My siblings and I have been best friends since I can remember. Attending the same schools together, traveling back and forth between our mom’s and dad’s and constantly fighting has strongly bonded us. Though the three of us were born within a three-year period, our experiences of identity realization have been vastly different. Up until 2010, we all went to St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Joliet, Illinois. Despite being in an area with a large Latinx — specifically Mexican — population, my siblings and I were some of the only Latinx students in the entire school, with the administration and staff calling us the Infamous Quintana Trio.
My memories of the predominantly white school are filled with images of my peers and me all dressed in white polos and navy blue pants, or checkered jumpers and skirts, running around the playground, attending weekly morning mass and hoping that the after-school program snack-of-the-day would be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As a child, I didn’t feel or understand the social issues surrounding such a setting. I enjoyed my time at the school and the education they offered me — even if I do live with Catholic guilt now. Looking back at those years, though, I realize that not being otherized for my identity at such a young age is a great privilege that not many children of color experience.
Since the school was on its way toward closure due to a lack of funds, every grade had only one designated classroom and teacher. From preschool to the third grade, the same twenty-something of us would travel down the hall to the next classroom from year to year. In the process of writing this article, I began to think of the many students in my class throughout the years and can vividly remember the few students of color. I never felt prejudiced or oppressed due to my skin color, and I know that many other students of color cannot relate to the lack of identity awareness I experienced.
After talking to my sister about St. Pat’s, however, I started to understand the privilege associated with not being forced to realize you’re different from the white people. The most important developmental period of her life was marked by bullying, racism and trauma — while for me, this same time was marked by joy and naivety. When I first asked her if she ever faced oppression because of being Mexican at school, her immediate response was, “I was called a gorilla because of my arms in kindergarten. So yes.” After this, I began reevaluating these interactions more generally. What experiences force people of color at a young age to understand their identities as different or other? Whenever I am asked about my time at St. Pat’s, I honestly only think of the good times. Whether it’s because I didn’t attend the school for as long as my sister did, or simply don’t remember any instances of racism, I wanted to know what made my awareness of identity surface so much later than hers.
My sister’s name is Yesenia (but she’ll always be Senia to me). Pronounced Yes-sen-yuh, meaning floral, derived from Jessenia, a palm tree native to Latin America. Her name is culturally and beautifully unique, but difficult to pronounce for some people. Both she and I carry her name with pride. It’s different and uncommon, something our mom and dad made sure of by naming their first three children Yesenia, Hugo and Marcos. Each of us had those experiences of bracing ourselves in the moments leading up to attendance, but the nuisance of people mispronouncing my name has been minimal as compared to theirs. My name is pronounced Hue-go, which seems simple to me but can be difficult for others. The classic case of mispronunciation has been Hoo-go, but even that is fixed with a simple correction. Marcos is constantly referred to as “Marcus,” “Marco” and at times, simply “Mark.” For Yesenia, the constant butchering of her name has left her just accepting whatever people call her. Whether it was being called “Jessica,” “Jessenia,” “Yessica,” “Yousenia” or simply “Yes,” she quickly gave up on correcting people — her first realization that she was not like the others at school.
Even though we all lived in the same house, I never thought that my family’s food, music and traditions constituted me as a “person of color,” someone from another culture, someone who is different. For a significant part of my childhood, my siblings and I lived with our grandmother. If you can picture a classic Mexican grandmother, that is my Ma. The rock of many Mexican families is the grandmother. Ma is like the many other extremely loving elder Mexican women in my life — constantly smiling, always dressed in elaborate clothes and jewelry at parties and persistent in feeding you despite your lack of hunger. She is an ever-loving, short woman who loves to cook and provide for her grandchildren. Every time I came home from school she would be waiting at the door, arms wide open to give me a hug. As my siblings and I trickled into the dining room table, we would start our homework surrounded by plants, family photos and many religious trinkets. Doing our elementary school worksheets, the smell coming from the nearby kitchen would leave us salivating and ready to eat whatever delicious meal Ma made, often with the signature El Milagro tortillas.
My siblings and I would bring Ma’s food for lunch. Her amazing cooking, especially the tortillas, led to my sister constantly being told her clothes were smelly — and therefore, so was she. I was never teased for my clothes smelling different than the other students’. Despite the white students thinking she was “smelly,” they seemed to enjoy the meals she would bring to lunch, since whenever there was a classroom party or potluck, the teachers and staff would suggest that she bring a “special dish” to share. All of these microaggressions and acts of racism subjected her, like they do many other children of color, to isolation and ostracization from her peers. Following such experiences, she blocked out the trauma of her childhood and focused her interactions with a community of understanding among peers who shared her ethnic identity. Moving onto public school with a large Latinx population, she was able to find a group of friends and peers that understood her and took pride in her Mexican identity.
The first memory I have of realizing my identity was on September 16th. I don’t recall the exact year, but it was during elementary school, sometime between 2005 and 2010. My path towards identity awareness has been a bumpy one. Realizing I was Mexican was primarily a celebration, rather than a jarring realization of otherness — which is the norm for many children of color.
September 16th is Mexican Independence Day. This celebration marks Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain in 1810. The day is always a huge celebration — one that brings me excitement and pride in my culture. Since my town has a large Mexican population, days before the 16th, the city starts to fill with Mexican flags attached to cars, waving in the sky. Every year there’s a large parade on the east side of town. Everyone is dressed in green, white and red, standing on the side of the road as the food trucks, taquerias and paleteros walk up and down the streets. I always loved seeing floats proudly adorned with the Mexican flag, lowriders blasting corridos music and politicians throwing candy everywhere. I have vivid memories as a kid of standing next to my very Mexican dad (a tattooed modelo fanatic who always tries to fix anything broken), my siblings and hundreds of other proud Mexicans celebrating our holiday — a very different experience than the playground. During moments like this, I realized I was unique.
My sister’s racial awareness should not have surfaced in such a jarring way. Embracing and loving the color of your skin is something that all children deserve to experience. As future parents, educators or adults surrounded by children, we must be sure to raise the next generation with a love for all our differing identities — whether this is through conversations about race with young children, implementing racial awareness curriculums, or simply interacting with people who don’t identify with our same identity groups. Young kids should be proud of their beautifully special and unique features without dealing with isolation and embarrassment. My sister and I have had vastly different journeys with identity realization and I am proud that we have each other to share many more years of embracing ourselves.
***Sept. 15th through Oct. 15th is the month dedicated to appreciating and recognizing the contributions and impacts Latinx people have made in America. To celebrate Latinx Heritage Month with us, Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs is hosting an abundance of events celebrating our cultures.
MiC Columnist Hugo Quintana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.