Sunday, June 8, 2014

On being "me enough".

A few months ago, I started drafting a post about identity. Specifically, about how my own awareness and sense of my racial and ethnic identity has changed since I was younger. But I couldn't quite get the words to come together the way I wanted them to, so I set it aside to finish some other time. Then a few weeks ago, this story erupted on the Facebook page of Latino Rebels, one of my favorite social media presences covering news affecting Latinos and media representation. To summarize, if you don't want to click the link, Mexican-American actor and Battlestar Galactica star Edward James Olmos criticized Jennifer Lopez and a few other actors of Latino heritage for the fact that they have not, in his eyes, done enough to embrace their Latino heritage. As I understand it, he believes that these individuals only "use" their heritage when it's convenient, while not doing enough to try and change stereotypes of Latino culture. However, nowhere that I can find did he ever say anything about her "lack of 'Latino'-ness". Yet this is what the headline said, and this is what most people who read the article seemed to react to--the headline, which portrays a completely different message. While I could see the perspective Olmos was coming from with his comment, I was incredibly upset by the response of the online community. So many people seemed to agree with the idea that an individual could be considered "not Latino enough", citing factors such as skin color and Spanish-speaking abilities as indicative of one's level of "Latino-ness". While there were plenty of people as appalled as I was by the comment, there were just as many who seem to believe that a person's ethnic and cultural identity is something that other people have a right to judge, and that it is something that can be measured and ranked. Following this social media frenzy touched me on a personal level, because that feeling of not being "white enough/Latino enough" is something that I have struggled with, and it took me quite a while to come to terms with how I define my own identity.

I remember the first time that I experienced real confusion over "what" I was. I was in primary school, and I came home from my first day of standardized testing and asked my parents what I was supposed to mark on the demographic section. I knew (or at least I thought) that I was white, but I also felt that I should mark "Hispanic/Latino", and was uncertain whether I should mark both. But other than that incident, I didn't think much about my culture or heritage. Growing up, I didn't question the unique blend of both my parents' beliefs and experiences which shaped our family culture. There was no denying my Irish heritage, through not only our last name but our stereotypically large, boisterous, close-knit family whom I wouldn't trade for the world. And I knew that Grandma had spent much of her early school years in a French-speaking school, due to her Canadian heritage. Meanwhile, we received presents from los tres reyes magos on January 6th, a tradition my mother had grown up with, and I loved asking questions and hearing her stories about growing up in another country. All of these stories and experiences, from all sides of my family, were parts of me, and I didn't see them as in conflict or feel the need to choose one side over another. This began to change when I went to college.

At the University of Iowa, I received a scholarship awarded to students seen as bringing diversity to the student population. I attended various cultural events hosted by the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, who sponsored the scholarship, and everyone of Latino heritage that I met seemed "more Latino" than me. Many were first-generation Americans who had grown up speaking Spanish at home and in a household that had surrounded them by their parents' culture, be it Mexican, Dominican, or Peruvian. People sometimes seemed surprised to find out that I spoke very little Spanish, and I felt like a fraud. Rather than embracing my mixed heritage, I felt as though I didn't belong anywhere. While I felt "not Latino enough" to call myself Latina, I also found that I didn't look "white enough" to others, as I was often questioned about my heritage based on my appearance. This is something I don't remember experiencing nearly as often in Peoria as I did in Iowa City. This may be because I was younger and less aware of it, but I also did feel when I began attending the University of Iowa that I saw far less diversity than I had at home.

A particular pet-peeve of mine is the tendency for people to ask "Where are you from?" and expect me to respond with details of my heritage. Once, at a winery outside of Iowa City with Allison, the bartender asked us this. Knowing that people come from all over the area to do winery tours, I replied, "Iowa City." The bartender laughed condescendingly and said, "No, where are you from originally?" "Illinois" was still not the answer she was looking for, because she was asking the wrong question. So many times when people ask "Where are you from?", what they mean is, "You look somewhat exotic--why is that?" While I don't mind discussing my heritage with people I'm close to, when this question comes from strangers, I often have to bite my tongue to keep from replying, "Would you be asking me this if I looked 'white enough'?"

I've become even more aware of these questions since moving to Wales. I've had to explain to people what Latino means because it's primarily an American term, and that it is what I consider the appropriate term for my maternal heritage. I've been questioned as to whether I'm considered white, because of my Latino heritage. In applying for jobs and completing equality monitoring questionnaires, I've found that even with over a dozen options offered, the only box I'm comfortable ticking under "Ethnic Origin" is "Other (please specify)", because Latino is not an option and it feels false to claim only my "whiteness". My write-in answer is White Latina. I know some Latinos who would not call themselves white, and that's a personal choice, but to me, to choose one over the other is to deny the role that either of my parents played in raising me, and to deny the cultures that have influenced me.

