BY VALERIA CHAVEZ-FRANCO
I do not fit inside the box. Looking down at a government application, there is the category for race: white, and ethnicity: Latinx. These are the boxes the government has designed, two separate boxes which reflect two different experiences. I am a Latina, more specifically Mexican-American, but I fit into the racially white category. The government might see these as two separate boxes that fit on one form, but society and my own culture do not. I have to be one or the other, there is no possible way to be both.
I learned this lesson first hand in seventh grade. I was speaking to a boy at my school who is also Mexican. He stared me dead in the face and declared, “You are not Mexican! You were born in America and are white, so you can’t be Mexican.” I was fuming. I could not fathom how he could say this, it made no sense. Looking back I understand now I do not fit HIS definition of Mexican or the Mexican experience.
I live in America and do not speak fluent Spanish. I am a very white person who could not tan if her life depended on it. In our society, we have portrayed “real” Mexicans to be immigrants born in Mexico who move to America and are brown. While there are many Mexicans who fit this stereotype, many do not. Despite that contradiction, in my culture, it is still normal to ostracize someone for not fitting the standard. Through things like the nicknames that I have heard all my life “gringra,” “blanca,” “guera.” This shunning had caused me to feel disconnected from my culture, and not speaking Spanish fluently made it worse.
When I processed what this boy said to me, I just moved on and ignored him. Who was he to diminish my whole identity because of one thing I could not control? Even so, this moment where someone told me directly that I “cannot be Mexican” deeply affected me and the way I live my life. While I cannot control my skin color, I can control how connected I am to my own culture. I have tried to immerse myself in my culture and my history. Mexican culture is, in simple terms, magnificent with dancing, food, stories, language, and tradition. Over the years, I have been gradually learning more Spanish. While learning is a struggle, I plan to continue to stick to it because the language has the power to connect me to more people within my own culture. Being able to connect to people has expanded my understanding as well. Through Spanish, I have also grown closer to my grandparents, the people who directly influence my perspective of Mexican culture. One instance I distinctly remember is my grandmother telling me about the "quinces en el rancho" where they lived. They have taught me so much about my family and the harrowing journey my family has been through. I have been able to use this history and culture to build on my identity as a person.
When I reflect on this pivotal moment and the harsh words that the boy said to me, all I can say is “thank you” for reminding me why I continue to embrace my culture. No one can dictate how much of my culture I can identify with, and I have now made my own box.