Gisela Wolff DeVito, mom
I'm not a fan of labels, and yet there are a number of them attached to me.
Some of my labels and associations are self-assigned. I am a Democrat. I drive a VW Beetle.
And then there are the inescapable labels that come to me by birth. I'm first generation American-born. I'm Roman Catholic.
Do these labels tell you who I am? Obviously not. But there are a lot of people who might say they do.
That's a problem.
During a parade and fair in Huntington Station a young Salvadoran teen told a Newsday reporter that she felt it was important to attend the event to debunk the myth that all Latin American youth are gang members. While the statement impressed me for its spunk and honesty, it struck a somber chord. This is one young girl's reality, and very likely, will remain her reality for years to come.
My mom could not shake the labels associated with her German heritage. A cold-war bride, she met and married a U.S. Army Officer in Berlin. When dad was transferred to the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas U.S Army base mom was ushered into a new life in America. She was very excited at the prospect of becoming a citizen. After fleeing one town to the next to escape the constant bombings in WWII-torn Germany, mom was more than ready to leave that part of her life behind. Little did she know that 1943-1945 would not leave her.
Mom's grand entrance into mid 1950s America found her squarely in the middle of lingering tensions over what happened in Germany. Had she not opened her mouth to speak, mom might have passed as any American woman. But the unmistakable accent gave her up every time, and no matter how kind, charming, or beautiful she was, anti-German sentiment simmered just below the surface of post WWII American conversation.
Mom's German label continued to undermine her into the 1970s, when a neighbor threw a large pot of boiling water on our family's German shepherd as a hateful statement to mom and her German dog. It took months for the poor creature's massive third degree burns to heal. It was nearly a year before the dog's fur grew back to mask the grotesque assault. But the wound inflicted on my mom by this act would never heal.
Just like the Huntington Station teen trying to shake the connection of gangs with her Latin heritage, mom spent a lifetime trying to shake her own burdens of association. Throughout the rest of her life mom continued to be haunted by the horrors she witnessed as an impressionable and innocent teen during WWII- and remained deeply ashamed by what her people had done.
I am hoping for better for our young Salvadoran teen who came out proud and bold to represent the true face and nature of her people.
Two innocent women separated only by nationality, time and history, but who share an identical struggle to be recognized separate and apart from the labels they assumed at birth- labels to carry in their brave new world called America.