By Peter Jones
Denise Soler had her “aha!” moment in the late 1990s in Miami. She was in her mid-20s at the time and living in a city where more than half of the population was born outside the United States. But she was still grappling with her place as a first-generation American-born U.S. citizen with Cuban and Puerto Rican ancestry.
It was during some light banter with several other young Hispanics that she suddenly felt an affinity for more than her proud ethnic heritage. She realized that other Latinos had similarly grown up with an odd mix of cultural tradition and an ongoing, sometimes-awkward assimilation into the broader culture.
As the evening’s lighthearted conversation with Eduardo (turned Eddie) and Ramon (turned Raymond) ensued, a bittersweet smile crossed Soler’s face while her childhood memories began to pour like sangria.
“As a third-grader, people would call me Denise Soler System. Now, I think it’s funny, but it made me cry when I came home,” she said. “I thought I was alone having my own experience on the outside looking in and straddling two different worlds. Then I realized I was actually in the company of not only the people there in the room, but every single person that had been born with immigrant parents.”
Before long, Soler – a name pronounced with an ever-so-slightly rolled r – realized there was even a name for this brand of bicultural identity. As it happened, she was an “Enye,” a shorthand quasi-generational term derived from “eñe,” the word for “ñ,” the distinct Spanish letter to which many Denverites became accustomed through the city’s onetime Mayor Federico Peña.
Confused? Think Generation X or Y with a Hispanic twist.
“We like Celia Cruz, who’s like the queen of salsa, but we also like Madonna,” said the now locally based Enye, in defining her “generation’s” cultural identity.
Local filmmaker Denise Soler Cox is co-producer of Project Ñ, a film and multimedia platform focused on the first-generation children of Hispanic immigrants. Photo courtesy of Project Ñ
Enyes and frienyes
In the years since that fateful bull session in Florida, Denise Soler Cox – a new name that came by virtue of her marriage to a “frienye,” a non-Hispanic “friend” of the Enye community – the now 43-year-old woman has sought to shed light on the stories, culture and challenges of her ever-growing community.
Cox says she knew there was a book, movie or something else just waiting to get out of the ongoing conversation – but what is a graphic artist without a film background to do about it?
“It was one of those ideas that wouldn’t let me go,” she said.
The wait is over – sort of. A short film called Project Ñ will make its premier during CineLatino, Sept. 25-28, a Hispanic film festival, at the Sie Film Center in Denver. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion.
Unlike most festivals, audience members, particularly those who qualify as Enyes, may have the opportunity to get involved, even after the documentary is screened. The short film is just the first step in a much larger project that will eventually include a full-length movie and an ongoing interactive Web presence.
Henry Ansbacher, a locally based Emmy-winning and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, is collaborating with Soler Cox. Ansbacher’s credits include last year’s American Mustang, a documentary produced by south metro’s Ellie Phipps Price.
“Wouldn’t it be incredible if that same experience could be shared by the 16 million Enyes that are in America right now,” Ansbacher said of 21st century Enyes. “The best way to facilitate that is through a documentary. There are so many stories, so many interesting people. I think there’s a real hunger for it. It’s all designed around a crowd-powered idea.”
This attention being paid to first-generation American-born Hispanics may be more than academic. Latinos are the fastest-growing minority in the United States, as is exemplified in the 6th Congressional District, where one in five residents is Hispanic and candidates Rep. Mike Coffman and his challenger Andrew Romanoff have scheduled a debate next month that will be conducted entirely in Spanish.
“I think it’s exciting to think about what will happen as more of the Enyes get woken up to that,” Ansbacher said of a growing Hispanic influence. “It’s hard to predict what that will look like in a political sense or in a cultural or neighborhood sense.”
Cox agrees that it is all up in the air, when it comes to the long-term future of a slowly rising demographic that is unaccustomed to cultural or political influence.
“I’m curious to see what will happen once 16 million people feel like they’re part of something, particularly young people, because when people don’t feel like they’re part of things, they might not make the best choices,” she said.
Born in New York City to a mother from Puerto Rico and a father born in New York to a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother, Cox (nee Soler) saw her fair share of culture in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in the Bronx and during regular trips to a church in upper Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem.
Although constantly living amid the food, culture and music of her family’s homelands, Cox’s parents kept the Spanish language at bay.
“They wanted me to participate and take advantage of all that was offered to me without being discriminated against,” Cox explained.
Cox’s childhood turned out to be a tale of two cultures.
“We lived in a two-bedroom apartment. I shared a room with my two brothers,” she said. “Then my parents saved up everything they had to move us to Westchester County. Back in the ‘70s, it was very non-Latino. I did not meet my first Latino classmate until high school.”
Westchester is where Cox became a real fish – or mojito shrimp – out of water. Her family simplified its last name to the more simply pronounced “Solar” and tried to fit in, even as Cox’s Chinese-American friends had an easier time of it.
“I always envied them because they walked into a room and no one could take away their Asianness. Even if they were here for three generations, they always got to be Chinese,” she said. “I was first generation and I couldn’t be a Puerto Rican.”
In that continuing world of contradictions, Cox would later be chastised by a Hispanic call-center representative when she simplified her pronunciation of “Soler.” Cox would eventually travel as far as Spain and Puerto Rico in search of ways to understand her increasingly complex heritage.
“Spain is the only place in the world I’ve been where I felt most connected,” she said. “I happen to have a very southern Spanish look. My name [Soler] is even more popular there. I got to be ordinary. But in Puerto Rico, I was a ‘gringa,’ which is kind of like being called a spic.”
Clearly, the story of the American Enye is multifaceted and one that will be prone to multidimensional stories and endless bonus features as Project Ñ continues to seek out and tell the stories of first-generation American-born Hispanics.
Take the footnoted “chicken stories,” which may eventually comprise a whole section of the project.
Cox, for one, recalls visiting her grandmother in rural Puerto Rico.
“All of a sudden, she went with a machete and whacks the head off this chicken,” she said with a laugh. “The next thing I know, I’m watching a [headless] chicken running all over the backyard and we had chicken for dinner.”
As for fluently speaking the language of her chicken-chopping grandmother, Cox admits that she is a work in progress as she continues her role as a sometimes self-conscious Hispanic swimming in the American melting pot.
“The more I drink, the better I get,” she said with a smile.
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