Vanessa Acosta



When did your family immigrate to the US and where exactly did they move? What made them come?

My family first immigrated to the east coast in Virginia from Bolivia in the 1980s. Then shortly after I was born we moved to California. I think my parents saw a brighter future in the US. My dad always dreamed of more and my mother was always infatuated with western culture. Bolivia was and still is a third world country so even though their families were all there, the status of the country wasn't a promising future for the family they were beginning to build. I think after having their first kid they realized they wanted more for us. So they attempted to immigrate to the US when my sister was around 5 years old. My dad didn't have issues but my mother and older sister were deported back to Bolivia, but after several attempts they made it into the US. I was born in the 89 and my parents and sister were legal residents for most of my childhood but got their citizenship when I was in high school. They saw the opportunities here and wanted to give us the best and they did. My parents now co-run their own small business helping other legal residents/immigrant families to retrieve legal stay and citizenship. Their main client base are Latinx people, so they help others dream of the same opportunities they once dreamt of for us. 


What is the first language you learned? Do you speak any other languages?

I learned English and Spanish at the same time. English at school and Spanish at home.

What language do you primarily speak when with your family?

I speak only Spanish with my parents and English with my siblings.


Have you ever visited or been back to your family's native country? If so, how often do you visit and for how long? What is that experience like? Do you have relatives there?

There was a moment in my childhood where I actually lived in Bolivia. My parents got home sick, so we returned to their homeland. At that point my parents had three children and the three of us moved back with my mother while my father settled last minute business in the states. When you move your entire life to a new and foreign country, you leave everything behind, your family, your comfort, your home, your roots and my parents hit a wall. They didn't like the feeling of being thousands of miles away from their loved ones and that maybe they made the mistake of going to the US. After living in Bolivia for a bit my mother realized why they left their beloved country in the first place. There were riots on the streets every day and tear gas being thrown everywhere. I remember having to hide in my aunts store after school because of a street riot that was happening outside the boutique. I could only see thick smoke in the air but I remember the screeching sounds of peoples screams as they ran away. It is a horrifying memory I will always remember, and having to experience that at the age of 7 was enough to show me that it was a country in turmoil. After that we moved back to the states and would go back every other year to visit family but as we grew older we went less and less. 

It had been 10 years since I had been back to South America and I recently went back this past September for a full month to see family, source materials for my clothing brand and really just soak in the culture of my ancestors in a way that I had never done before. Bolivia still is a third world country and there are still civil protests against the government every week. A lot of the trip was spent having to maneuver around week long riots and marches around indigenous people fighting for their rights. Bolivians are proud and full of culture with deep rooted traditions that haven't died off with newer generations. It is a poor country but rich in people and culture. Bolivia has a lot to offer, it is the home of Quinoa, thousands of different types of Potatoes, the Coca leaf, Palo Santo, Cholita culture and so much more. I intend to go back there every couple of years because now I run a business that embraces my culture and I urge others to explore the small but vibrant country of Bolivia 


Describe your experience growing up in America as someone who is so closely tied to another culture. How did you feel? What things were easy? What did you find difficult?

Growing up in the US with South American parents was a kind of like living a double life. Latino parents are all about family so I spent more time with my family growing up than with my friends and as I got older and made a mind of my own I slowly began to learn about American culture. For example: I didn't try meatloaf for the first time until my senior year in high school and thats such a "classic" American meal. I didn't know how to properly pronounce certain things because those terms were only used in Spanish in my home and I didn't know the English equivalent. Internet wasn't so easy to come by for help when I was "culturally lost" in my household because it was the 90s and we had one computer with that slow AOL sign in. My parents also wouldn't know the answers when it came to things like English homework because of their broken english. I would just get teased when I mispronounced something. Growing up in a Latino household but going to a very white-American school was double the work, you're learning things from your parents culture while still trying to stay relevant with western culture and what's "cool".

It was mainly Bolivian/Argentinean culture growing up in my family and Bolivia is a small country so there aren't many of us in the U.S. so I had no one to relate to on this level. So that was also another reason family was close and a sort of comfort and familiarity for me when it came to food, holiday traditions and even humor. I was exposed to current stuff from my older sister or friends at school. I wouldn't say I was sheltered but I definitely didn't have American culture around me 100% of the time. I guess just juggling a balance of two worlds was hard. There were times where I felt like I didn't fully belong in either one. My Spanish wasn't always the best, but I also didn't feel like an American growing up, people always referred to me as the "brown quiet girl" or the "mexican." When you grow up like that you feel lost and try so hard to find your identity in other places. But as I grew older I really embraced my South American culture over my American roots. It's an ongoing battle of self identification but I think that's normal for kids of immigrants. We're first generation, we are neither here or there, we create our own path and identity that can't be put into a one dimensional box. 


What type of food do you eat at home? What are some of your favorite dishes?

