago is a transient thing. I feel like now, more than ever, I am taking advantage of it by volunteering with literacy programs, taking a boxing class, getting into the slam poetry scene and enjoying all the events this city has to offer. And as a street photographer, I’ve come to appreciate the aesthetics of the city even more (a feat I didn’t think was possible). I’m excited for these last 7 weeks of basking in all that’s Chicago but I’ve come to realize something… The reason I attribute my cultural identity to my geographic location is because I feel that my personal growth is a result of the unique experiences I’ve had as a Chicagoan. It’s having participated in Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) for my entire high school career. It’s being a southsider and going to a magnent school up north. It’s the way the L has connected me to so many other cultures. It was working with Marwen for a year and developing my own art concentration. It’s the fact that I’ve worked as a slam poet, a pension company intern, and an intern at the Art Institute. This is Chicago and this is who I am.
But Cornell College is another place that’s been a large part of my personal growth. As much as I label myself a Chicagoan, small town Iowa is becoming part of my cultural identity as well. It’s where I realized that I need to be a teacher (something I had in mind going in, but was cemented upon taking a few education courses). It’s the reason I went to LTAB for a 5th time in my life, with Cornell’s first ever slam team. In fact, I’ve gone to more poetry readings at Cornell than I ever did in Chicago (though as of this summer, those numbers are shifting).
So now when I think about returning to the hilltop I’m not just looking at what I’m leaving behind, I’m looking at what I’m heading to: steep, intensive runs, lazing in the hammock by ink pond, enriching academics, unique finds at the silver spider, and drinking the best mocha I’ve ever had in my life at Fuel.
I used to look at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, IA and think that nothing could be further from Chicago, but after a year of classes, late nights, poetry readings, great friends, and coffee, I realize that nothing feels closer to home than Cornell College.