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Arepas at Princeton: Reflections of a Colombian-American

<h6>Courtesy of Sophia Colmenares</h6>
Courtesy of Sophia Colmenares

Over fall break, I made Colombian arepas with a group of my friends in one of New College West’s communal kitchens. While teaching my friends how to knead the dough and figuring out how to turn on the too-fancy-for-its-own-good stove, I reflected on my past experiences making these savory delicacies with my family and on how I have grown as a Latina during my time at Princeton. 

My parents escaped the guerilla movement in Colombia and moved to Houston, Texas in 1998. When I was born, my parents wanted to name me “Sofía,” but chose the spelling of my name to be “Sophia” so that it looked more American. Typically, Colombian children are given both their paternal and maternal last name, but because my parents did not know that was even a possibility in the United States, I was named “Sophia Colmenares” instead of “Sophia Colmenares-Valencia.” 

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Nonetheless, my parents ensured that I grew up in a solidly Hispanic household. I remember making arepas with my mom on Saturday mornings, and I remember my dad teaching me the logistics of soccer while watching Colombia play in the FIFA World Cup. 

Because my parents were some of the only family members who left Colombia, I did not grow up seeing much more of my biological family. My other blood relatives in the United States can be counted on one hand. Instead, my “family reunions” were typically composed of my parents’ Colombian friends that they met here in the United States. Many of my “aunts” and “uncles” were my parents’ friends, and my “cousins” were their children. 

Still, that did not prevent us from being a tight-knit community, or in other words, a new “family” of sorts. Our reunions would still be filled with Colombian cumbia and pan trenza. Outside of my household, I grew up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in which childhood classmates and friends came from all sorts of backgrounds. Some knew how to speak Spanish, some knew how to play Mariachi-style accordion, and some would routinely eat paletas at the neighborhood paletería. Although I never really met most of my biological relatives, being a part of this “makeshift” family always felt home.  

Meanwhile, the mere “12 percent Hispanic undergraduates” statistic in the student population section of the admissions website never really sunk in until I physically came to Princeton. 

I suddenly was one of very few Hispanic students in my classes, especially in my engineering classes. I experienced academic imposter syndrome, as most incoming students do, but I also felt a cultural imposter syndrome. 

Being the only Hispanic student in the room sometimes, I began to feel that I needed to prove something, that I needed to be Hispanic “enough” in order to be in the room, that I needed to fit in a strict “mold” to be worthy of representing my culture. 

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Even though I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, I grew afraid to speak Spanish with other classmates and Latines on campus out of a fear of messing up the simplest of phrases. I felt like someone was always watching me for a moment of weakness, waiting to revoke my identity from me. 

These days, I still feel this presence haunting me, even when I enter Latine affinity spaces, and I am continuously in battle over whether this feeling is warranted. Sometimes the routines I have at Princeton remind me of my childhood which, looking back, may be a way for me to compensate for the lost time I have away from my family. 

Whenever I vacuum my room, I blast salsa in my headphones in the same way my mom would blast music while doing house chores. Although I am still in my journey of finding a community of those from a similar background, I am very happy with the other communities I have found at Princeton. And just how some of my routines remind me of how I grew up, sharing my culture with others brings a similar nostalgia and comfort. 

I enjoyed watching “Encanto,” a Disney film set in Colombia, in Hamilton Hall at Mathey and pointing out that the incredibly tall trees seen in this fictional magical world actually exist and are called “palmas de cera.” I enjoyed almost setting off the fire alarm from making arepas in the Bloomberg and New College West kitchens with my friends, because in doing so, I felt like I was showing appreciation for my cultural identity in an entirely new way. 

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These small moments of showing the people I care about a glimpse of my culture has made me hopeful in overcoming my fears of being culturally “good enough.” I do not speak for all Princeton Latines, and my experience navigating my cultural identity may be vastly different from those of others. As the pandemic has faded in intensity, I’ve noticed and appreciated a greater presence from Hispanic and Latine-centered organizations, like the Princeton Latin American Student Association (PLASA). I hope that organizations such as PLASA continue to be more active in supporting the diverse student body within the Hispanic and Latine community on campus.

Just as I would shape the raw arepa dough into their circular shapes, Princeton, in a way, has helped shape my understanding of my own cultural identity as Colombian-American. When I sat down that night over fall break to eat the arepas I made with my friends and we talked about our chaotic kitchen experience at New College West, I felt at home again. I am grateful that I have been able to find a new family here at Princeton through this group of friends I can call my own.

Sophia Colmenares is a junior in Chemical and Biological Engineering. Sophia can be reached at sc822 [at] princeton.edu.

This piece is part of a larger project highlighting Hispanic and Latine members of the Princeton community members. You can find the other pieces here and here.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect [at] dailyprincetonian.com.

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