I’m afraid of being identified as Hispanic. When I’m labeled by my ethnicity it feels as if all the more personal aspects of myself—my love for costume fashion, my Goth phase during middle school, or even my eternal love for Sailor Moon—are erased and replaced with stereotypical expectations of my culture. My culture.
My family has never once celebrated Cinco de Mayo or Dia de los Muertos. One could argue that this ignorance of our culture is due to forced assimilation into, but that explanation only all too easily ignores the fact; we don’t want to. Growing up on the Texas-Mexican border in a community—no a region—that is 95% Hispanic, we could have just as easily ignored assimilation and continued the traditions of Mexico. We didn’t.
Where I grew up being white made you a minority. In high school I was made fun of for having a white sounding last name (to the point of being told that I was pronouncing my own last name incorrectly), and my inability to speak Spanish. So when I moved to the east coast and was told I had privilege I couldn’t help but think where was this so called privilege when kids called me ‘la gringa’ or when I had to prove my ethnicity by claiming my grandmother’s name was Eudelia Herrera? If her name wasn’t Mexican enough, what was?
As a Japanese major who isn’t of Asian descent, I constantly get asked, “Why Japanese?” with a tone that translates to “ Why would a Hispanic female who grew up hearing Spanish all her life choose Japanese?” Though 80% is due to my love and fascination of Japanese culture, the other 20% is due to other Hispanic people making fun of my Spanish accent. Though even my Mexican friends will tell you that Spain-Spanish and Mexico-Spanish have different accents, apparently I couldn’t pronounce either one properly. To this day the only person I will actually speak to in Spanish is my mom, and even that is just expressions and profanity.
In all fairness, I’ve probably been overly sensitive to the issue regarding my ethnicity. After all, I can’t say with certainty that everyone who has corrected my accent or commented on my ‘whiteness’ meant to insult me or accuse me of being a non-Mexican, but that’s how it feels.
When I became a college freshman I tried to mix with the Hispanic group on campus, but due to my over-ambitious freshman self who joined 5 other clubs, I slowly disappeared as a member. One day my roommate told me that my absence made the other club members feel as if I thought myself better than them. I was horrified. My intention was never to cast myself as better than Hispanic.
In response I never went back to any club events and started my sophomore year as a member of the Japan Club. Ironically it was with JC that I found a family. Perhaps it was due to our mutual interest in Japan, or just a great mesh of personalities, I felt perfectly at home in my group.
Though, once I actually got to Japan I faced a whole new problem. In Japan my friends had a hard time identifying me. At times I was possibly half-Japanese, European, Spanish, even French, but no one ever called me Hispanic. When I told them my family was originally from Mexico I got a lot of “ohh that explains it.” Although my favorite line was, “you’re so lucky you’re a white Mexican.” Now I don’t want to cast all Japanese people in a bad light—some of these comments were made by my European friends—but being as homogenous as Japan is I really got a chance to face my own Hispanic identity.
What I learned in Japan is that I’m not Mexican. My great-grandparents may have been from Mexico, but I’m not them. I’m a Hispanic American, which says a lot.
Bob Dylan once said his favorite part about being American was one’s ability to choose who and what you wanted to be. I am Hispanic, but I define my own ethnicity. I will not have others telling me what my culture is.