I am not a “coconut” and proud of my Mexican American heritage

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Editor’s note: This blog is part of a series of first person essays about identity written by UTEP honors students during the spring 2013 semester.

EL PASO – All my life I have had problems with identity. I identified as a Mexican-American, but was always wondering what makes me Mexican-American. Is it because I am dark-skinned, or because I eat Mexican food? What constitutes Mexican food anyway – Taco Bell or Chico’s Taco’s?  Am I not Mexican-American because I do not know how to speak Spanish or because my English isn’t perfect? Now as a college student I identify as Mexican-American but I didn’t always think that way.

“Coconut!” my older brother called me one time when I was about 12 years old. Coconut is a derogatory term for Mexicans who are so-called brown on the outside and white on the inside. I took offense when he called me this. “I am not white!” I countered. To “be white” or to “act white” meant to be snobbish and stuck-up. It meant I wasn’t Mexican enough.

When I was growing up in the border cities of El Paso, Laredo, and San Diego with parents whose first language is Spanish, people would assume that I knew how to speak Spanish, but I never learned the language. Although I remember singing in Spanish as a child to songs by Selena, a famous Mexican-American singer, I stopped speaking and singing in Spanish altogether when I was nine. I was terribly shy and hardly spoke a word at school in either language. Instead, I let my classmates and teachers think I was just a shy little Mexican girl. I was picked on as a result but was too afraid to speak out to defend myself.

During middle school in El Paso I became even more reserved. On my first day at Henderson Middle School in Central El Paso – considered a “ghetto” school – I realized that most of the students there spoke Spanish and I was terrified they would find out I had forgotten my native language. As a defense mechanism, I stopped speaking altogether except to the teachers.  I reasoned that if I never spoke the students wouldn’t  notice that I didn’t know Spanish and that my English was less than perfect. When other students addressed me I would just nod my head even if they weren’t asking yes or no questions.

At home my parents would ask: “mija, why don’t you speak Spanish?” My response was,  “well, I just never learned it.” I did try, using computer programs that taught how to speak the language but it was no use and I felt like the oddball in the family. My younger and older siblings spoke Spanish better than I did and my parents spoke to us in classic border Spanglish.

I felt either guilty or stupid, especially when I went to visit my grandmother on the weekends.  She had much to share with me about her life as a first generation immigrant and single mother, but I understood little of what she said and when I tried to respond in Spanish my words would never come out the right way.

In high school I considered enrolling in a Spanish class but then this thought crossed my mind:  What if the other students laugh at me for not knowing Spanish? Instead, I decided to check the French class box on the sign up sheet and to this day I don’t know a word of French.

My high school boyfriend, who was born in the U.S. of Mexican parents, would ask, “How come you don’t know Spanish?”

“It’s not a big deal,” I responded.  Thus he concluded that I was assimilated and somehow had lost my Mexican identity over the generations. My parents, grandparents and great grandparents were born in the U.S., as was I.

Then a few years ago I was visiting cousins in Forth Worth, and walked into a gas station to get a bite to eat. I noticed immediately that I was the darkest person in there. The others, mostly white, stared at me as if I was an unknown creature who had invaded their territory.

“Haven’t these white people ever seen a Mexican before?” I asked myself. The incident made me realize I am proud of my Mexican heritage. When I returned to El Paso I enrolled in Spanish classes and learned a good bit of Spanish. Now in my retail job, when I am approached my customers who ask in Spanish for prices or certain items and I respond in broken Spanish, somehow they understand me. I am even able to communicate with my grandmother in our native language.

Studies show that by the third generation immigrants lose their native language.  The cause could be our education system, societal beliefs, assimilation, or other reasons. The truth is we are taught a very one-sided view on our American history classes, skewed in favor of white Americans and anti-immigrant to boot. It wasn’t until I enrolled in several border and Chicano Studies classes that I realized how oppressed our people have been.

I now identify proudly as Mexican American, not because what I eat or how I look but because of what I am. And I am certainly not a coconut.

