Rachel Lichtman Castaño is a mixed-race Colombian-American who’s very proud to say she was born, raised, and currently lives and works in Queens, New York. A paisa with roots in Medellin, Colombia, she has a passion for housing advocacy, reading, and trying new food places around the city.
Angela: Describe yourself and how you identify; whatever you’re comfortable telling people on a blog that they will read
Rachel: My full name is Rachel Danielle Lichtman Castaño I guess I would describe myself as second generation Colombian-American, my mom grew up between here and Colombia, and my father is from here; I identify as queer, mixed-race Latina, and right now I am a paralegal of the Tenants Rights Coalition of the Legal aid society, I just graduated from Smith College in May of last year, and I love reading and cats. Currently my new love is LSAT studying because I’ve been doing that every day.
Angela: So you just told me about your generation status; Can you describe it again?
Rachel: I guess I am second generation because my mom was born here, but she was brought to Colombia when she was very small. Her and her siblings were brought between New York City and Colombia, where they spent most of their childhood until they finally settled here in New York City. My mom was 13 or 14 when my family moved here permanently. So I would describe my mom as first generation and myself as second generation.
Angela: And when you say here, do you mean that your family has lived in New York all your life?
Rachel: My mom was born in Bronx, but they lived in Chelsea, Brooklyn, and everywhere, but most of the time they were in Jackson heights, which has a lot of Colombian immigrants there. I still have my cousins there – I have my abuelo living in Brooklyn, I have my tia living in Elmhurst; some cousins living here in Queens, and my other cousins in the US are all in Florida and North Carolina.
Angela: Tell me more about your family: who’s important to you?
Rachel: Well, my mom and my abuela are probably the two people I think of first when I think of the people most important to me. My mom was in school for a lot of my life; she didn’t graduate college until 3 or 4, so my abuela raised me a lot, and of course my dad is important to me, but I haven’t lived with him since I was 6. So there’s that, but when I was younger, my tia Rosalba who lives in Elmhurst also took care of me, so these three women are the central figures in my life. They taught me Spanish and what it meant to be Colombian, taught me how to be a hard worker; how to get what I want…so definitely those three women I think of immediately.
Angela: And how did your family end up in the U.S.? Tell me how they got here and what your family is today.
Rachel: Well…my abuela and abuelo came here because they wanted to raise children here because back when they lived in Colombia there was not a lot of opportunity, and our family did not have a lot of money at all, so they thought it would be better to raise their kids here. But like a lot of immigrants discover, it’s not a land of opportunity that it’s marketed as; a lot of the time they were here, they were trying to find jobs while my mom and my family were in Colombia – the family was not together a lot…for a lot of their childhood, my mom and my aunt and uncle were raised with their cousins by aunts,uncles and grandparents because it’s really hard to get your start here. My abuelo tried to start a business at one point I think but it didn’t work out. I’m pretty sure my abuela cleaned houses for a while – now she’s a seamstress, but it took a while for them to get established at the point that the family was able to reunite.
Right now, I live with my mom, my abuela lives with us some of the time but she has her own apartment in New Jersey. My abuelo – he lived between here and Colombia for a while, but he moved to Brooklyn permanently. My tia Rosalba lived in Elmhurst; she lived here for 30 or 40 years I don’t really remember, but my mom has a couple of cousins that live in New York, and [all her other] cousins live in Florida. The rest of the family lives in Colombia.
Angela: I guess you already described some of who’s important to you in your photos, but talk about the photos you sent – why did you send them and how do they relate to you?
Rachel: First one [photo of Rachel and abuela on mom’s birthday] I feel like I’m always kind of annoying because my mom is always like…come on, let’s take a picture! and my abuela is like…oh, another picture? I love always taking pictures because the three of us. I think of us being like Las tres marias, the three Mary’s in the bible, you always think of it as a set, and my mom, abuela and I love to go around together; we are kind of like a set.
The second photo is of me and my tia on her 88th birthday; I just love her so much…she took care of me for years, she’s the first one who taught me spanish, she brought me all around Elmhurst & Jackson Heights – it’s such an area that I have a strong connection to because I have memories of walking around with my tia. And if you peek in the upper left of the photo, you can see a photo of my abuelita; she passed away when I was 11, but she was also a very important person to me. She couldn’t walk around for much of my childhood; she was sick, but she was always very special to me and I think of her very very fondly and love her a lot even though she’s not here anymore.
The third photo is from my first trip to Colombia…it was so incredible so in the picture it’s me, my mom, my mom’s cousin Marta, her mom my tia Ana, Marta’s daughter Ana Cristina, and my little cousin Carolina. Her mom, Yolanda was taking the picture. And these were the people I stayed with; they all lived in the same house – well…Ana Cristina moved out, but these people were the first cousins in Colombia that I ever met. When my mom and I arrived to the Medellin airport, I heard screaming, and it was a huge group of them with balloons…they were ready to hug us and kiss us. The way that they welcomed us; they hadn’t seen my mom in 33 years, the contact was maybe once every couple of months, and it was my first time meeting them and their first time meeting me; It was so incredible to meet these people and to know that we are so strongly connected, they were willing to open their home to us right away. They were such amazing hosts – they took us everywhere, they cooked for us, they made sure that we saw everything there was to see in Medellin which was the city my family lives. It was a beautiful time, and my family was so beautiful – I’m actually probably going to go to Medellin again this summer.
