My ever-evolving identity

Tuesday, September 8, 2015 - 6:25pm

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Illustration by Cheryll Victuelles

 

Are you Hispanic/Latino? Select yes or no.

My first words were not in English. The way my mom tells it, out of a babbling string of “goo-goos” and “ga-gas” came “gato,” a meaningless word in English, but the start of a bilingualism that came from growing up in a duel-cultured household. “Gato,” or “cat” in Spanish, was the beginning of a complicated relationship between my two cultures, which I haven’t taken control of until recently.

I’m the product of a Mexican-American mother and a Canadian-American (read: very white) father, speaking exclusively Spanish to the former and English to the latter during my formative years. My family friends and my dad’s relatives often tell stories from when I was a tiny child, having not yet differentiated what was English and what was Spanish, responding to questions asked in one language with the other, leaving most outside my family confused and in need of rapid translation.  

After entering the public school system, where English quickly became my dominant language, I held a certain pride for my diverse half, a rare commodity in my predominantly white hometown where I was one of five or six kids in my graduating class from a Spanish-speaking household. I was the only kid on the block who had birthday parties with piñatas, with “happy birthday” and las mañanitas sung consecutively before I blew the candles out on my cake. My friends in 4th grade Spanish hour called me “the human dictionary” for my rapidly whispered translations during quizzes. Before self-consciousness, my uniqueness was a source of pride.

And then struck preteen indifference.

At around 12 years old, when being different makes you want to blend in even more to the status quo, I began responding to my mother’s Spanish questions with English, more likely just a “yeah” or “no” to contribute as little to conversations as possible. This period didn’t last long, but the funny thing about language is if you don’t use it, you lose it. I would notice it in inopportune moments, like speaking with my grandmother or doing translations for friends. Blanking on an English-to-Spanish translation, messing up a simple grammatical structure. The shame of knowing I was losing the language was enough to perpetuate a cycle of less use at home and more forgetting. It’s a period of time I wish I could go back to just to shake Little Me out of that irreversible stupidity — “Stop being such a tonta!

“I’m just tired,” I’d say. “My Spanish brain needs to be warmed up.” Partially true, but I never had that problem earlier in life.

What struck me worse than preteen indifference was the constant utterance that would follow after my Latina confession — “But you don’t look Mexican!” A phrase that seems so harmless, but when heard frequently can cause an identity crisis of cosmic proportions for a small little girl. I get it, I’m one of the palest girls around and my hair is only light brown instead of raven. But that simple phrase, which could easily be responded to with a little education about the diversity within the Latin@ community, burrowed so deep into my head that I questioned if I even was Mexican.  Sure, I’m technically half, but was that enough to care about learning Spanish anymore? If everyone thinks I’m just a standard white girl, it’s not like I need to prove anything to anyone.

Again, tonta.

The looming thought that I wasn’t a Salma Hayek or an Eva Longoria was the catalyst for my middle school physical insecurities. I longed to look like these women, filling my days with streaky self tanner and Google searches for “How to look more Latina.” Even as a Hispanic woman, I conceded to the media-perpetuated stereotypes that plague my cultural community, because I was so eager to prove to the outside that I was one of them. And with every innocent “you don’t look Mexican!” I fell deeper into the spiral of identity crisis.

On standardized tests, where it was necessary to note your race and ethnicity, I always became glossy-eyed, staring at the questions for too long, wondering just how Mexican I felt today and if I was a faker for marking down “Hispanic.” I always ended up putting down “Hispanic” and “bilingual,” but it always came with a pang of guilt I could never explain.

Recovering from insecurity is not a one size fits all process. For some, therapy is the answer; for others, it’s something we learn to repress. When I developed issues with depression and anxiety my freshman year of college, I assumed they were triggered by the textbook examples: feelings of isolation, large life transitions, etc. Never did it cross my mind that these issues could stem from the deeply rooted thoughts that I was a free floater in life, knowing I was too white to fit with the Latinas and too Latina to feel comfortable being completely white. These feelings were exemplified by the process of moving away from home and losing what I felt was the only tie I had to my diversity — my family, who I used to justify my Hispanic-ness.

I’m still working through these feelings of insecurity, but with age and education, they’ve gotten better. Moving away from home, though difficult in the sense that I felt like I was losing my Mexican identity, allowed me to come in touch with a multitude of diverse individuals, many of whom identify with more than one cultural identity. My identity to my two cultures is ever-evolving and I’m learning that that’s OK. I feel confident in proclaiming that I’m a Latina woman as I work slowly to regain the parts of my language I’ve lost over the years, and I’m learning to be proud of my uniqueness once again.