You never knew you were different until you said palita because you didn’t know the word “dustpan” and the other kids made fun of you. How could you have known? You looked just like everyone else, acted just like everyone else, and talked like everyone else. Except for this little slip up. Now all the other kids had found out something you never even realized was a secret. For the first time, you understand that there’s a part of you that’s always been there, but has always been in the back seat, hidden from view, both by your appearance and your upbringing.
“I’m not Mexican, I’m Spanish!” It’s a phrase you’ve said for most of your 15-year old life. After all, that’s what your family has always told you. “Spanish” as our ethnicity has always been the status quo when discussing who we are and where we come from. No one has ever said “Mexican”. Looking back, it’s clear that insecurity influenced that word choice. No one wants to be Mexican in a world that hates Mexicans. But back then, you had no way of knowing things like that.
One day, a friend calls you racist for saying it, says that you claim Spain because Mexico is shameful. You’re more resentful of that than you’ve probably ever been of anything. You tell her that you wouldn’t be ashamed to be Mexican if you were, but you’re not. You tell her it’s racist to hear that someone is Hispanic and instantly call them Mexican. The Spanish speaking world spreads over two continents, not just one country. Being right has always been your favorite thing, and an argument like this is no different. You believe all of this because for you it’s true. No one had ever said “Mexican”.
Your mother’s story influences yours more than you ever could have realized. Born and raised in small town Pueblo, Colorado to a first generation ex-marine from Spain and a former nun with a family history in New Mexico going back over 12 generations, she didn’t exactly have it easy. Aside from the strict Catholic upbringing, she also dealt with the small town racism that only the 1960’s could embody so well. Despite living in a town whose name literally means “town” in Spanish, her language was frowned upon. Spanish was the first language of her two eldest sisters, but the trend ended with them once her parents realized the stigma that came with it. Your mother and your other aunt both learned Spanish second, and had to pursue it in school to really learn it since their parents did their best to make English a priority for them.
Your household is a strange hybrid. Spanglish is the norm, and was your first language, but English is still what you speak the most. When you get older, you wish your mother had taught you as a child so you wouldn’t have to take so many classes.
“¿Quién es ella?” she asks you gesturing towards the TV screen.
“I don’t know, Mom. Some celebrity I guess.”
“¡Responde en español! Necesitas practicar!”
“I wouldn’t have to if you had just taught me when I was little.”
“I’m teaching you now!”
Your mother has cried telling you about being called a “dirty Mexican” at school, or on the street, or by the parents of her high school boyfriend. That’s why she left him. She couldn’t stand the grief it was causing both of them, so she left, hoping it would be temporary. It wasn’t. In some strange way, if it weren’t for those racist old people, you might not even exist. You’ve always wondered if she would’ve been happier had she stayed with him. You’re certain she wonders about it too. But you’re both here now, and it’s become painfully obvious how that experience has come to shape yours. How she raised you, the way she wanted you to look, all stemmed from that experience, from that family. In some strange way, if it weren’t for those racist old people, you might not even exist.
Your father has green eyes, with yellow around the pupil. They’re pretty eyes. They’re the eyes your mother prayed for the whole time she was pregnant with you. Her faith in her own brand of spirituality was strengthened when you came out white as snow with hazel eyes. She says her prayer must have been answered since brown is the dominant color. You’ve stopped telling her that sometimes recessive genes can win too. There’s nothing wrong with letting her have this.
Her hair and eyes are the darkest part of her otherwise not-that-“ethnic”-appearance, but they were enough to mark your mother as “other” in her youth, so she prayed that you would be spared. She always tells you how much prettier you are than her, because of your light eyes and long waist. When you’re young, you think she’s just being silly because she’s beautiful and everyone tells you that you look just like her. When you get older, you realize she’s valuing the things about you that she doesn’t have. She’s valuing the Anglo in you she never had.
The second time you came out, you were 13 and you were pretty sure the world had ended. For the next five years, you laid awake listening to hushed arguments down the hall, hoping you hadn’t destroyed your parents’ marriage. You lived one life at school, and another at home. You made non-committal noises when your mother asked you if you thought the man on screen was attractive. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
On the long drive back from Castle Rock, she vows that she’ll never tell them, any of them. She can’t bear to hear her sisters mock her or say that her exit from Catholicism is what made you gay. That her “non-traditional” parenting is what made you this way. You sit in silence, juggling heartbreak and relief. You don’t want your mother to see you as some shameful reflection of her choices, but you don’t want to tell them either.
They say college is one of the best times of your life, the time when you really get to find yourself. Normally, you prefer to disregard what “they” say. Most of the time, you feel like “they” should keep their damn mouths shut every once in a while. Going to school has been one of the most stressful, terrifying, challenging experiences of your life. But when it comes to the “finding yourself”, “they” seem to have struck the nail right on the head. Being in college felt like waking up from a dream and finally getting to see the world for what it is.
