No, my papa is not Korean!


El Paso – I would be lying if I said I was a suave city girl. The truth is downtown still scares me. With all the shady characters walking up and down the streets and the shopkeepers peering at you with their hawk like eyes, downtown is not my vision of a shopper’s paradise.

What I loathe most is that some stores require customers to leave their shopping bags at the front counter. Because I can’t be sure that my bag will be returned simply because my name is taped to it, when I leave something at the counter naturally I am apprehensive. During one shopping excursion when I went to retrieve the bag, I was asked for my name and I answered simply “Kim.” At this the shop-keeper’s face lit up and she blurted out, “Oh! Your papa Korean?!”

I wanted to bark back: “Just because I have almond shaped eyes and appear to be some-what Asian looking does not mean I am Asian! Just because my name is Kim does not mean I am Korean. It is my first name not my surname.”

Instead, I managed to give a bleak smile, a tart giggle and go on my merry way. So goes the story of my life: Although I am Hispanic American, my ethnic background often confuses people.

Although I don’t consider my-self to be Asian-looking or Hawaiian-looking, people think and say otherwise. In high school when fellow students started noting my Asian and Hawaiian seeming features they began referring to me as “Chawiian” and “Chiwanese.” This was a dismal attempt at combining the two ethnicities.

But the ethnic confusion is not what bothers me. What irks me most are the dumbfounded expressions on people’s faces after I reveal that I am of Hispanic background. “Why the astonished look?” I ask. “Were you expecting something more? Did I disappoint?”

Of course I did not need an answer. Their faces had said it all. They were flabbergasted that I was not “foreign” or “exotic”. Most importantly they were disheartened that I was an average Hispanic. Not just Hispanic but Hispanic of Mexican American origin.

“How can you be Mexican when you don’t even speak Spanish?” they ask next. Apparently, most of the people I come across assume someone cannot be Mexican American if they cannot speak Spanish.

I asked a family friend who was born and raised in Mexico why some people look down on U.S. Hispanics who no longer speak their native language. “Los Mexicanos estamos orgullosos y por eso hablamos nuestra lengua maternal con orgullo,” he said, which means in translation that Mexicans are proud of their roots and proud to speak in their native tongue.

Why is it that some Mexican Americans who were born here in the states are so proud of speaking Spanish when Mexican citizens abandon their country in truckloads to come to the U.S?

I believe that a person can be proud of their ethnic heritage without having to speak the language of their ancestors.

I have had to come to terms with this myself. I trace my inability to speak Spanish to my maternal grandmother. She was so determined that her children speak English that they abandoned their mother tongue. “I didn’t want them to forget their heritage,” said my grandmother, a former Farrah jean factory striker and the epitome to me of a Chicana activist. “I just didn’t want them to suffer in school like I did for not knowing English,” she added.

Although her response seemed to me a bit hypocritical, I understand that she grew up when speaking Spanish in school was a stigma. Now schools have the bilingual programs that cater to the needs of any child who speaks Spanish.

To seek a different perspective I asked my paternal grandmother, whose English is not great, if she was proud that she spoke Spanish. She said yes, but added, “I wish I knew how to speak English better.”  According to this grandmother, life in the U.S. would have been easier for her if she had learned proper English. Although she is retired from her job as housekeeping manager she does not give up trying to speak English. When we converse she uses English. And although her English is broken and labored, I try to meet her half way with my own broken and labored Spanish.

When I do speak Spanish I know I sound like a gringa, or so I’ve been told. To avoid ridicule from my Spanish-speaking Mexican Americans friends I do not speak the language outside my home.

That is why it vexes me when people assume that all Mexican Americans know Spanish. Just because I do not speak perfect Spanish does not mean that I have abandoned my culture or traditions.

Mexican cuisine is standard fare in my family. Lately my affinity for Mexican food has grown to encompass a wide range of Mexican food, from the typical taco to the more authentic such as chiles rellenos and comida corrida. And, for the record, both grandmothers are experts in Mexican cuisine.

On Good Friday my paternal grandmother cooks traditional Cuaresma food and although as a child I was reluctant to eat it now I enjoy it. A piñata is a staple of birthday parties in my family, even adult birthdays. When I was younger, I went to Juarez with my grandparents to shop for various items. I still savor those memories.

My family also participates in the traditional Christmas posada directed by an aunt. Each Christmas, you can find me spreading masa on cornhusks for the tamales. We sing traditional Mexican Christmas carols, as beautiful as their English counterparts.

In summer I enjoy gathering with family to make gorditas and enchiladas. And during all these events we are all comfortable switching from English to Spanish and back without having to give it a second thought.

Tradition not just language defines a person’s heritage. Whether you celebrate Chinese New Years or make holiday tamales, participating in your cultural tradition is the act of paying homage to heritage.

So, in a final act of defiance, I will sign my name using the acento that my late grandfather used to prove that I do not have to be fluent in Spanish to call myself Mexican American.

4 thoughts on “No, my papa is not Korean!

  1. At the risk of being called a racist, I call your attention to something Theodore Roosevelt said in 1915. Prior to this time, the phrase “hyphenated-American” was a derogatory term. Roosevelt redefined it in his speech to the Knights of Columbus, a largely Irish Catholic organization whose members (among other ethnicities at the time) wallowed in their “heritage” as means to provide some measure of “belonging” in their adopted country). Kurt Vonnegut called this a “gran falloon” and suggested that to find its substance (none at all), “peel the skin off a toy balloon”. Anyway, on to Roosevelt’s speech:

    “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all… The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic… There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”

  2. I enjoyed your story – so many El Pasoans feel like this about border culture, being stronger in one language and/or culture than another, and the stigma that is attached to not being able to speak both languages fluently. Many El Pasoans are more fluent in two languages (or more) than most U.S. Americans, and definitely more bicultural, and that’s something to be proud of.

  3. Being bilingual is a privilege. Unfortunately, the US seems to be the only place in the world where being able to speak two languages used to be synonym of foreigner. Until white people decided to start schooling their children in dual language programs, that just a few years ago were dismissed because they were not “in” according to some bigots in different boards of education.
    By the way, the comment about Mexican Americans being proud of speaking Spanish, while truckloads of Mexicans leave their country, in my humble opinion, is insensitive and explains why in New Mexico “la latina” governing the state is a traitor to their own people.

  4. Dear Kim,
    Embrace your Oriental roots. All of the native Indians of North and Central and South America
    Came across the Bering Strait from Mongolia or Siberia or EurAsia. The Spanish mixed with the Indians and the mestizo Mexican appeared. In addition, the mestizo intermarried with vaying degrees of Mexican, Indians. and Africans. Under the Spanish rule, there were castas or social classes of mixed bloods. So many children of Mexican Americans look exactly like Orientals because of the DNA. Take the DNA saliva swab test and have a DNA roots finding laboratory trace your DNA and you will be surprised how truely Oriental you are. If you learn to speak Spanish and Cantonese or Japanese, think what an amazing cultural life you would have! Take care and let us know what your DNA test revealed to you.

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