By Mikaela Cole
When I was ten years old, I decided that I wanted to visit all fifty states of the U.S. before I turn thirty. There’s been a map on my wall tracking my progress in achieving that goal, and every time I see it, I’m reminded of who I am and what I want to be. Ever since then, my mom made it a point to travel with me so that I could experience new things. Now that I’m older, my goals of seeing the whole country has expanded into a goal of seeing as much of the world as possible during my lifetime; traveling has become a fundamental part of my life and has shaped who I am.
There are trips that I remember more than others, places that made an immense impact on me, and cultures that changed how I see myself and my worldview. When I think about these places, I always come back to my travels around Latin America. My trip to Mexico City with my grandmother, “Abuelita,” and to Rio de Janeiro with my grandfather, “Vovo,” made me realize that where you come from is a crucial part of discovering who you are and who you want to be. Traveling to two of the countries where my family comes from completely changed how I viewed my own family, particularly Abuelita and Vovo. I no longer saw them as only people in my own reality; I saw them in their own home countries, speaking their native language, and being a part of their own culture.
My Abuelita moved from Mexico City to northern California when she was fifteen. She is one of the warmest people I know, exuding love and sincerity to everyone she meets. During my visit to Mexico with Abuelita, I realized that the qualities that I admire about her are a product of where she grew up. During our visit, we were greeted with an unbelievable degree of hospitality and friendliness by distant relatives and strangers alike. Everywhere we went, Abuelita was able to connect with people in a way that I hadn’t witnessed or experienced before. The people and culture of Mexico City were incredibly welcoming and I felt like I belonged there more than I ever expected.
My Vovo moved from Rio de Janeiro to northern California when he was eighteen. When I visited Rio with him about fifty years later, Vovo, usually a stoic, quiet man, was overjoyed to show me the social club where he spent his time as a child, the national park that is at the center of the city where he grew up, and the Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks all of Rio. For as long as I can remember, Vovo had always been very outspoken about his infinite love for Brazil. As he explained the Brazilian culture that he grew up in, the excitement in his voice and the look on his face made me realize that, even though he was a proud American, he would always be an even prouder Brazilian and wanted me to be one too.
I realized that the Mexican and Brazilian cultures that I experienced weren’t things that I could encounter during travel and then leave behind. These cultures played a part in making Abuelita and Vovo who they were, and in turn, they had a part in making me who I am. I couldn’t be more honored to be a Mexican-Brazilian-American, and seeing my grandparents’ home countries through their eyes helped me realize that.