I was born on the outskirts of Lima to a Peruvian mother and an absent Spanish father. I was raised solely by my mother, in a house built by my grandfather where a clump of my other relatives sporadically resided.
I do not remember much of my early childhood. I remember that my mother was my counterpart. It was only ever her and me. She clothed me and fed me and nurtured me until I was ready to leave the hen. She was both my caretaker and my leverage. She was both my provider and my patriarch.
I was maybe five or six when my entire life was uprooted. My mother woke me up one morning and told me we were leaving. The memory is hazy because I only remember bits and pieces of my life since then, but I remember that morning and the biting confusion of my younger self when we embarked on a flight to an unfamiliar place where I was allegedly supposed to start all over.
I sparsely remember that it was still my mother and I, moving in and out of different homes, basements, cities, states — for a few years. From time to time, I was continually ripped out of places and put into new ones very suddenly and without warning. Friendships were difficult to maintain. I was constantly in a disoriented state, forced to live in a place where I did not know the language, the customs, the societal expectations.
I was involuntarily coerced into a culture very different from the one I was used to and forced to adapt to it, which made it really hard to stay immersed in my own.
My (God)-given name was Alejandra Guerra Urquieta, a matronymic blend of my father’s last name and my mother’s maiden name. In the fifth grade, I began to feel like an outsider, constantly enveloped by groups of people who were very different from me who did not know my language, my culture, or my struggles. Nobody knew how to pronounce my name. I was Ale-chandra or Ali-jandra.
I was a mispronounced syllable, insignificant, vague.
I became Ali, a name they could pronounce. Simple. Plain.
Ali became the new me. The new accommodated, homologized Peruvian American who finally blended in. Spanish, which was originally my first and only language, became a language that I seldom spoke. I built a roadblock on the portal that led me to my past and created a new persona, one that knew no struggle. One that belonged.
Ali didn’t act or look Latina. Ali didn’t listen to Hispanic music or watch novelas. Ali only dated white guys. Ali was privileged, merely by living in a country where there was opportunity. We kept some traditions, like Hispanic holiday rituals but eventually my mother was re-married and gave birth to my little brother who grew up almost completely white. The Spanish language died in the house along with our heritage.
Throughout my young adult life, I began to feel that part of me dwindle more and more each day. Suddenly, it was embarrassing and awkward to speak my native language around people who didn’t understand it.
I softened my accent, softened my Hispanic demeanor.
It wasn’t until I spent a few months in Spain where a local told me that I had an American accent that I realized how much of my identity I had lost.
It is only lately that I am learning to understand and take pride in all the struggles my family and I have had to scramble through, and the hindrance that comes with being an illegal immigrant striving for a better, more established life. I have learned a lot of things from my mother growing up, like the preeminent value of hard work and independence, to own who you are and your eccentricity, and that women like us will always survive.
I still go by Ali most of the time, but I make sure to tell people my real name— a name that I am not ashamed of, a name that stands for warrior, a name that is doused in defeat, a name that means “conqueror” and never fails to remind me that, despite everything, I will always be capable of that.