Soy Mexicano

This post over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog raised many questions for me, questions I alternately feel obliged to consider and frankly a bit uncomfortable thinking about.  I have little doubt that the flap over Sotomayor’s comments regarding her ethnicity was created by her political opponents, a desperate argument leveled at her in an attempt to scare white voters.  But, the conversations I have read have morphed into something that may just be too important to overlook….when is assimilation complete?  What is expected, and is it reasonable?

I’m just as sick as anyone over the “victimization” mindset so prevalent these days.  We are all victims at one time or another, and i would argue that most of the time we are blissfully unaware that we are so.  Thats a subject best covered another day.  I do, however, feel that there are some dangerous trade-offs made in the assimilation process, OTOH, the process itself is fluid and will likely look different as the country’s demography changes.  I know more than a little about being thought of as “less than.”  I’ve talked about that here at The Chronicles from time to time.  But, my experience was nothing when compared to what my parents endured.  There were times when any public display of your Hispanic roots could get you beaten or killed on the streets of Los Angeles, and not by rival gangs, but by police officers or soldiers.

So, does assimilation, as the end, justify the means?  If I become more like you, but do so under duress, have you really integrated me, or, are you likely to cause me to quietly cling to the very things that make me different?

I’m embarrassed to admit that when I was young, and being accepted by my peers was everything, I often tried to make a distinction between being Mexican and being Spanish.  In my mind, being from Spain was somehow better than being from Mexico.  Maybe I thought having Spanish roots would make me just seem “exotic” (and maybe a little European) whereas having ties to Mexico would make me less acceptable to people. I even remember passing for Italian on a number of occasions, and did little to sway that belief.  I’m pretty sure that, subconsciously, at least, I was ashamed of being the little Mexican boy down the street.  To be fair to myself, though, I can’t tell you how many times that is how I heard myself referred to by neighbors and my friend’s parents.

The thing is, except for my brown skin and dark hair and eyes, I didn’t really look Mexican.  I almost never wore a sombrero, or khakis, and I didn’t grow a mustache until i was in my 30s.  I didn’t sound Mexican either.  I don’t have a trace of an accent, except to say that I unconsciously mimic the accents around me.  On the phone, I can pass for a Southerner, born and bred.  I have to think that because we were the first Mexicans to move into an all white (but ethnically diverse) neighborhood, we just stood out.  I don’t remember having this conversation with my older siblings, but, if i had to guess, I’d say that their experience was probably even more intense than mine.

Fast forward 40 years, and here I am, raising a family in a small Southern town that at one time was a Klan stronghold.  We arrive just as the immigration debate starts to get heated.  I experience things that I thought I left behind decades ago.  Whispers behind me.  Clumsy attempts to determine our ethnicity, which, because I’m 12, I intensify by claiming to be Swedish, just to see the confused looks on people’s faces.  (It should be noted that I got this idea from my brother, who, out of sheer boredom i think, used to answer the phone at work with a heavy accent, then greet those same customers in person with his normal speaking voice) These days, its just how I mock the ignorance.

Then, not long ago, my daughter experienced a bit of racism firsthand.  Her reaction really surprised me.  Where I sought to deflect and diffuse as a youngster, she engaged.  Where I might have attempted to distance myself from my heritage, she embraced hers.  I found that courageous.  My daughter is now aware that she is different from most of her classmates.  I can’t help but feel a little bit sad by that.  Had you asked me prior to that incident, if my kids were fully assimilated, I would have answered in the affirmative.

I didn’t start this post thinking i was going to break any new ground, or offer anything that hasn’t been thoroughly discussed elsewhere.  I’m just trying to get my head around the fact that since i had it better than my parents, I expected my children to have it even better than me, and that may not be the case.

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12 responses to “Soy Mexicano

  1. Pingback: YOUR ROOTS ARE SHOWING, BUT THAT’S A GOOD THING - The Public Interest : WTVC NewsChannel 9: Chattanooga News, Weather, Radar, Sports, Lottery

  2. Do you now, or have you ever owned a Zoot Suit?

    The assimilation question is a good one. I read years ago that people in general welcome “otherly” types right up until they feel that their world is being sidelined. This isn’t an American or white attitude; everybody’s done it since the beginning of time.

    Everybody boasts about their tenuous Irish heritage on St Patrick’s Day.

  3. When Iwas a kid back in the late 50s, Kennedy ran for president. His being a Catholic was a big deal. Growing up Catholic, everybody asumed we’d all stick together. I remember feeling uncomfortable that Id been singled out, almost, because of something I was. It was a strange feeling being the only Catholic kid in the ‘hood and I too was a little ashamed feeling because of it.