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14 Comments

  1. Wow….i think this is more drama than needs to be addressed…I call myself coconut…please let’s be real…i am 51 raised in a time more harsher than yours. I proudly acknowledge my heritage, mexican, yet equally proud to call myself an american. when i comes down it..i see myself as a man…..not a mexican nor a white guy in the inside…compared to how african-americans, jews, asian, native indians have been and to some extent are still treated…i consider us fortunate. I have never considered the term ‘coconut’ a bad slang. I neither look for confrontation nor run from a battle that needs to be fought, this is neither. If i were an a behavorial professional i’d say you were harbouring resentment towards your brother…..just saying, take if it for what’s worth….then move on. aren’t there more serious pressing issues than this!!!???

  2. Roberto Perezdiaz
    Roberto Perezdiaz on

    Keep up the dialog April. Although when I was little my grandfather Camilo called me his “Indio” because I was the darkest of all his grandchildren. When I went to study in Mexico after graduating from UC Berkeley, my Mexican peers quickly told me in Mexico I was not dark skinned at all. They were right. It’s all relative. I feel my closest cultural identity with Mexican culture, but I also appreciate many “Gringo” qualities in my character. As such in my country (US) as a citizen I have every right to desire it to reflect my cultural values as much as any other culture. Sometimes I’m for the US in soccer, sometimes I’m for Mexico, but mainly I’m for Brazil. To want a Spanish speaking US is not un-American. When the US plays against Mexico, for me the perfect outcome is a tie like last week’s game. Usually I’m for the underdog so that I don’t blame Mexican’s naturalized as US citizens to go for Mexico. Soccer is one of the few things where Mexico is superior to the US. Our multi-national corporations that take our jobs to other countries are less patriotic. The topic of cultural identity provokes a healthy dialog and encourages diversity at many levels. As I began April, keep your observations coming.

  3. Dear Elpaso_guy,
    I have read my best friend’s blog and have read your comment and I ask myself how in any way is your comment relevant to the message this blog is giving? As you can read from the editor’s note this is a “first person essays about identity written.” This is from her perspective and how she feels about her heritage and the term “coconut. This has no connection to behavioral, but to background and heritage. I am proud of her for having her essay published in the El Paso Times. I don’t know about you, but I surely was able to relate to everything she spoke about. In the end isn’t “considering yourself a man,” start with your heritage, how you were born and raised to become the man you are today?

    Sincerely Vanessa!

  4. April Garcia
    April Garcia on

    When writing this blog, I wrote about my first person experience, and I personally have felt that coconut is used as a derogatory statement. Others may agree with me as well. In fact, a classmate of mine even spoke about the African American derogatory term “oreo” which is the same derogatory term used for African Americans so-called acting white. You may feel just as a regular man, but other of my peers may not feel that way. Living in a border community, you have to be able to be Mexican enough, yet when you are in America you are accused of being too Mexican and not enough American. There is that constant push and pull living in a border community and people want to feel like they belong. These are very real issues people face especially for some of my classmates. No one group can be said to be less or more oppressed than the other or who is more or less fortunate. That shouldn’t matter. What should matter is that we work for equality together no matter what color your skin is. Giving the current issues in our news, we may not be so “fortunate” in places such as Alabama or Arizona with the anti-immigrant sentiment. Perhaps the larger “more serious pressing issues” were not evident, and I am more than willing to emphasize them. Living in a border community can be difficult even when we are the majority. There are constant identity issues about embracing your heritage, while still being assimilated enough into America. It is like a balancing act. Also, there are the issues of discrimination and racism. If you go anywhere besides a border town, when you are the minority, things are a lot different. Racism is still alive today, and I have personally faced that issue. It’s when you have to negotiate your space is when you stop taking things for granted. I am sure that others have felt discriminated against and have similar or worse experiences. However, it is in that point where you are supposed to hold your head up high and be proud of who you are and say, “Yes I look different than you, so what?”

    Also, if I were a behavioral professional, I would disagree and say I have no issues or feelings of resentment towards my brother, since we get along quite well.

