OPINION

Opinion: 'Soy yo' sings to the joy of being unique - even as a chubby young Latina

Liliana Saumet of Bomba Estereo in a 2011 file photo.

Liliana Saumet of Bomba Estereo in a 2011 file photo.  (2011 Getty Images)

Seeing kids heading back to school always brings up nostalgia — fresh school supplies, new shoes and the excitement of a brand new school year.

When I was in the fourth grade, I moved to a new school, Duranes Elementary in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That transition is hard enough, but it didn’t help that the school day had already started by the time I found my classroom.

There is so much power in claiming one’s own space and celebrating autonomy over our lives, particularly for young women of color. "Soy Yo" is only one video in a culture of non-acceptance for those of us society deems outside the norms.

- Andrea J. Serrano

It didn’t help that both my parents walked me to my new classroom and introduced themselves to my teacher. And it certainly didn’t help that because I moved from Catholic school to public school, my dad addressed my new lay teacher as “Sister” (in front of my entire class) because he was used to speaking to the nuns.

I was horrified.

That first day of school 27 years ago is just one of many awkward, horrifying moments of my childhood. I’m the youngest of six daughters. My dad was 45 and my mom was 38 when I was born and most of my sisters were already teenagers. Rather than adjust life to revolve around me, I was simply absorbed into the fabric of the family.

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My sisters spoke to me as if I was an adult, I watched the news with my parents and my mom taught me to read before I went to kindergarten. My brother-in-law was my best friend and taught me to play chess and would share nerdy science facts with me. 

I was, what some adults would call precocious. Other kids just thought I was weird. I thought I was just being myself. I quickly learned that being myself wasn’t acceptable and my survival in school depended on me becoming someone else, no matter how much I hated it.

Colombian band Bomba Estéreo recently released a new video for the song "Soy Yo" (It’s Me) and the 10-year-old in me cheered.

The song is an anthem of individuality and power. It has an infectious groove that the band is famous for, but it’s the video that has, in short, given me life.

The video features a young Latina walking through her neighborhood and interacting with various nemeses — thin, light-skinned, well-groomed girls; boys playing basketball in the park; and other boys dancing on the street. 

In her overalls, oversized glasses, Crocs, chubby cheeks and funky braids, she challenges each group while staying true to her eclectic, individual self. She plays her recorder as if she’s going into battle (I also played recorder), shows off her terrible basketball skills and her dancing is a joyous event, with so much sass and attitude that one can’t help but root for her. Her confidence leaves her opponents so bewildered that she is, in fact, the victor.

I wasn’t so confident when I was a kid. I went to my first school dance in the fourth grade. I was so excited to be there and discovered that I loved dancing. The music and movement made me feel great — until I realized other kids were making fun of me.

I stopped dancing that day. I eventually learned to dance, and even when I'm having the best time, there is a tiny part of me that is self-conscious while I get down on the dance floor.

By middle school, I learned to hide my quirkiness. I stopped sharing my nerdy science facts and I abandoned playing chess. I conformed to acting like everyone else so I could fit in, and when I felt like I didn’t fit, I tried harder to hide the parts that made me who I was. 

There is evidence that shows that young girls are conditioned from an early age that individuality is the quickest way to isolation, or worse, violence. We are taught that in order to be loved and accepted, we must fit into a standard of beauty and behavior that is not only repressive, it’s impossible. 

Children are concerned with body image at an alarmingly early age, and whether it’s diet and exercise, clothing, beauty products or dating, girls are programmed to believe there is something inherently wrong with them, and their sole mission should be to fix it. 

In addition to body image issues, women face many forms of violence. Statistically, women of color and Indigenous women are more likely to be victims of sexual and physical violence, with Indigenous women having the highest rates of sexual violence.

Our bodies have been the subject of medical experiments, forced sterilizations and exoticized for profit and entertainment. Women are taught from an early age that we don’t truly own our bodies. We are made to believe we have no autonomy.

That’s the beauty of Soy Yo. While this is far from being the first anthem of female empowerment, it is one that offers a visual that prominently features a young Latina, and her freedom is exciting. I found myself basking in her presence and wishing I had this video when I was a kid.

There is so much power in claiming one’s own space and celebrating autonomy over our lives, particularly for young women of color. "Soy Yo" is only one video in a culture of non-acceptance for those of us society deems outside the norms.

What we need is a shift in all media representations to be inclusive and demonstrate that for young Latinas it’s OK to be different. We are all worthy of respect and love. And yes, growing up can be a brutal lesson in conformity, but we can unlearn these lessons and honor our authentic selves.

Andrea J. Serrano is a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project, and Deputy Director of OLÉ in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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