Alien Nation. Yes, like the show, but when I was watching it as a child I didn’t put its totally valid social commentary into perspective. I, like the show, made it’s North American debut in 1989/90. However, I would not be riding the coattails of a 3 star movie of the same name. No, this was a fresh start in a new world, with a new language, a culture, etc. All being absorbed by this wide-eyed, non self-actualized alien.
I remember every detail of that fateful day. Boarding my craft, saying goodbye to the only environment I have ever known, the people, that planet. No one there was an alien, and so I had no concept of what one was, let alone my own status as one. My first encounter with this word was when I was watching an episode of the previously mentioned TV series. I made some kind of remark on how ugly those aliens looked and my father laughed and said “Don’t be so mean just because they look different… we’re aliens too, you know.” I defended this notion as best as a 6 year old could, but the one thing about arguing with my dad I’ve always known, even at that age, is that he is always right.
Canada in the early 90s (as I remember it) was a time of change. Nothing like what it is today, but the changes I am talking about were so subtle you wouldn’t notice unless you had an outsiders view. Hip-hop was making a huge emergence and television (the great baby sitter that it was) was becoming increasingly multicultural, and by multicultural I mean Black OR White. Yes, it was a step in a different direction for our technicolour TVs. Outside of the tube, however, my world seemed to pale in comparison. With the exception of a few black classmates that had arrived around the same time as I did, my elementary schools were predominantly white. Me being neither, I was caught in some sort of grey area of social confusion. I remember being asked weather I was ‘black’ or ‘white’ one day. I had no clue how to respond, and not because I was in ESL class. I was completely stumped. I went home and asked my father. He just laughed (like my dad always does) and said “You are EL SALVADORIAN! If they ask you what you are again you tell them that with pride!” he said shaking his fists in the air with that cheeky smirk he always get when he thinks himself hilarious.
(Pic via deviantART)
El Salvadorian. There was no connection to my fellow man. There was no great generalization I could be a part of with this. There were no latin american families on TV dealing with everyday problems in their own quirky ways. The only latin american musician I can recollect is Julio Iglesias, father of Enrique, and that’s like Kenny G being the father of Kanye West… embarrassing. In short, there was nothing to belong to except the memory of a place I last saw shrinking into oblivion as I peered out of that 3×3 window into the atmosphere. No, this was not enough. I needed to be part of something.
Finding your own cultural identity can be tough when you come from one of the smallest countries on your side of the planet. I was going to have to assimilate. I hit those ESL classes hard. By the time I was in grade 4 I was reading at a high school level. I immersed myself in pop culture, and found confidence where all other misfits usually do: Humour. Make them laugh. When you can’t do anything else… make them laugh.
High school, the great melting pot, instantly turned my world upside down. Everyone was of a different race, or culture, religion, colour… I mean everything! One of the first things that would come up in conversation would be “Where are you from?” and not a single person would have the same answer. “I’m from X” or “I’m half X and half Y” or “I was born here but my parents are from XYZ” and so on.
Could this be true? Is everyone from around here not actually from around here? I embraced this trend of Canadian inter-nationalism. The thought that none of us were actually from here, that I was no outcast, or rather everyone was as much of an outcast as I was invigorating. “Finally, a sense of belonging.” I thought to myself. Was this really a good thing? Unity in community can be great but perhaps we were looking at it from the wrong perspective. I’m not saying it’s wrong to embrace your roots, but at what point does it cross over from pride to prejudice? My first impressions were quickly brought into question when I noticed that this similarity between us was used to drive us apart.
The isolated sectors of the cafeteria alone were a direct parallel to the way our city functions. Chinatown, little Italy, Jamaicatown, little Mexico and so on, all located in one room. We could all be friends at some point or another, but when you stepped into that room you said goodbye to your multi-cultural friends and went and found your own kind. I tried intermingling with the Hispanics, but my spanish was rough (a by product of me taking to english with such fervor). I didn’t listen to the right music and didn’t wear the same clothes. “You’re not really Latino.” I would get… what does that even mean? My blood is all Latin American. I wasn’t born here and my first language is Spanish. Sure I’m not eating burritos everyday, but how hard do I have to try to keep my identity of culture? Once again, I was the extra piece in the puzzle box, not fitting in quite right.
I found my solace where I least expected it, with the Canadians. People of all sorts that weren’t afraid to say that they were born here, but did feel some sort of shame for it. Was it too bland? Were they not exotic enough? When asked about their backgrounds the reply would be “Just Canada…” Just Canada? The image of my father proclaiming the nation of his birth flashed in my mind. No, this was wrong. Somewhere along the line of embracing our multi-culturalism we lost the sense of pride that being in this country should entail. The sense of belonging that these people gave me for no other reason than the fact that I was there. As a peer, a neighbour, a friend.
A long time has passed since my awkward years of adolescence. Although I felt as if I gained some sense of belonging with this notion of unified disassociation, I also feel as though we have lost something more important than that. Let us not forget that wherever we are from, we are here now. A neighbour is a neighbour no matter where they moved from. So, why does that matter when it’s another country?
I came to Canada for a reason. I came here for a better life, for opportunity, for a chance to be something more than just another statistic from a third world country. I came to a land facing its own identity crisis. Caught somewhere between the boorish advertisements of beer commercials and the butt end of jokes from our comrades to the south. I came here to be Canadian, not anything else. Live the life of a Canadian, with the same freedoms and rights as every other Canadian. I came here to be part of this alien society, as an alien just like everyone else; and when I am asked where am I from, I say “I am Canadian. I was born in El Salvador, but my heart and everything else is part of Canada.”
We need to embrace all the things we have to offer the world other than snow, politeness and beer. We are more than maple syrup and cheap hospital visits. We are a nation made up of aliens all working together to achieve peace and prosperity on this alien land. We are polite because we care about each other. We have the best sense of humour in the world and that’s why we can be the butt-end of jokes and just shrug it off; we are strong. We are a nation of lovers not fighters, first responders to the ailing and always ready to help those around us. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than being Canadian with a Latin American background. And our beer is some seriously good stuff! Just because I was (on paper) El Salvadorian first doesn’t mean I am Canadian second. I am both, I am an alien and I belong here. That’s something father would be proud of.