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Amber SimontonAmber Simonton

Amber Simonton: Journey to Herself.

Amber Simonton carefully splits the narrow green chili down the center. She gently scrapes out the seeds and dices the chili into fine pieces. The chili's juice makes her eyes water and her hands tingle. She's making homemade salsa, something she's never done before.

Simonton, a Willamette transfer honors scholarship recipient, grew up torn between two worlds - Caucasian and Latino. The senior sociology major is the daughter of Diane Simonton, a Caucasian, and Oscar Serrano, a Latino born in El Salvador. She grew up in Lynnwood, Wash., a primarily white and relatively affluent suburb of Seattle.

"Lynnwood doesn't really have a Latino community," she says, scraping the chilies into a bowl. "There's one Mexican restaurant that sells tacos and a little store that sells Mexican CDs and stuff, but that's it. My dad didn't teach me Spanish or talk much about growing up in El Salvador. I had little connection to my Latino heritage."

On this Saturday, she's gathered with 10 Willamette students at the home of admissions counselor, Ramiro Flores, to learn how to make tamales for a University cultural event. "We grew up eating this food, but none of us know how to make it," she says. She opens a package of dried corn husks and begins separating them. "We tried to make papusas, a traditional food from El Salvador, but they were raw in the middle. When we made enchiladas, we set off the smoke alarm three times."

She places the corn husks in the steamer to soften them. Other students are melting manteca (lard) to mix into masa, the cornmeal that will wrap the tamales. Latino ranchera music pulses from a CD player in the next room. Several of the girls sway to the music. The air is thick with the of smell of garlic, cumin, chili and pork.

"A lot of immigrants experience discrimination," says Simonton. "They push their cultural heritage into the background because they think their kids will have an easier time growing up. That's especially true for kids like me who come from a mixed background."

Most of the students making tamales today are Latino. Simonton's fair complexion and blue eyes stand out. "Most people perceive me as white, especially when I'm with a predominantly white group."

Growing up passing for Caucasian didn't make her feel more like her white, affluent classmates. "We were poor compared to most of my peers at school. My dad owned a little restaurant on Highway 99 that sold hamburgers, French fries, sodas and milkshakes. My mom worked as a housekeeper in a nursing home."

When Simonton's parents separated, her Latino cultural heritage slipped even further away. She knew something was missing and her discontent showed. "I was just a frustrated, angry teenager. I couldn't relate to school. I was lost."

A trip to Mexico with her dad when she was a high school sophomore began to open the door to her true identity. "Mexico felt like a homecoming to me," she says. "I'd never been there before, but I felt connected to the people and to the culture. I realized this was the part of me that I'd been missing."

The students measure out several cups of yellow corn masa into a large blue tub and add melted lard and warm pork broth. Simonton plunges her hands into the cornmeal, her fingers mixing the wet and dry ingredients. The gritty mixture makes her hands, already inflamed from the chilis, burn even more.

When Simonton returned from the trip to Mexico with her dad, she was energized. "In my senior year, I said, 'I want to do something with my life. I still have a chance.' But my high school counselor wouldn't help me apply for college or for financial aid. He made me feel like I shouldn't even try."

Despite the lack of help, Simonton enrolled at Seattle Central, a community college with a large, diverse student population. For the first time, she found herself surrounded by students of color. "I interacted with other Latino students and realized that I share a rich heritage with them."

She joined the student Latino organization, M.E.Ch.A, and worked on the College Activities Board to bring Latino-oriented activities to campus. "I was able to combine my newly found interest in my heritage and my interest in social justice issues with everything I was learning in my classes. It was really exciting for me."

With the preparation work for the tamales done, the students form an assembly line around the dining room table. In the center of the table is a stack of softened cornhusks, the tub of masa dough, bowls of green and red salsa, shredded pork and crumbly Mexican cojita cheese. One student separates the softened cornhusks. Another rolls balls of masa and flattens them with a metal tortilla press. Still another spreads the dough onto the husks. The package is passed to the next student where a tablespoon each of pork and salsa are placed onto the center of the masa. Finally, each tamale is gently folded and stacked into steamers to be cooked.

Despite her alliance with Latino students, Simonton knows she's different. "I've had to mitigate belonging to two different groups my whole life. When I'm with a group of Latino friends, I'm not brown enough. When I'm with a group of white people, I'm not white enough. When you're of mixed heritage, people treat you differently. They ask ridiculous questions. They make assumptions about you and your family."

She began to embrace her difference at a conference and later during a summer internship with Mavin Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for multi-racial, multi-ethnic people. "I realized there are all these other people who have the same experience as me. Just like me, they're always being told that they don't completely belong."

It's dark now. They've been here for six hours and Simonton feels weary. They still have 100 more tamales to make before they leave.

"Coming to Willamette has made everything come together for me - my cultural history, my interest in activism and social justice, my interest in sociology and my unique identity," she says, gazing at the sliding glass doors that are steamy from bubbling pots on the stove. "My scholarships have made it possible for me to be here. Before I came to Willamette, I had this fragmented identity. Now, I'm a whole person and I'm part of many different tight-knit circles here. Having these two different heritages makes me richer, you know?"