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.