If ever you look at me and wonder
where I’m from, and you will, look closely.
You will see that I wear my father’s dimples;
he taught me to laugh easily and often,
even at myself. I thank my mother
for a mouth that cannot keep silent,
and a heart that cannot keep grudges,
no matter how stubbornly I may try.

Abuela forged herself a suit of armor
through a lifetime de luchando, for her family, her country,
herself—and though I am not quite bold enough
to wear it into battle, I am growing into it.
And I have boxes full of coins that I
count to remind me of my worth. Each sheqel,
lira, and peso sent by Papi to his “little treasury”
whom he believed deserved the world.

Grandma and Grandpa built us a family tree
with roots so strong that even on my limb
far across the ocean, the wind still carries me
the love and strength of our connections.
So do not ever try to tell me that I am not enough,
because I am made of more inheritances
than I could ever count.


  1. So, I read American Woman by Susan Choi in my last literature class at Bradley, and it addresses this whole topic quite a bit. The protagonist, Jenny, is a Japanese-American girl (2nd generation) who's based on Wendy Yoshimura; the book is a fictionalized retelling of the whole Patty Hearst kidnapping thing from the early 70's. Anyway, there's this part where she and the Patty Hearst character are at a bar, and this drunk guy wanders over to them and asks Jenny, "What are you?" Jenny takes it lightly and says he should guess, but Hearst yells at the guy that "She's a person! She's Californian!" (with italics... which I can't figure out here! lol) And there's another part where Juan, the (white) leader of the little band of rebels she gets mixed up with, calls her out for not "playing the race card," as it were, because he feels if she "owned" her race, she could be a major minority leader in the revolution. He says, "You owe your people your leadership," to which she replies, "Human beings are my people." :)

    [I've been reading a lot of stuff about A.I.s in the last few years, too, so I've gotten more into the personhood & identity paradigms... :]]

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the book and highly recommend it! It's got a lot of 70s counterculture stuff, which is fun to me :) I wrote my last college paper ever on it, actually!

    Hope you're well--miss you tons & love you more!!! <3 YSITMOG

  2. This book sounds like something I'd really enjoy! I love, love love "Human beings are my people!" I will add it to my to-read list. And actually, I had a drunk man try to pick me up at a party once with, "What are you? Cause you must be part hot!"

    I'm glad to see that someone else uses the comments feature on blogspot by the way--I thought I was the only one!

    1. lol I only just figured out how to do it! *and just for you!!* Love that pick-up line, can't believe it didn't work! LOL

  3. Oh my goodness! Why does something as simple as just being yourself have to be so complicated? To embrace each family heritage as part of you was very inspiring. I recently returned from a trip to Europe and as I traveled about felt a definite connection to my own ancestry, eventhough I was born American. I really am English, Irish, Dutch, and Scotch. Now, I'm wondering, what does that make me? I'll be thinking about that next time I am asked to check an ethnic box! Great post.

  4. Our society is turning into a gigantic melting pot of cultures. I'm Irish, Italian, French, Canadian wordswordswords...and it doesn't matter. What it all comes down to is that we are all our own individuals and we should be able to be who we are.
    I think that it is wonderful that you embrace every single piece of you. That you're not ashamed to be this or that or to have to pick a side.
    For me, my heritage is so diluted that I just roll with being me :)

    1. Thanks for reading and I'm glad you enjoyed it! My heritage is pretty "diluted" on my dad's side but on my mom's I'm first-generation American--she is from the Dominican Republic and her first language is Spanish! So I suppose that's why it's something I've thought about more.

  5. Wow that poem is amazing! My daughters are white/pacific islander and they definitely get the same sort of raised eyebrows from people sometimes who recognize they have an exotic look to them too, but they are usually with me so I know the questions that linger are probably regarding who where their Dad might be from. It will be interesting to watch them on their own journey of self discovery as they make their way just like you.

    1. Thanks for reading Kat, I'm glad you liked the poem! My mom is Dominican by birth. Although it can be confusing at times growing up, I wouldn't trade my cross-cultural heritage for anything--I think it's shaped me in a lot of positive ways, including making me more curious about and open to learning about other cultures!

  6. As much as we like variety and we would probably get really bored if everything was the same, we, humans, love predictability so things that look different should have a different explanation. I loved your post and your poem. I study multicultural cultures, specifically US Hispanic culture and your story, as you know, is not uncommon. I joke (in an attempt to educate) with my friends when they point to non-white as exotic and always correct them and remind them that it's only exotic "to them"... "you should get out more" I tell them. :D