When I was growing up, living in México, I was Americana. I was born in the States and didn’t quite act Mexican and had a bit of an accent, so I was Americana.
It was a label I didn’t like. Contrary to the homegrown belief that Americans are all that, in México American girls are considered brainless and easy. Not the best thing to have precede you when you’re a teenager. Not the best stereotype to work against when you’re me. I approached it with my customary arrogant disregard for small-town politics and proved the theory right.
But that’s not today’s topic.
When I moved to Atlanta to live with my Dad, 17 years old, I became Mexican. In a city where my dark skin earned me the occasional hushed “are you Black?” and my Spanish warranted curious glances and worried looks, I guess Mexican was the best they could do.
I accepted the label, but I rejected the baggage that came with it. I was a living, breathing reminder that brown-skinned people are smart and interesting and hard working and badass (when we want to be). I accepted the label but hated the mocking, amused tone with which it was said. “She’s Mexican.” As if that one sentence defined everything that is me. As if that one word could describe who I am and what I am and what I believe.
So much idiocy, so little patience.
The culture shock I experienced when I moved to Houston defies description. After living in a place that was primarily brown then in a place that was primarily white, living in this café con leche, multicultural, multiracial, multilingual city was one hell of a shock. And I thought that I had finally found the one place where I belonged.
I was wrong and I was right.
Chicana. Latina. Hispana. Hispanic. Mexicana. Mexican. Mexican-American. Mexican American. American.
The words twirled around me in so many voices and with so many meanings it made me dizzy. “What are you?” they would demand. “What are you?” they would ask, speculation and interest in their eyes. Labels are important. Choose a label. Choose a label. Choose a label.
And it didn’t even matter if I said that I was Hispanic, Mexican-American or Chicana, there was always another test to fail, another proof of brownness that I wasn’t living up to. I was either talking white or acting white. Or the fact that I listened to top 40s pop music instead of Tejano meant that I wasn’t really brown enough. Or the fact that I’d had what could be considered a middle-class upbringing meant that I wasn’t really in tune with the issues. Or the fact that I don’t speak Spanglish meant that I was denying who I am. Or the fact that I am a Feminist was diluting the brown power movement by distracting from the real issues.
Blah, blah, blah. Words, words, words. Been there. Done that. Got over it. Get on with it.
Hispanic is the all-encompassing word that describes me, my family and my friends. It’s not the word that best describes us. It’s not the word I prefer. But I’ll accept it. And so, we are now in Hispanic Heritage Month. It’s a weird month, starting at 16 de Septiembre and ending just after Día de la Raza (Columbus Day). It’s a month when my brown skin is celebrated and tolerated. Good thing too. I’m getting very tired of telling people off.