Angela: That’s really cool and great that you made that connection. It sounds so amazing – so much history and family connections. Okay, so how do you think your family has influenced your worldviews growing up?
Rachel: I think definitely the mentality that a lot of immigrant kids talk about is to work hard and you will reap the results your successes. My mom is a huge inspiration to me because she went to college after I was born, and she was in a master’s program for a lot of my childhood. She did it all as a single mom. She balanced all the responsibilities that come with life, and she kind of reminds me that…this sounds so cliche, but work hard and if the system deems you lucky enough, you really can get the job of your dreams; she really loves her job, and one day if I work as hard I’ll get the job of my dreams. The same goes for my abuela, my tia; both of them are so selfless – they sacrificed a lot to make sure that they could lay the groundwork for the success of my mother and myself and all the generations that will come after us. They worked really hard for many years…my tia worked 2 different jobs in Brooklyn and in lower Manhattan for a lot of her life…my abuela still works full time..she doesn’t like to be idle. She gets bored really easily. But they are all just really hard workers and they have very giving souls, I would say. Very focused on making sure everything is good with their families.
Angela: Okay. Wow that’s a lot right there and it’s clear that these women have really impacted you. I guess a lot of their mentality I see reflected through you. Which brings me to my next question, what do you think it means to be American? If you identify as such…
Rachel: Of course I think I’m American…like I grew up here, so by default I’m American. But it’s interesting…I was having a conversation with someone once, and we were talking about the American dream, and how it’s like..yeah you work hard and you get to be successful…but why does it have to be solely an American thing – doesn’t everyone want to do well and do something they love and provide for their families? I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not sure what it really means to be American because it’s not like Americans have a monopoly on wanting a good life for their families [chuckles] but in terms for me, the type of American I want to be is someone who, government non-withstanding- wants to make my country a better place…I want to help my community be the best it can be and to always stay true to my roots & my culture – I don’t know if that’s necessarily what a lot of people would say what it means to be an American, but that’s what it means to me.
Angela: Can you say the first part of that again? You said “I want to be someone government non-withstanding” what did you say before that?
Rachel: I guess what I said was government non-withstanding…it’s the kind of American I want to be is someone who wants to make her country a better place, the community a better place because whether I consider myself patriotic or not, this is where I live, this is where I grew up, and while my family roots are in Colombia, this [the U.S.] is where I’ve grown and blossomed.
Angela: So…is your identity different from your family? I guess that of national identity?
Rachel: I mean, I consider myself Colombian-American… my mom does too, I don’t know what my tia & abuela would say, but my tia has the Colombian flag and American flag in a vase in her apartment. So I guess that’s a pretty good indication of what she would say, and they all have dual citizenship, except for my mom is not a Colombian citizen… neither am I.
Angela: Okay. So you have visited Colombia…
Rachel: Yeah in 2011 for two weeks
Angela: So when was the first time you visited?
Rachel: That was the first and only time I visited.
Angela: Okay. do you think you’ll have the chance to visit again, and would you want to?
Rachel: Probably at the end of this summer I’ll go to visit….yeah my abuela hasn’t seen my sister, my tia Ana in 10 years, so I’m trying to get her to go with me
Angela: Anything more you want to tell me about yourself? Your family? Anything in general…family, identity [pause] American-ness…
Rachel: I guess something I’ve thought about is how great of a diaspora it is from Latin America… we have our indigenous roots, but we have our roots in Africa, Europe, and from there we’ve spread throughout the world. I have cousins and aunts in Spain, family in australia, family all around the US… it’s just really incredible to think about how much people spread & how people go…I mean not a lot of it is by choice. A lot of it is by circumstance, and not good circumstance like, you know, if you’re starving you’re not gonna stay there, you’re gonna find some food to eat, but I guess it’s just incredible and beautiful in its own way… I definitely think it’s beautiful in it’s own way. I think it’s kinda funny my uncle ended up in Spain [laughs] in a horrible way… darkly ironic
Angela: Yeah I feel a lot of that too. The reason I wanted to do this project was because I’m the product of a diaspora and so are so many of my friends. Just like the fact like I have moved around, and I have family in a lot of the world, in a lot of places you’ve described; Australia, New Zealand, and like in different places in the world. I think about circumstance and the memory and legacy of family. That’s what inspires me to do this project.
Angela: I have one last question for you. What do you want to tell people coming across your piece on the website? It could be anyone.
Rachel: I guess what I would want to say is… don’t ever forget your part of something bigger even if you’re alone…just remember all of the connections you’ve made, whether they are familiar or not. It’s not fair to say that if you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going…I think that if you have the opportunity to know where you come from, you should definitely take it because there’s so much value in knowing your roots and your culture. I feel like a lot of people…people of color who grow up in the U.S. find it easy to sort of distance themselves because when you’re young, you’re taught that you’re different…that it’s something to be ashamed of…to not necessarily speak English. When I was younger I refused to speak Spanish cuz that’s just kinda the way I learned, in America we speak English, but I think it’s so important to claim your roots and claim them as fiercely as you can. Even if it’s not necessarily language related, food, just talking to the people in your family…trying to make a visit to the country or countries you have your roots in…I think that there’s nothing that can really parallel the value in that.
Angela: Thank you so much. That brings us to the end of the interview.