My LopeLife: Campus calmed his culture clash

May 19, 2020 / by / 0 Comment

Tony Barrera liked to write in his journal while hanging out on Lopes Way during his time on campus. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here. My LopeLife is a feature in which GCU students, staff and alumni share enlightening experiences. To be considered for My LopeLife, please submit a short synopsis of your suggested topic to [email protected] with “My LopeLife” in the subject field.

By Tony Barrera
Special to GCU Magazine

The search for identity is central to our lives. Playing sports, joining a choir, making short films with your friends or even choosing a college are all choices that look for an answer to a simple question: “Who am I?”

My search for identity began when I was 6. Even though I was raised in America, my life began in a different world. At home, my family spoke Spanish, listened to music in Spanish, ate Hispanic food and even read bedtime stories in Spanish. My English language skills mostly were developed by watching “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Starting school was a culture shock. I was thrown into an unfamiliar culture that I did not quite understand, but I was expected to fit in.

I did not feel as if I belonged. I felt alone and unseen. The insecurities knocked on the door of my mind with thumps that grew louder and louder every day. The sideways glances, distasteful comments and awkward questions confirmed my fears.

As time passed, however, the culture around me started to feel like my own. I had a good group of friends, I watched Nickelodeon every day, I had all the “Magic Tree House” books, I loved Pop-Tarts and I even had my own MP3 player filled with American music.

I was in.

There still was a problem, though: Now my birth culture felt strange to me. The more I found myself in the American culture, the more I felt as if I had to resist and avoid my Latino heritage. I told myself I was in America, so I had to be American to fit in. Embracing my roots felt wrong and even shameful.

So I stopped listening to music in Spanish and watching classic Mexican films with my dad. As time passed, I even started to forget my Spanish vocabulary.

But then, when I was 10, my parents decided to move our family back to Mexico. It was 2008, during the depths of the economic recession, and they thought it would be best if we returned to their home country.

Of course, it was not home to me or my siblings. It almost felt foreign to us, but we still were hopeful and even a bit excited. The idea of moving to the country of my heritage sounded fun. Or so I thought.

I discovered that living in a Latino household is not the same as living in a Latino country, especially one I barely knew. Everything was different. I went from living an urban life in Phoenix to living in a small, rural Mexican pueblo where the economy depended greatly on the crops surrounding the neighborhoods.

The first week was fun. Everything was brand new and exciting. But by week two, I felt like an outsider again. I told myself I did not belong because I was too American. This was clear to me wherever I went: school, church, even family gatherings.

I questioned the Lord about why we had to move away. I was upset with Him and wanted answers. I felt alone. Once again, I believed I had to disconnect from my American identity to connect with my Mexican culture. It was like unplugging from one outlet to plug into another.

After six years in Mexico, which included surviving middle school, starting high school, moving to a larger city and making a few good friends, I finally felt comfortable with my cultural identity.

But then, guess what? My parents decided we should move back to the U.S. They wanted me to receive a college education in America.

“What? Not a chance!” was the first thought that darted through my mind. I knew how hard it would be to return to the U.S., and I did not feel ready for it even though I knew deep down that they were right. My dream was to be a writer, after all. To this day, I am grateful they made that decision.

At first, I was terrified to be back in America. I was scared of rejection and loneliness and feared I would lose myself again. I did not want to bury the Latino identity I finally had adopted.

I had to relearn a lot of the English vocabulary I had lost during my time in Mexico. I had to readapt to the American culture and learn the ways of the American high school. But all in all, it felt good to be back.

There was another challenge, however: I started switching back and forth between my cultural identities. It was like pushing a button within myself that activated a personality type. I acted in different ways and talked about different things depending on who was around me. I was not being faithful to my true self.

That all changed when I came to GCU. From the beginning, I could see there was something different about this place. The atmosphere created by the community was not like anything I had experienced. People who were different from me welcomed me, and they were interested to know about my life and my Latino heritage. The friends I made genuinely cared for me.

I also started growing in my relationship with the Lord, and the more I got to know Him, the more I understood His love for me.

I recall one time at The Gathering, the student-led worship on Tuesday nights, when the Lord showed me how much He cared for me. I called out to Him, and He showed me that throughout my life He had been with me, even during the times I thought He was absent.

That broke me.

I cried, realizing I had never been alone. On that special night, the Lord opened His arms and comforted me for the years of rejection and confusion I had endured.

So, with caution at first, I combined my two worlds and fused my cultural identities into one. I invited my GCU friends to my home for dinner with my family. I showed them some of the Spanish songs I liked. I even started speaking Spanish to them.

The “Who am I?” question is hard to answer, and I thank the Lord for helping me find an answer through GCU. I won’t say it is not a struggle anymore, because there still are times when l feel like an outsider.

But now I know I don’t have to change who I am. The Lord has shown me that we all belong to Him.


Tony Barrera is a senior majoring in Professional Writing and minoring in Psychology. He has had a passion for storytelling ever since he learned how to read. Tony also loves to camp, watch movies, discover new music and go on road trips with his friends. On his free days, you are likely to find him at a coffee shop in downtown Phoenix.


Related content:

GCU Today: My LopeLife: She learned the language of God’s love

GCU Today: My LopeLife: How GCU’s warm welcome changed her

GCU Today: My LopeLife: She followed family, found community


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