When I left Lima, I felt I was leaving something behind.
Maybe it’s because I know that in the U.S., a menu will cost me $11 instead of 11 soles. Or it is because I’ll miss the beautiful lights of Barranco at night or the long drives back through the traffic on the Javier Prado? Or because I’ll miss all the laughs? Or maybe also, because again after 13 years, I left a place where I am part of the majority.
Wednesday, afternoon. Last Uber drive back home.
I walk into the Innovation Office and see not only an arrangement of presents at my desk, but three cameras recording my reaction. A surprise gift for someone…that’s weird. Who’s leaving? I thought. It took me a moment—me. I was the one who was leaving and this time, I was getting the surprise parting gift. For me. Claps from other tables surrounded me as tears ran down my face and I looked around at whom to thank. Through a blurry vision, I saw my friends faces—each a different shade. Each of them, unique. We had become family.
Why do I say majority? Because for the first time, I didn’t have to explain the beauty of salsa or how delicious arroz chaufa is. I didn’t have to explain how much terrorism had affected Peru in the 80s—my friends had lived it directly. I didn’t have to go up to a person and have them look at me weirdly because I gave them a huge exclamatory welcome and hug (as is common in both my Northern and Southern Peruvian roots. Loud talking, hugging, and taking interest in small talk is something I really appreciate from my culture. Care is so openly given). Open arms, that gave me the confidence that I so sorely needed to explore different facets of my personality.
In the midst of all this, yes, I felt very afraid. As a girl who was used to the reserved manner she had slowly grown accustomed to in the US—coming into a family that was wild, free, loud and challenged me to be myself 100% all the time, was a big challenge for me. Speaking? Sharing my feelings and opinions openly about the world? Wearing tight-fitting clothes to a party? Drinking? Who am I then? I asked myself this many a weekend. Because up until now—Luisa had one name. Luisa. The student who maybe wanted to party and dance, but…maybe another weekend? The student who has a lot to say about the world, but maybe I should just write it down instead of risking hurting someone else’s feelings?
But in Peru, I was Fer. Fernanda, my middle name, the one that I had asked my family to call me. I challenged these fears and dove head first into them. I went clubbing with my cousins. I drank my first beer. I spoke even when I felt I shouldn’t. I laughed loudly and smiled widely. I ate vigorously. I joined conversations I thought I couldn’t be a part of. I’d like to say I learned that I must always face my fears and challenge them, thus they become as insignificant as a speck of dust on the floor over time. But as I now sit at MIT, far away from the society that let me live, the fears come back to me one my one. What do I do now? What if I forget everything I learned?
Who do I become? And in that case, is identity something you form and shape, decisions you make, boxes you put yourself into? Or is it something you accept as a part of yourself—something that you don’t want to explain and are happy when people accept? Or is it about the places you feel comfortable or the places where you overcome uncomfortableness? Or is it songs that are your jam, or songs that others teach you to jam to?
I don’t know. I wish I did! I wish, just like my 2.001 pset or Hamilton, this had a concluding paragraph that so neatly summarized the answer. But I think—just like good musicals—the answer isn’t a straight line.
When I was riding an Uber with one of my close friends from work, I told him about my struggle to find the balance between the question, “Am I American or am I Peruvian?” and how American-born Mexicans call themselves Chicanos to honor their heritage.
“Bueno pues, eso te haría ti Pecana,” he said. “Una Americana con corazón Peruano.”
We laughed. Pecana. Grown up in America, but with Peruvian heart.
Luisa Fernanda Apolaya Torres is a member of the class of 2021 studying mechanical engineering and theater. This summer, she is working on developing a digital platform through an internship at the innovation department in Innova Schools, an educational company in Lima, Peru.