A Mexican-born, ethnic Arab/German with an American passport reflects on his cultural identity while in Berlin


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. 

The cold air penetrated the visible skin between my gloves and my jacket as I hurried up a long flight of stairs to catch the train to work in direction Alexanderplatz. My breath, warm and visible, was seeping through my scarf and mixing with the melting delicate snowflakes that were coming down from the heavens. It was a cold winter morning, typical Berlin.

Once inside the train, I found a seat and rapidly put on my headphones to have “my 15-minute concert” of the usual British Rock bands that make me wish I had a similar accent so I could use words like “daft” or “trousers” and the occasional “Oi!” without people looking at me weird for having an American accent.

Two stations away from my destination, a young couple with a child sat next to me. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but I couldn’t help myself as I heard the little girl say excitedly “¡Mira mami, mira ahí!,” as she pointed to a passenger who was traveling with his dog.

“Perú or Ecuador,” I thought to myself at first. “South American, most definitely,” I proudly assured myself after turning off my music and listening a little more closely to their accent. Instantly, I was interrupted by a loud train announcement, “Alexanderplatz, dieser Zug endet hier. Bitte alle aussteigen! We had reached the end station and it was time to leave the train and get to work.

Working at an international study abroad program seemed to be the obvious thing to do as I speak three languages fluently since a young age. Everyone at the office is aware of this and usually ask me for help whenever they need to proofread a letter or need to translate something that Google cannot quite figure out.  But more often it’s not about the languages that they ask me. What they really want to know is about the cultures I seem to represent.

“Is it true that everyone eats at McDonald’s everyday in the U.S.?” they often ask. “I heard people stop working everywhere in Mexico to take a siesta, do they really?” Most times the answer is “no” to their questions, which are actually misconceptions.

I was born in Mexico City to an American mother from southern California and a Mexican father of Arab and German descent. The only language I didn’t get around to learning was Arabic because I never had the chance to meet my grandfather who came from Lebanon. But every day I spoke English with my mother, German with my grandmother, mainly on weekends, and Spanish at school and with friends.

I lived most of my life in Mexico City and consider it my homeland. For some strange reason, American society seems to be “hooked” or obsessed on classifying people. Standardized tests along with college applications, traffic violations, etc. always ask for your “race and/or ethnicity.” Most Americans I have encountered seem obsessed with labeling people and cannot grasp that I am a multicultural Mexican. In countries like Mexico and Germany, a citizen of that country is just that: a citizen. Even if they are black, Jewish, Muslim or speak a different language, they are just a Mexican or just a German. Nothing more; nothing less.

But in the United States, especially whenever I travel or meet someone from a state with few Latinos, I am forced to explain that I am a Mexican-born, ethnic Arab/German with an American passport. That is the closest I have been able to label myself.  Many stare at me dumbfounded and ask once again, “well, but how and why?”

The problem with stereotypes is that they are incomplete. Some have some truth, others not so much. Our looks, actions, and thoughts cannot be identified or predetermined by our background.

Don’t get me wrong.

I am truly proud of who I am and what I represent. Yet I do not feel that a label can be put on each one of us. Personally, I tend to be punctual and drink beer as a German would, yet I am not serious, cold, and reserved as many Germans are perceived to be. I tend to laugh and be loud as Americans normally do. Yet I rarely eat at McDonalds or drink Starbucks coffee.

I identify myself more as Mexican but also do not wear my sombrero everywhere I go, especially not while in Alexanderplatz.

3 thoughts on “A Mexican-born, ethnic Arab/German with an American passport reflects on his cultural identity while in Berlin

  1. I understand about the uncertainty many have about cultural and national identies evolved through media fed stereotypes. Coincidently, I was in Berlin in mid January of this year with Dr. Irasema Coronado to attend one of the most interesting conferences I have ever attended: Relocating Borders. In Berlin, where we also visited Peruvian relatives, the still present “psychological” border is the one that fell with the fall of the Berlin Wall. We stayed at a hotel right under the shadow of the Alexanderplatz Needle close enough to walk 10 minutes to Von Humboldt University, site of the conference.
    Although Dr. Coronado has visited Berlin many times, and lived in Germany many years (and speaks fluent German) it was only my 2nd visit. Both visits for me, the first in 2002, and now 2013, were post Berlin Wall. I wrote a short piece in my journal from a Starbucks while the conferees visited a nearby museum about East Berlin. I refused to go because I felt strongly I didn’t need to create in my psyche a wall where for me personally it has never existed. Enough walls in many respects already exist being a Mexican American. Besides, my experience in Berlin is that of enjoying a vital, exciting, very diverse city culturally, linguistically and economically, and not to be overlooked, culinary.

  2. There is a liberation in being a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic individual. You are able to move within groups much more easily than most, though perhaps not as comfortably. I would love to see a time when most people have lived and worked in other places, experiencing other cultures, and gaining a broader perspective about what it means to be human. This alone helps to break down the prejudices and misconceptions that so many have in regards to the “other”. Great story!

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