Originally Published November 6, 2007
I am Mexican-American. I was raised in a household where my father was employed by a white man and from the ages of five to about eight, one of my best friends was white. But in a way, I was taught not to trust white people or “gabachos” as my parents called them.
After all, my culture has been historically discriminated against by whites. Mexicans have constantly had to endure racism and oppression; from the time of the Mexican-American War to the Zoot Suit Riots up to now, with all of the debates going on about immigration reform and deportation. We have been the butt of racist jokes and my ancestors have had to demonstrate and protest in order to gain somewhat equal rights in America.
I have shopped in stores and sometimes felt like employees were following me because of my dark skin. At these stores, I have had people come up and ask me questions as if I worked there. Maybe I just look friendly and approachable.
There have also been those occasional times when people assumed I didn’t speak English, was not an American-born citizen, or even had a college education, but that’s something I expect from time to time. But I receive this type of treatment not only from whites, but also from my own people.
When I think back and try to remember a time when I was personally discriminated against by a white person, nothing truly comes to mind. Surprisingly enough, I have received the most discrimination from my own culture, family and friends.
I grew up watching American television and listening to English-language radio. For this reason, my family calls me a “pocha.” A pocha, the female version of “pocho,” can have several meanings. It can be someone who was born or raised in the United States, but is of Mexican descent, someone of Mexican heritage who acts American (whatever that might be), or someone who speaks little or no Spanish. In Mexico, “pochos” are thought to be poorly educated and without a proper sense of Mexican culture.
My brother calls me a white girl because I like to travel to European countries and haven’t visited my family in Zacatecas, Mexico in more than fifteen years. My sister mocks me because I like American-style restaurants while my mother constantly berates me for not eating more beans.
Yes, I have become somewhat “Anglicized,” but this doesn’t mean I don’t feel Mexican or try to hide my ethnicity. I love making tamales with my mother and sister every Christmas season. I take pleasure in giving them to my friends to taste because they hardly ever eat authentic Mexican food (Taco Bell and Acapulco are not authentic). I like listening to Spanish-language radio stations and then having my friends want me to translate the songs. I watch “telenovelas” (Mexican soap operas) and Sabado Gigante. I enjoy speaking to other people in Spanish whenever I get the chance because the only person I really speak Spanish to is my mother. Most of my friends are of Mexican descent, and many of them don’t speak Spanish.
On the one hand, I have my friends calling me the “most Mexican girl they know.” On the other hand, I have my family wanting me to be more typically Mexican, whatever that is. I think it means I should already be married and have at least two kids. You’d think that getting a proper college education and becoming a more well-rounded person would be more important. But no, my extended female family members still ask me when I’m going to get married.
I think it has a correlation with the so-called “crab theory,” where some Mexicans are trying to pull back other Mexicans who are trying to become successful and seek a better life. If this continues, no one will get out of the “bucket” and we will all remain at the same level when we could be escaping in order to help one another.
There is also so much discrimination amongst our own culture. You have the business elite who believe they are better than the blue-collar working class. The better-off Mexicans have always looked down on the poor Mexicans. We have a constant battle between the assimilated versus those who just arrived.
There are the young Mexican girls who dye their hair blonde, wear blue contacts and light makeup in order to look more Anglo. I remember family members always admiring the lighter-skinned babies when they were born and how I felt bad for being the darkest person in my family. I remember how my sister didn’t want her son to wear a white shirt for his school picture because she thought it might make him look darker and he’s already more “tanned” than she’d like.
This explains why there are so many blonde actresses in Mexican “novelas” and why people with darker skin are discriminated against by people who have lighter skin. Dark skin is synonymous with being poor and stupid. Light skin is associated with power and wealth. I have brown skin and I look more “india” than anyone I know. I’m proud of it, but I also feel racism towards the white Mexicans. They might never receive the discrimination that I receive because their skin is lighter. People might never assume they don’t speak English or don’t have a college education. But then again, people can also say that they aren’t Mexican enough because they haven’t had to endure the stereotypes and discrimination.
No matter what you do, you’re either not Mexican enough or you’re too Mexican.
A few years ago, my sister and I had a disagreement about what makes a Mexican a “real Mexican.” She had just met a friend of mine who is fourth generation Mexican. He doesn’t speak Spanish and she argued that he can’t consider himself Mexican because he doesn’t speak the native language. I told her that since his ancestors did indeed come from Mexico, he is Mexican.
The argument finally came to a halt when this year we met the writer of the nationally syndicated column “Ask a Mexican” Gustavo Arellano at a book signing. I told him of our years-long dispute and he joked “Why would anyone not want to be Mexican?” He explained that just because someone doesn’t speak Spanish or wasn’t born in Mexico or in any other Latin American country, it doesn’t mean they can’t call themselves Mexican or Hispanic. But he also brought up the point that even if someone is born in Japan and they speak Japanese, but their parents aren’t Japanese, they can’t just call themselves Japanese. You should be able to back up why you consider yourself Mexican, Japanese or whatever.
I might be “Americanized” to some extent, but I feel a very close connection to both parts of my culture, not because of my skin color or the fact that I speak Spanish and English or watch Mexican soap operas and enjoy eating hamburgers.
No one can tell me that I’m not Mexican enough or not American enough. I am a part of both societies because it’s in my heart, blood and mind. I am Mexican-American.