“Gay” felt right. It was easy. Seeking out queer groups on campus just made sense, and Gay Straight Alliance was the obvious choice. The anxiety you felt walking into that room the first time was in response to meeting all those people. Feeling like you weren’t enough or that you were an imposter never factored into the equation. Finding queer community was like being wrapped in a warm blanket by someone who loves you. Trying to find latinx community hardly ever crossed your mind. When it did, it felt like trying to scale Everest with a step ladder.
“You’re such a gringa!” is a phrase you’ve heard all your life. It’s featured with other greatest hits like, “You only think this is spicy because you’re so white!” and “You have no rhythm!” and your all time favorite “You’re not in touch with your culture!”. Phrases like these grate on you, make you frustrated, and when you were little, they used to make you cry. Apparently your family has never realized that, since they still use them every now and then. You can shrug and laugh it off now, but that feeling of absence always remains.
Your only encounter with your paternal grandfather happened when you were an infant. You have no memory of him and your only context is that your father hated him. It’s probably for the best. Apparently he and his new wife were racists too. Grandma was a big part of your life when you were a kid, but after she got sick, she moved away and you never actually saw her again. In the end, you mainly remember her smoke damaged voice over a crackling line and the promise of birthday checks that never came.
The light eyes and skin that your mother felt blessed by seemed like a curse to you. Family resemblance was never something you could relate to, since your mother’s family, your main family, never really looked like you. Being white made you the black sheep. One of the only times your privilege would make you an outsider. Someone asked if you could trade it all in to be darker, would you do it? Absolutely.
Privilege is something you didn’t hear about until college. It’s a concept that’s easy to learn, and hard to master. You knew you were white. A Chicano history class you’d just recently taken caused the revelation that you while Spain factored in, Mexico couldn’t be left out of the equation of your heritage. Your great grandmother, the curandera, was evidence enough of the mestiza in your blood. Looking in a mirror though, that blood was always so well hidden behind the European features you could now only tie to a history of wrongdoing. So, where did that leave you? Confused mostly.
Despite your skin, you were trained to always check the “Hispanic, Latino, etc.” box on every standardized test and application. Mom always said getting that recognition was important. We wouldn’t want to miss out on any scholarships, now would we?
Claiming such an identity at a university where very real activism takes place felt like a farce. Saying it in front of a group of queer and trans people of color felt even worse. It was your reality, your truth, but it wasn’t spelled across your skin or your facial features, so how could it be on a level with their realities and truths?
Your mother went to Pride with you this year. She marched in the parade by your side, held a sign, and yelled. It’s days like this that make you appreciate how far she’s come, how far you’ve come together. Normalcy is the banner your mother lives her life under. It’s how she’s learned to survive in this world. After all the abuses she’s suffered, you can’t really blame her. She’s always tried to push that doctrine onto you, to keep you safe as best she can, even if it left you lonely and afraid. Radicalism is the banner you’re starting to adopt. It’s the only way you can see to make the world move forward. Cheesy as it is, you believe in being the change you want to see in the world. The two of you clash, often and loudly. But your mother holding up a glittery sign that reads “We Love Our Latinx Family” surrounded by half-naked queer people and drag queens makes it feel like we’ve finally gotten to the place we were meant to be.
The Chicana/Latina panel you attended was amazing. An hour of listening to the insights of women on campus about their experiences with those terms and in general. Just having the opportunity to listen to them speak on their own terms, from their own perspectives felt magical. You weren’t prepared for the sentence that changed everything.
“Even if you are Spanish, even if you came from that imperialism, you’re not it. That imperialism isn’t you.” For the first time, the feelings of absence and falsehood slip away. Tears roll down your face as you walk out that door.
College is coming to a close, and you’re more terrified than excited. Your expectations have been shattered, the ground beneath your feet feeling far more unstable than you ever thought it would when you imagined getting to this point. Your parents constantly ask you what you’re going to do with your life, anxious that you might be wasting your time and their borrowed money. But it’s not just career goals that have you shaken. You don’t know who you are anymore, not really. At eighteen, you knew “Mexican” had to factor into your equation. There was no way it didn’t. You want to feel proud, but “woman of color” just doesn’t feel right. The color of your skin has never caused you strife or pain. No one has ever accused you of shoplifting for it, or said that you’re smart for a brown girl. White doesn’t have the same comfort it used to either. The white kids you know don’t think in Spanglish. They’ll never know the frustration of not being able to use the perfect phrase because it doesn’t translate right, or of being asked “what are you?” You’re standing on the precipice of change, and you really don’t know whether or not you’ll fly.