People derive their identity from various aspects of their lives. This includes race, place of birth, the people they associate with, where they live, among others. Some people have faced discrimination because of their identity. Zora Neale Hurston talks of her identity as a black woman in her short story, ‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me.’ Race is a major identity issue in the United States, therefore it comes as no surprise that Zora feels that people judge her based on race rather than who she is as a person. The narrator in Baca’ poem ‘Immigrants in Our Own Land’ experiences similar issues with identity as an immigrant in the United States. The US is often described as a diverse nation and a melting pot of cultures, but there is a sense of ‘otherness’ that many people still encounter in the country just like Hurston and Baca. Identity is a common theme in Hurston and Baca’s works.
Hurston writes about racial identity in her short story. As a young girl. Hurston lived in a small town called Eatonville where everyone was black, except for white passersby traveling through the town. In her hometown, Hurston never had to think of herself as black as everyone was black like her. However, when she moved to Jacksonville at thirteen, she realized that she was different, that she was colored (Hurston 1). As a grown woman, Hurston does not define herself by her race but just as a person. She explains that she when other African-Americans see themselves as oppressed descendants of slaves, she chooses to focus on freedom that others sacrificed for. She notes that she feels most different around white people. Like when she goes to a jazz club with a white friend. She is inspired and touched by the music, while her white colleague merely compliments it as ‘good music’ (Hurston 2). Zora is astonished at how people choose to discriminate against others based on their race.
Baca’s poem ‘Immigrants in Our Own Land’ also explores the theme of identity. The narrator in the poem talks of moving from their homeland to the US, “looking for better days ahead” (Baca 2). The immigrants escaped bad experiences in their old life. The narrator talks of dictators who would break down their doors and shoot as they pleased. They came to the US with hope of a better life. The people are separated based on their race and ethnicity. The narrator writes, “So we go about our business, blacks with blacks, poor whites with poor whites, Chicanos and Indians by themselves” (Baca 27-29). The narrator then moves to a different setting, a prison cell. New people come into the prison frequently, and the narrator tells how prison will change them forever. Some will die in there while those who leave will go with hate in their eyes and no future ahead of them. Prison changes their identity as the narrator says, when they leave prison they will no longer be human.
Both Hurston and Baca writes about how society judges people based solely on their race and ethnicity. As a young girl, Hurston never thought of herself as a colored girl, she was simply Zora from Orange County. However, as she grew up, she noticed that people judged her simply from her appearance as a colored girl. She writes “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves” (Hurston 2). People expect her to be sad and angry because of the African American history of slavery, but she chooses not to dwell on the past. She says that her ancestors paid the price for her freedom, and she will use it for glory and adventure. Hurston chooses not to conform to racial identities and politics, and pities those who miss out on her company just because she is black. She has experienced some discrimination, but she chooses to ignore it and focus on who she is as a person. She gives a metaphor of nags of different colors (Hurston 4). Only the contents of the bag matter, she does not focus on the color of the bags themselves.
Baca’s poem involves the narrator and other immigrants taking on a new identity. When they first come to the United States, they have a long process to get through before they can assume their new identity. They take many tests, get shots, new papers, and even new clothes. As the poem goes on, there is a sense of despair when the immigrants are put to work in separate groups. They had high expectations when they arrived, but they get had labor jobs that pay very little. Additionally, they are separated based on the race as the administration says that there should be no mixing of cultures. From this experience, it is clear that the immigrants do not belong in the new country. They came for a biter life, but soon they realize that nothing is different. The narrator also talks about his experience when incarcerated. Going to prison changes one’s identity. Life in prison isolates them from their work, from their families for so long that they give up hope. The narrator explains that when the inmates leave prison, few will remain as human as they came in. prison changes their identity after being away from the life they were used to for so long.
Everyone struggles to define who they are, but sometimes people are handed their identity and they have no say in the issue. A perfect example of this is race where people often encounter negative stereotypes and have to work hard to prove themselves against negative views and opinions. Hurston explains that people expected her to be angry and depressed due to black history of slavery. However, she chooses to define herself as a person rather than base her identity on race. The narrator in Baca’s poem explains how workers were separated based on race and how incarceration changes a person’s identity. Race is a destructive social construct that makes some feel inferior to others, which can be quite damaging, human beings should be judged on their character as an individual rather that by the color of their skin.
Baca, Jimmy Santiago. “Immigrants in our own land.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP (1979).
Hurston, Zora Neale. How it feels to be colored me. Carlisle, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2015.