Denise Soler Cox was five, maybe six, years old when she figured it out.
She’d spent nearly all day at the Church of the Good Neighbor between the Spanish church service she didn’t fully understand, the community time loitering over coffee, and the hide-and-go-seek game she played in the basement of the building, which smelled of old metal pipes and history.
Finally, Denise and her two older brothers, David and Danny, climbed back in her parents’ green Mercury Cougar. The next 45 minutes to an hour were devoted to driving back—from the boisterous East Harlem neighborhood in New York City, where their Puerto Rican mother and half-Puerto Rican, half-Cuban, first-generation American father had met about 15 years earlier in that same old church. Back to the ritzy, white suburbs of Westchester County, where they’d recently relocated from the Bronx.
“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” a jazzy tune from the 1969 album The Chicago Transit Authority blared over the radio as the car drove past bigger and bigger houses.
As I was walking down the street one day
A pretty lady looked at me and said
Her diamond watch had stopped cold dead
When they arrived home, Soler Cox’s parents turned on the music again. This time, merengue and salsa filled the room. “That was the first memory I have of realizing, ‘Things are different here,”’ she says. “It was the feeling that home was like another country.” Even at such a young age, she recognized that her life was split between two worlds: American and Latino.
Forty years later, Soler Cox knows she’s not alone in this identity crisis. In fact, she estimates (conservatively) that at least 16 million people—those born in the United States with at least one parent from a Spanish-speaking country—may be able to relate. In a culture eager to assign broad labels—white, black, goth, prep, straight, gay—people like Soler Cox don’t exactly fit. They’re the middle of the Venn diagram, and no one really knows what to call it.
It took Soler Cox more than 25 years (and a move to Miami) to discover that someone had, in fact, come up with a descriptor for her: ñ, pronounced en-yay. (Generation ñ is a Miami media organization that embraces and bridges American-Latino identities.) “Before that, I never felt good enough to be a part of either [community],” she says. “I realized that [being] both was something, and it was a thing that I could be a member of.”
Since then, she has gone from feeling disconnected to her mixed heritage to serving as the co-leader of the Denver-based Project Enye, a community-building movement that lends a voice to the lost identity she once thought was only hers to suffer from.
In person, Soler Cox’s skin is a light, gleaming ochre, her almond eyes dark, and her hair wavy. Her resonating laugh sends listeners to the bustling streets of Puerto Rico, where you can almost smell the café con leche and feel the rhythm of the music.
Her Project Enye partner, Henry Ansbacher, is of German descent, with a dark mop and a kind, weathered face. Soler Cox called him three years ago with the idea of making a documentary after getting his number through a mutual friend (his former next-door neighbor); as a four-time Emmy Award winner and Academy Award-nominated producer, she thought he might be able to execute the vision she’d been dreaming up for the past two decades.
“Listening to this story and thinking about this as a media project, I was really taken in right from the start,” Ansbacher says. “It cued up a bunch of thoughts about my own life and heritage that I hadn’t really thought about.” (His grandfather immigrated to Vermont from Germany in the 1930s and maintained a thick accent until he died at 101.) “It gave me a little insight into my dad maybe having some shame, living with a dad who’s not like all the other dads. That tension and conflict isn’t new, but I think it’s an important story to tell again and to tell in a new way.”
Together, Soler Cox and Ansbacher act almost like husband and wife—finishing each other’s sentences, running through each other’s lists of accolades—but they’re having way too much fun to be married. The two got a grant from the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado and employed the Kickstarter crowd-sourcing model to attract user-generated videos that they planned to use in their documentary. They’ve since pivoted and begun using these submissions as a pipeline; now, a few of the 10-person Project Enye staff conducts and films most of the interviews (to give the mini-films more of a polished edge). Each week, they post a new two-to-four-minute vignette on their recently redesigned website, labeled with abbreviations like (ñ).mx for someone with Mexican parents or (ñ).dr for roots in the Dominican Republic. The “episodes” not only act as previews of the final project, which is slated to be finished late this year, but also as stand-alone entities—a look into one enye story at a time.
“People used to look at that as something you’d do if you couldn’t get funding for television,” Ansbacher says. “There’s a new dawn that’s been coming for a while, where certain people will get all their media through the Internet…If you can attract those people, make something they talk about and care about, they’ll come to it and consume it.”
By posting the videos in advance, the Project Enye team can also see which storylines resonate with their audience. Guadalupe Montes Hirt, a Mexican-American who runs PR for the project, says one of the most popular vignettes so far has been that of Charles Rodney Carpenter.
Carpenter—(ñ).ec.us—is the co-owner of Wigwam Creative, a strategic branding company in Denver. His mother was El Salvadoran, his father American, and he grew up in Washington with his dad after his parents divorced. “My sister and I would stick out because we were the only ones in this Anglo family that had melanin in us, so we were brown,” Carpenter says in his video, which was posted online January 13. “I even remember stories about when I was born, and the nurses, they thought I was a cute little baby, but they called me Charlie Brown because I was different in that regard from the other Carpenters.”