Growing up with Bolivian food meant always being embarrassed inviting friends over to eat it. I offered a friend ONCE to try my favorite Bolivian dish in high school and she said "ew". My favorite dish is Aji De Fideo. I'm sure, like any country, everyone has their own special version of this, but my mom's is my favorite. It's a pasta dish with chicken or breaded beef. It's gonna sound like a weird mix but I love it. It's fettuccine pasta with bell peppers, hard boiled eggs, onions AND raisins topped with Bolivian cheese. Cooked in the oven and then combined with a breaded chicken that is drenched in red aji sauce, you pour that over the pasta and voila. Quinoa is also native in Bolivia so that's a very common thing to eat as well. Honestly all Bolivian cuisine is my favorite but the spices and cheese are hard to come by so when my mother cooks it, it's a real treat and special occasion. Now that I am older I am not embarrassed of the food. I want to let everyone know about it because I think it got trendy to be explorative and worldly with your food palette. So if you ever come by a Bolivian Salteña, then you have to try it!

Describe your experience making friends as a kid growing up in the UNITED STATES.

My experience making friends in the US has been a rollercoaster. I grew up in Orange County so my options for diversity were not a lot. I went to a private school so the majority of my friends were white and I was the brown girl. I was the only one with a different culture. Everyone else was very first class rich white America. Even though I went to a private school my family was bottom tier. We were not on the wealthy spectrum at this school so I was exposed to a pretty bourgeois lifestyle in OC from the friends that I had. I only stay in contact with about 4 people from that school because I realized it was a very toxic way to grow up. White Christianity is linked to the colonization and destruction of brown indigenous cultures and peoples and it's so weird to come out of that brainwashed world and see the truth they don't teach you. But once I graduated and got out into the real world, I somehow managed to find a small but close group of all women of color girlfriends. I finally had a group of friends that laughed along with me when telling stories about things like "the chancla". That felt good, I felt like I had found gals my age that grew up the same way I did. It was so refreshing and just so NEW to have found a community like that. But then I moved to LA on my own and had to create a new group of friends in this city and after 10 years of being in this city, I have the most diverse group of friends! I have friends of every race and color and culture and even found a select few of Bolivians which I am so proud about because like I said before, we are rare to come by. Los Angeles is a melting pot and you're just over stimulated by so many unique beings who have such amazing stories and you share these stories and find a common ground and that's magical. 


Do you consider yourself as more of an American or that of your parents' native country?

Definitely Bolivian/Argentinean more. I identify as a Bolivian and yes I am an American citizen and lucky to be given the opportunity to build a life here but Bolivia is my roots, my face, my skin, my blood. I've built a business identifying as a Bolivian and creating Bolivian designs because I want to showcase the culture of my ancestors and show representation of a country that doesn't get it too often. All of my inspiration and drive comes from my parents ancestral land. People know me as "FROM A BOLIVIAN"in the Bolivian and Latino community. So definitely more Bolivian than American!

Are you proud to be American? 

I am lucky to be in this country and for my parents to have come here to give us a better future. But given the current political climate and status of this country, it's really hard to say you're proud to be an American when the president is now 27th day of the government shutdown and all for a wall. A wall to keep out people that are trying to do what my parents did for me. I can see things turning and I am proud of other Americans stepping up to the plate and making a change and we all made that change by voting but we have a while to go. It's just such a difficult time in America right, especially for a woman of color, but I have hope things will take a turn for the better. 


Do you plan to pass along aspects of your parents native culture to your children (if you choose to have them)? What parts of the culture do you want to keep if any? If yes, how important is that to you, and how do you plan on doing so?

100% YES. I am all for passing on everything I learned to the next generation. That is how cultures and languages die, you must pass it on and educate. Definitely will be teaching them Spanish, quirky, silly traditions we would have at New years, Native songs, Bolivian cuisine. Will definitely be taking them to Bolivia when they are old enough to suck all that information in. I want them to know about their ancestors, the indigenous peoples that are still alive and well. Culture and keeping it alive is so important to me. It is what I do in my business.


Are there aspects of your culture that you don't enjoy, parts that you know you don't want to pass on?

Machismo is a big issue in Latin countries as well as old thinking ways. I got a lot of angry stares while in Bolivia because of my tattoos. It is frowned up to be a woman and have this many tattoos. Men in Bolivia beat their women more than any other latin country and are also not faithful to their spouses as well. That is beginning to change and I hope that dies out in the next generation.

What's one thing you wish people knew about your culture? 

The food and the Cholitas! Cholita culture in Bolivia is getting more media so I love that and the food is so underrated or just not known at all. There are a trio of Bolivian brothers on the east coast that are putting Bolivian modern/fusion cuisine on the map and I am so happy about that as well.


Are there any specific thoughts / inspiration behind the way you took your photos and what you took photos of?

I guess I took it as literal as can be. I took photos of my everyday life. Some days were dull and others were crazy busy with an extravagant lifestyle. I think it's important for first generation kids of immigrants to know that you don't have to have this heroic or grand life to be able to live in this country. You can just live a normal happy life without having to prove you belong in this country. I am a photographer and designer in LA and throughout the span of this process I had days where I was just cutting fabric in my office and on the computer and other days I was shooting Common and shooting models and living a life that my parents couldn't have even dreamed of. 

I just wanted people to see that I'm just a normal gal living her best life in Los Angeles. I wanted to show the current state I was in. I've had to jump through obstacles in this city and have had triumphs as well. I am a thriving Bolivian/American and it was great to be able to just document my every day life and think that people would be interested in peaking through the lens with me, it's a lovely feeling. I love that people would want to hear my story, its a unique one. Just like any other first generation story out there. We are one of a kind.