Los Angeles, Sept 19 – For my family, the 15th of September has historically been spent in my parents’ backyard commemorating my father’s birthday with a “churrasco.” In my family, the 15th is not be confused with the 14th, which is what is actually on my father’s birth certificate, because his father was too drunk on the day his son was born to remember if he had arrived that day or the day before.
On this day only, my father goes by the nickname of independencio, because on the same day 2,385 miles away, Guatemala is celebrating their independence from the Spanish empire. The streets are covered in white and blue, and the emergency rooms are full to the brim with injuries from the sheer amount of illegal fireworks. Runners make their way on the cobblestone streets of Antigua lighting the Independence Torches. I, however, have never experienced this in person.
Since leaving in 2005, I have never looked back. It was that year my family made the difficult decision to relocate to Boston, Massachusetts so I could receive life-saving treatment for a tumor that had wrapped itself around my spinal cord. Leaving their home country for a land completely unknown was the hardest decision my parents had to make. In a matter of three months, every Earthly possession we had was sold for cash. And in the same amount of time, I picked up English from my classmates and a para at school that was assigned to follow me around like a hawk.
My parents have made the journey back to Guatemala a handful of times, but I always have stayed back. The tall and narrow sidewalks as well, as the cobblestone streets, make wheelchair access virtually impossible. One can only endure so many piggyback rides up buildings that have no way to accommodate an accessible elevator. Living in the United States, I get to experience a quality of life that would have been deemed impossible had my parents decided to stay in Guatemala.
I often think of how having access to mobility aids such as hand controls and curb cuts came at the price of my culture. I am thankful for the lightweight folding wheelchairs I get every couple of years with my health insurance while my tongue becomes stiff as I try to order pupusas in Spanish and find that basic words have left my vocabulary. A life lived within the bounds of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a privileged one. It has led me to where I am now – a graduate student in design and media arts at UCLA. Being Latina, however, means that I must continue to play my role in the fight for those being held back by systems of oppression while also remembering how far we’ve come.
Currently, we are celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month, which recognizes the contributions made and the important presence of Hispanic and Latinx Americans in the United States and celebrates our heritage and culture. It is important to note this includes more than 5.4 million Hispanic/Latinx people living with a disability in the U.S.
Krista Ramirez-Villatoro is an Entertainment Media Fellow in RespectAbility’s National Leadership Program for Summer and Fall 2021, a paid internship funded by the Neilsen Foundation for people with spinal cord injuries. RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so that people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of community. In addition, Ramirez-Villatoro is pursuing her Master’s in design and media arts at UCLA while playing tennis. She will be UCLA’s first ever adaptive tennis player to compete at a collegiate level.