In high school, Spanish 1 was my favorite class. It was finally my chance to learn more about my Hispanic culture, history and obviously my language. During this class, I remember becoming fascinated with the history of Mexico as we learned about the Mayans, Aztecs, the amazing city of Tenochtitlán and the consequences of Spanish colonization. Since I’m Mexican, I was obviously knowledgeable in our beautiful customs, delicious foods and unique traditions, but learning about a history that finally felt like something I could connect to both excited and intrigued me. I was learning about my people and appreciated an education that was inclusive to Mexicans — an education that was unlike the curriculum I’d been taught ever before. This was important to me because the things really missing from me feeling fully accepted and included within the Mexican community — and Hispanic community at large — was my lacking bilingualism and feeling that I did not want to be a part of my ethnic community.
As a third-generation Mexican American, the statistical likelihood of my parents speaking Spanish to me growing up was only about 49%. And even after taking almost six years of Spanish, I would still not consider myself a fluent speaker. As a kid, my parents — mainly my dad — tried their best to teach me and my young siblings the language crucial to feeling like a “true” Hispanic. I remember the countless times I would sit in the car with my dad and he would randomly ask us a question in Spanish and force us to respond back in our language. My dad would have his daily questions on our rides back home from school: “¿Cómo te fue en la escuela?” I would say “bien” then continue to respond in English. “¿En español?” my dad would ask, cutting me off, as I rolled my eyes and annoyingly responded that I couldn’t speak Spanish. He’d ask me what I wanted to say, then force me to repeat every Spanish word that would allow me to respond in a grammatically correct and concise Spanish sentence.
Though I know these were genuine attempts at helping me understand and learn Spanish, moments like these throughout my childhood and teenage years where I would be pestered into trying to speak in Spanish were marked by insecurity and shame surrounding my Mexican identity. Going to a diverse middle school that was about 57% Hispanic and 99% low-income students, I began to develop weird (and now in hindsight, embarrassing) senses of pride and betterness compared to my peers since I was part of the 1% privileged enough to not be considered low-income. As my peers’ awareness of my privilege grew, through simple acts such as my paying for full-priced lunch, so did my ego and self-superiority at not being like “the other Hispanics.” I felt this strange sense of gratitude that I wasn’t associated with my own ethnicity and its customs, such as not knowing Spanish. At such a young age, the negative connotations surrounding students of low socioeconomic status and being a child of immigrants already infiltrated the way I thought about my own Hispanic community, myself and others.
My transition into high school was the first time my classes were filled with many white students. The classes I was in lacked the diversity found in my middle school, and as expected, this environment furthered my self-embarrassment of being Mexican. I was surrounded by other economically privileged students, and I wanted to leave my Hispanic community behind due to the internalized racism and shame I felt. The lack of diversity in my classes lessened the possibility of feeling associated with my Hispanic community as I became friends with other privileged students. I would awkwardly laugh or ignore insensitive jokes made by my white peers so that they would not see me like the “other Hispanics” in our school. Instead of standing up for my people, I was shamefully complicit in the stereotypes and negative perceptions of my community.
This continued for the rest of high school as I surrounded myself with white friends, with my self-inflicted biases creating a confusing loss of identity. While I didn’t fit in with them, I simultaneously felt disconnected from the other Hispanics at my school. I didn’t know Spanish, was not first-generation and did not have the same lifestyles experienced by my friends. Everyone would call me a “whitewashed Mexican,” and it didn’t even bother me. Occurrences like these and unconscious beliefs about who “Hispanic people” were propelled my behavior and determined who I regularly associated with. At the time I didn’t appreciate my beautiful and unique background. I was ignorant in understanding that calling me whitewashed diminished my struggles and patronized me for not fulfilling others’ self-perceived stereotypes of who I was supposed to be. Calling someone whitewashed implies that they are only acting and living for the white community. There is no one way a Mexican should act, talk or live, and understanding the importance of appreciating my ethnicity was something I wish I knew sooner.
Coming into college, I was a part of the Comprehensive Studies Program, a preparatory program that took place the summer before my freshman year in which I was able to live and study at the University of Michigan a semester early. The point of this program is to provide extra support, resources and guidance for students from diverse backgrounds to ensure their success at the University. My CSP summer was the best experience I’ve had at the University. I was only taking seven credits and living in the Alice Lloyd residence hall — which was stunning to me as an eager first-year student — with about 300 other incoming freshmen. It was the most comfortable environment I’ve been in during my time here at the University as I was surrounded by many students of color. Still, even here, I shamefully noticed myself feeling better than others, feeling a pride stemming from privilege. Many of my peers were first-generation college students, from low socioeconomic statuses or had academically unique backgrounds, such as coming from a low-funded high school or never having had the opportunity to take an AP or honors class. As I was not a part of any of those communities, I still did not recognize the privilege I had nor did I grow more proud of my Mexican identity.
Once it was time to move into my dorm for the fall semester, however, my perspective and love for my ethnicity both did a complete 180. Suddenly, I was fully surrounded by white people, a much different experience from the one I had during my CSP summer. It seemed like everyone I talked to was white and rich and knew they belonged at the University. Other than my friends from CSP, I lacked a diverse social circle and felt like I didn’t have a Hispanic community that I belonged to. This transition was difficult but ultimately beneficial in providing me with a lesson of identity appreciation. Instead of wanting to separate my ethnicity from my identity and how others perceived me, I became proud of who I was. Not being in a diverse environment forced me to truly appreciate my culture and who I was as a minority in this predominantly white institution. I missed being home and eating customary Mexican meals with my family. I missed interacting with my Hispanic friends in high school and realized how close I was to that community despite ignoring or even dismissing it at times. I missed sitting at my grandma’s kitchen table every Sunday, eating carnitas and trying to converse in somewhat garbled Spanish. I missed seeing my mom’s Virgen as soon as I entered the front door. I missed my dad’s corrido music blasting whenever we were in the car or at family parties. I missed myself.
As I look back to my years in middle and high school, I cringe at all the things I was unaware of and how I acted towards my family, my peers and my Hispanic community. I lost so many years of knowing myself because I couldn’t fathom embracing who I was as a Mexican. It shouldn’t have had to take occupying a predominantly white space for me to appreciate the beauty behind my culture and to love who I am.
Now, I proudly hang a Mexican flag in my room, lay my serape over my couch, blast Latinx rap whenever I’m driving around Ann Arbor, proudly wear my Mexican flag hat around campus and can finally say that I have pride and love for who I am and where I’m from.
MiC Columnist Hugo Quintana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.