  5. Amanda Brinegar on

    Thanks for sharing April! I think many of us have a hard time with our identity growing up and even into adulthood. I’d like to believe that we can embrace all aspects that make up our identity and not feel like we just have to be one or the other. We are complex! I am a woman, and American, white, living on the border, multilingual…etc. All of these things contribute to who I am. I hope you are more comfortable with all sides of yourself! Well done! 🙂

  6. Rebecca Guerrero
    Rebecca Guerrero on

    I thought this narrative was honest and brave, it’s not easy to share issues of identity with the world, but once you do you’ll realize that others may have been going through the same thing. I’ve struggled with similar issues of identity, and felt that my inability to speak perfect Spanish made me less of a Mexican-American somehow. I’ve only recently come to realize (and I do think that traveling somewhere that is not predominately Hispanic makes this hit home) that I am Mexican- American and no one can take that away from me, whether I speak perfect Spanish or not. If that is how I identify myself then that is who I am. I think living in a border community with both Mexican and American influences creates a beautiful yet challenging environment to grow up in, and its good that we can have a dialogue about this issue. Thanks for sharing, great job!

  7. Sammy Joe Luna on

    April,

    I’m right there with you, my grandparents came to this country (Alamogordo-Las Cruces areas) at a time when assimilation was all the rage, and my aunts and uncles were discouraged from speaking Spanish, even at home. My grandfather, who could manage broken English, fathered 13 children, the younger the child the less Spanish they know. The youngest child knows no Spanish. So here I am 2nd generation Mexican-American also dark skinned, also often referred to in childhood as a “coconut”. It didn’t use to bother me until I became more educated and more aware of the racial tension all around me (perhaps why elpaso_guy doesn’t see the offensiveness, “ignorance is bliss”). When a fellow Latino tell me I’m not a “real Mexican” it bugs. Why not? I have the same cultural practices. Simply because of the timing of my grandparent’s arrival in the U.S. I don’t know Spanish, but almost every other possible cultural identifier is there.

    Fellow Embracer,
    Sammy Joe Luna

  8. Many Mexicans don’t speak Spanish. There are hundreds of Native American languages being spoken in Mexico.

  9. Thank you for sharing! I am also Mexican-American, with both parents who speak 100% fluent spanish, and I feel like a complete disgrace to my family because many times I fail to communicate with my grandpa or grandma due to the fact that I lost my ability to speak spanish when I was young. Mainly because my mother was abandoned by my father, and left her with us (my brothers) in America, where we attended English speaking schools. I feel very ashamed of myself for not being able to speak fluent spanish, although I know a bit. Please I need to know how I could learn spanish without making myself seem like a complete fool

  10. I have always teased my boyfriend and called him a coconut. I honestly did not see it as derogatory but I can see how it can be seen that way. I just assumed that if you were Mexican-American that you should speak Spanish but the studies your mentioned are very interesting and seem to ring true. My boyfriend is a third generation as well, and despite his parents and grandparents speaking perfect Spanish, he has only recently started to learn the language. I on the other hand, am part of a second generation of immigrants whose first language was Spanish. Thank you for posting such an honest narrative.

  11. Hehehehehehehehehehehehe, I proud of being a coconut. I’m a black dude who always hangs around with whites. I like being called a coconut. Who cares what people say.

  12. Emma Jaramillo on

    Hey April, I really enjoyed reading your story. I also had a similar experience growing up, feeling betwixt and between being an American and a Mexican. Both my parents came here from Guanajuato in the late 80s, but never bothered to teach me Spanish. Then when I tried to speak Spanish, and my words came out all wrong, they thought I was stupid. Then, after that, every other Spanish-speaking person looked at me like a moron for not having perfect Spanish. Having experiences like this sucks for kids who aren’t exactly confident. They end up avoiding the language altogether and then its too late for them to learn it once they get older. I think there needs to be more support from parents and the community to motivate and inspire kids to keep learning and speaking Spanish in border towns and the rest of the country. Still, to do this, our families and communities need to understand more about how language is acquired in the brain. If you don’t give your children enough opportunities to listen and speak Spanish, they will never learn!

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