I am a biracial, fourth-generation Mexican American, white woman, and it’s taken 35 years of my life to acknowledge my multifaceted identity. Even as I write this, a part of me still feels I’m not qualified or worthy enough to speak on my own experiences. But for Latinx Heritage Month, I wanted to share a piece of my own identity in the hope that other descendants of Latinx immigrants feel this unspoken truth as well.
Last year, my family and I did 23andMe DNA tests –mainly to get more health-related information as many of our extended family are estranged and our ancestors are unknown. When I got back my results, I felt like I finally had tangible proof in my hands and insight into where I came from, but also some confusion.
Why didn’t it say I was Mexican?
I am Spanish, Portuguese, Eastern European, and Indigenous American. There’s also some Ashkenazi ancestry folded in there too.
And then it hit me. Oh…I am the result of colonization.
Birth of the Mexican by Brandon Maldonado, oil on panel, 2019
Past generations came to this country for their families to have a better life and hope for the future. They experienced hatred, exploitation, racism, discrimination, and purposeful exclusion. They needed to stay safe and protect their culture from erasure. An unintentional consequence of these protective behaviors is that later generations inadvertently became severed and detached from ancestral and native customs, values, and beliefs leading to isolation, disconnection, and unawareness.
For me, Spanish wasn’t spoken at home, and if it was, these conversations weren’t meant for me. I was never taught to speak Spanish and have always lacked the confidence to learn. I get embarrassed with not being able to pronounce words correctly or roll my r’s. I’m ashamed for not being able to tolerate hot and spicy flavors. Growing up, I didn’t correct others that assumed I was just white. And there was a large part of my life that I felt that my family was insistent that we were mainly white. There were many mixed messages, but the loudest and most visceral was that I was “not really Mexican.” I was in this liminal space in-between “not Mexican enough” and “not white enough” –on this bridge or a border between cultures where I can see both clearly, but they’re too far away for me to feel included.
I can understand why this part of my family’s identity was so suppressed. I saw the looks or shift in tone, and the silence when I stated that I was Mexican. It’s like that truth was so heavy and bulky that it would just drop on the floor in front of me with a loud echo as everyone contemptuously turned away. It was just easier to conceal so I could fit in and not be rejected by others. Most of the people I went to elementary school with were white or multiracial, and I was the only Mexican –no one looked like me. Growing up in Orange County, I could sense that my family and I were either ignored like we didn’t exist, followed in stores or given looks like, “What are they doing here?” When I attended a Catholic private high school, my parents encouraged me to dress as “cleanly” and “put together” as possible because the very wealthy, privileged white students called me “dirty” and that we lived in the “ghetto.” And there were several other instances throughout my life that I can recall were blatantly racist and discriminatory.
Yet, I absolutely hold privilege as a white-presenting woman. I can hide behind my skin as I melt into the cream-colored wallpaper in the back of the room. I can stay silent and unnoticeable as others show their prejudice and bias. And still, the racists have always been able to identify that I was different, berating me through microaggressions and sometimes aggressively getting in my face.
“You don’t look Mexican.” “Do you even speak Spanish?” “But you’re not that kind of Mexican.” “But you’re so white. I wouldn’t have guessed.” “Go back to where you came from.”
I would also get similar reactions from other Latinx people who would purposefully exclude me, pretend I didn’t exist, dismiss me, or call me pocha (a pejorative term for a Mexican American who is neither one nor the other). I really didn’t have anyone outside of my family that looked like me or had similar experiences –so I just pushed it down with the rest of my trauma and hoped it wouldn’t be brought up.
Then my grad school program encouraged us to delve deeper into all aspects of our identities to better understand who we are so that we can have a stronger foundation to hold space for others. And it’s like a curtain shifted aside and revealed all these aspects of my family that I hadn’t considered were part of our Mexican heritage: our work ethic and determination to work hard, the pride we have in our work, the value of education and character development, and the deep-rooted meaning of family or familismo, the priority of family and the obligation to ensure the wellbeing of all family members. I remember watching a Spanish television show on Netflix and hearing the cadence of their voices and finding it so familiar to how my family and I speak, even without speaking Spanish. A large part of what makes me, me, is my culture, but I had never considered that the internal values we hold, the food we cook, and the impactful ways we live our lives were because we’re Mexican. Growing up without the visibly evident parts of my culture felt like it wasn’t there at all. But now I know, it’s in the air we breathe, it’s in the soil, it’s in the soul recognition when I make eye contact with another Latinx person like me. That concealment was for our protection –because this was all once a dream and a hope of my ancestors.
I constantly struggle, knowing that I can slip into that liminal space and not only hide but not be seen by others. The more that I see myself, the more that I see others like me –dissolving into the cream-colored walls at the back of the party. And if that’s you, and you identify as multiracial, Latinx, Hispanic, whatever label you go by, I see you too. Perhaps this is also a piece that has been passed down –resiliency, our ability to adapt and camouflage to protect ourselves. While I am the result of colonization, I am also the result of hope.