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Finding Ease with my Hispanic Identity
This month is National Hispanic Heritage Month
This month is National Hispanic Heritage Month, which is a time to honor the cultures and contributions of both Hispanic and Latinx Americans. In this week’s post, I wanted to reflect on my complicated relationship to my Hispanic identity.
I’m half Hispanic. My father is Mexican and my mother is White. Throughout my life I’ve never felt like a true representation of the Hispanic heritage. I don’t speak the language well, I don’t have an accent, and I don’t really “look” Mexican.
Growing up in Wisconsin, far away from my dad’s side of the family in California, I sometimes felt like I missed out on learning about this key aspect of identity. I tried embracing my Hispanic identity by taking Spanish in high school, but when I came home and tried to speak Spanish with my father, he told me I sounded like I was taught by white people. Which was true! His Spanish was one that was exclusively spoken with family members. Because I didn’t have access to other ways of exploring the Hispanic side of me, I mostly ignored it and focused on my education.
I went to a small private liberal arts college in Iowa and overall had a good educational experience, but I remember feeling like an outsider at times because of the lack of diversity. The multicultural center would send me little gifts in my student post office box with encouraging messages, which was mostly nice, except for the time when they sent me a piece of Halloween candy with a little note explaining what Halloween was. I’ve lived in the US my whole life, did they not think I knew what Halloween was? I laughed it off with my friends. It was likely a simple mistake — the message was probably meant for international students. But while it might not seem like it was a big deal, it still bothered me.
In my first semester at college I was introduced to the book Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez. Within the pages of his book, Rodriguez articulates the complexities of being a Mexican American in a way I had felt but didn’t have way to describe. His parents were Mexican immigrants. He grew up in Sacramento, excelled in school, and went on to earn degrees at Stanford and Columbia and was a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkley. While his upbringing was different from mine (he spoke Spanish at home, grew up in California, and both his parents were Mexican), I resonated with his reflections on how is education allowed him to fully assimilate as an American at the expense of his Mexican heritage. Rodriguez’s words both validated and affirmed my experience.
After graduate school, I moved to California where I was hoping to reclaim and connect more with my Hispanic roots, but I wasn’t sure how. Friends of mine in California were often surprised to learn that I was half Hispanic since I didn’t act or look like the other Mexicans in our community. This brought up a lot of different thoughts and feelings, including guilt around not being Hispanic enough.
A couple years ago, I read Me & White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad as part of a book club at my institution. Saad encourages the reader to explore how they have been affected by white privilege and white supremacy. Reading this book, responding to the journaling prompts, and having discussions with my colleagues challenged me to reflect on my identity in ways I hadn’t before. I saw how throughout my life I’ve leaned more into my Whiteness because it often feels easier, safer. And I saw how my education and society encouraged me to neglect and ignore my Hispanic identity.
At times I wish I could grieve the fact that I don’t have a stronger connection to being Hispanic, but it’s hard to grieve something that you never really had.
Finding ease with my Hispanic identity continues to be a journey, and that’s ok. I hope someday I can go visit the places in Mexico where my family came from. But in the meantime, I’ll try to find ways to learn more about the Mexican American experience (especially here in northwest North Carolina), to pay attention to what’s happening at the US/Mexico border, and to advocate for humane immigration policies.
In the midst of writing this post, I texted my sister Dre to see if she also felt disconnected from her Hispanic identity. She told me does and that she often sees herself as more White than Hispanic due to our upbringing and the society we live in. Dre told me, “I think it’s important in the name of resistance to learn more about the Hispanic heritage and to connect to our ancestors.”