    It took me a while to realize that we’re all different. My ancestors came from countries that really hated each other – Ireland, England, Scotland, Holland & France – and there’s probably an interesting story in there somewhere that I’ve never heard.

    I’ll freely admit I don’t understand discrimination but it’s probably due to what I’ve read over the years about how my Irish ancestors were treated. It’s always seemed to me that those who are at the lower levels of the economic ladder get more paranoid because that’s the part of the economy that immigrants get to hang out in.

    I thought you were Lithawainian. 🙂

  4. Well, I don’t look the slightest bit Mexican.
    I couldn’t tell you exactly what my mix is but I’m Mexican and Spanish and probably a little somethin else, but I’ve never looked like a Mexican.

    Which is why I get a hell of kick out of talking smack back to the cooks at my work when they talk shit to me in Spanish – funny though, they hate on me because they think I’m Caucasian (part of my job is tell the cooks when to start certain items and basically act as a liaison between the servers and the kitchen) and they don’t respect me until I ask them for what I want in Spanish.

    Just the other day my girlfriend and I were walking in the mall and this large Hispanic man came up to us and said “Hola Güeras!” (This term may or not be derogatory depending on the users intention, but it usually is.)

    Welcome to Southern California where you can’t win no matter what race you are. Honestly, I don’t really understand why it matters what color you are but that’s how I was raised I guess.

  5. Ex, my dad had a sort of modified zoot… They were a little before my time. And hell yes, I’m Irish as all get out for St. Pattys.

    Jim, yes, of course I get that feeling different isn’t always a skin color thing. And your thoughts about those who have to come into contact the most (and compete with the most) with immigrants are going to be less welcoming.

    Mychal, you look Mexicana to me. But I see your mother in you first and foremost.

  6. But, these days, Mychal, you mostly look like an expediter.

    😉

  7. And a server, lol.
    And on occasions a hostess.

    Dang, I really need to get out of the restaurant business

  8. “Had you asked me prior to that incident, if my kids were fully assimilated, I would have answered in the affirmative.”

    The variable that made you change your mind on whether your kids were fully assimilated was their peers’ acceptance of them. We need more reminders that barriers to assimilation can arise from the behavior of the would-be assimilors.

  9. I love this post. Made me cry.

    I’ve written about this, about being defined by others based on my heritage or what I look like. Do I look Latina enough? Am I American enough? My mother’s ethnicity has mattered more to others than I ever would have imagined. (She’s Cuban. I’m American born with an Anglo bio-dad.)

    I once used to not say anything either about my heritage. I pass. And then I got tired of people making comments about “those people” to me and waiting for me to nod in agreement.

    I am those people. And I am a pretty good example of “those people”… So, I learned to open my mouth. My main message always is that we all want the same things — regardless of where our mama comes from.

    Good for your daughter…and good for you for writing about it.

    (I tried finding my posts, but google is not cooperating with me. Another, less-in-depth post is at http://tikitikiblog.com/what-is-a-latina/)

    And, let me end by saying that I once loved a man who told me he didn’t want our future children to speak Spanish so they wouldn’t be “those little Spanish kids down the street.”

    And so, I get you.

    Do you know the term, pa’lante?

    Well, pa’lante.

  10. democommie

    Mack:

    I am, as you know, home for some family business that is more than tinged with sadness, the passing of my brother.

    His services, yesterday, were crowded and ethnically diverse. His three children have between them, one hispanic (very, very large hispanic) husband and a heartachingly beautiful african american fiancee–she really is more beautiful in her pregnancy than I would have thought possible. What makes this so heartening for me is that my brother and I (and the rest of my 11 sibs) grew up in a casually and overtly racist home in a racist era and locale. I am not surprised, unfortunately, when I still hear many, many racist comments amongst my former HS classmates and older relatives.

    My mostly lily white grand nieces and nephews are, as far as I can tell, unconcious of racism. They certainly have no problem playing with their several mixed race cousins and live in ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods.

    I was talking to my brother’s son-in-law, Dominic about food and his wife, Beth, when we talking about ethnic food thought we were both nuts for talking about menudo being a nice dish–but, I’m pretty sure that she feels exactly the same about liver’n’onions or HAGGIS!

    Assimilation is a good thing, having one’s culture subsumed into another, larger grouping of cultures, not so bad. To lose one’s ethnic identity, even voluntarily, is sad.

  11. Absolutely, Demo. Like i said, there are some bad trade offs that can seem reasonable at the time.

    Of course, condolences from us here at The Chronicles. Get home safe!

  12. democommie

    Thanks, Mack.

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