“What breaks the spell,” he continues later on, “is the minute that people, naturally, they see me and start engaging with me in Spanish, and I can’t talk back. It’s a very frustrating thing.”
That language component seems to be what strikes a chord with most people who identify with the enye movement. The Project Enye team dealt with it themselves when Telemundo wanted to conduct an interview with them but required that it be in Spanish. “I was like, ‘I’m not any less Latina, just so you know, because I can’t speak fluent Spanish,’” Soler Cox says. “It just came out of my mouth—that was my inside voice that became my outside voice that I’m actually proud of having said.”
“The pigment of my skin doesn’t make me any less Latina either,” she continues, “or my inability to cook every single dish that my mother could cook—even though I can cook a lot of them.”
Non-enyes understand this experience, too. Heidi Kell was adopted into a German family, but her darker skin told her she was different. “I used to say, ‘No, look, I’m white,’” she says, turning her hand over to reveal her inherently lighter palm. “Now I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m Latina.” Genetic testing told her that she did have some European ancestry but was predominantly Hispanic. Since then, she’s learned how to make some Mexican dishes and taken up Spanish, which improves every time she attends a Project Enye happy hour.
These happy hours and other get-togethers are crucial to fleshing out Project Enye’s mission: a physical forum as well as an online one. So far, the team has focused on the Denver market, working with the Denver Film Society and Starz Denver Film Festival to hold events and speak on panels, like a discussion at CineLatino in September. At the Biennial of the Americas in July, they’ll conduct a workshop on how to tell your story.
“People here are so nice,” Soler Cox says. “My brother always says, ‘Ever since you left [New York], you got so soft.”
“But there’s more of a disconnect with Latin issues and immigration issues and identity issues,” Ansbacher chimes in. “Denver hasn’t evolved quite as much in that way; in Miami, there’s a lot of pride about it. Here, there’s a little more undercurrent of some shame or some discrimination.”
“My friend always says there’s a front and a back of the hand to everything,” Soler Cox adds. “The front is a that there’s a lot of space and everyone’s nice. The back is, ‘Wow, we’re 20 years behind on the immigration conversation.’ I have a lot of explaining to do with people, and I have to deal with my own irritation on that, but it gives me an opportunity—and a challenge—to educate.”
Yet this is only the beginning. In May, the team will debut Enyes Count, another Kickstarter campaign that asks enyes to claim their status in exchange for to-be-determined rewards. An interactive map will depict the hometown of each enye as well as the birthplace of their parents. The goal is 160,000 responses—1 percent of the estimated number of enyes in the United States.
On a warm Tuesday night, 15 to 20 people gather at the Sie Film Center for Project Enye’s first happy hour of the year. There’s Soler Cox and Ansbacher, who are giving away goodies like movie tickets and T-shirts featuring “ñ” on a Captain America shield (“because enyes have superpowers like code-switching”—toggling between different languages—“when someone’s talking about you behind your back in the elevator.”) There’s Kell and Montes Hirt, who are code-switching with a large group of people.
I ask if they’re all enyes. “What?” a few respond. I wonder if I’m pronouncing the word incorrectly and then realize that they didn’t come out tonight because they explicitly regard themselves as enyes—they just recognize that they belong here.
There’s Jesús Flores-Guerra, an electrical engineer who isn’t technically an enye because he was born in Torreón, Mexico. There’s Viviana Zavala, who isn’t really an enye either, but her grandparents are from Juárez, Mexico. There’s Carrie Esposito, a Jewish woman who’s referred to in the Project Enye lexicon as a “frienye.”
And there’s Bianca Dominguez, a 22-year-old graduate of Denver School of the Arts and Metropolitan State University, whose mother is from Juárez, Mexico. Her father left when she was born a girl instead of a boy. She’s the first person in her family to receive both high school and college degrees. Her vignette was posted January 27 on Project Enye’s website.
It plays now on the Sie FilmCenter’s two flat-screen TVs. The room grows silent as she describes how she was bullied all through middle and high school, how she didn’t have real friends, how she didn’t fit in anywhere. Yet she kept working, knowing that her mother had sacrificed everything so she could live a better life. The four-minute clip ends with her in a graduation cap, laughing.
The applause reverberates throughout the room for at least a minute. Soler Cox and Ansbacher may have set out to build a community, but along the way they created a language, a way for people to explain who they are and how they fit into the grander scheme of things, even though they may have drastically different dialects.
“We’re on a pretty steep, accelerated curve of figuring out who we are,” Ansbacher says. “The picture is getting bigger and more complex and more interesting every week.”
Follow editorial assistant Mary Clare Fischer on Twitter at @mc_fischer.