The following is an incredible piece written by my incredible friend, Amelia Solis.
Today, I was told an anecdote about a young man in a community service league mocking the intended recipient of the letter he was currently writing–a foster child. “Hey, maybe I should write this in Spanish so the poor Mexican kid who gets it can understand it,” he said as he laughed. I, at first, was appalled and horrified. Then, the anger started setting in. This anger threw me into a reflection of my own experiences as a low-income Latina and I’d like to share these with you.
Ever since I was young child, my mother always told me, “You are a representative of the Mexican race. It is up to you to change the way we are perceived.” These news were terrifying to me. The weight of my responsibility as a Mexican-American U.S. citizen rested heavily on my young shoulders and I had no idea of where to start. How could I prove to everyone just how great Mexicans were? What kind of a Mexican did I even want to be? I knew my mother was an intelligent, elegant woman who handled everything with grace; a Mexican queen among women. This was what I had previously known to be a Mexican woman, yet the outside world told me otherwise. The television only provided me only with nannies, convicts, or sassy cholas with a bad ‘tude from el barrio. Thanks to the watchful eye of my mother, I was escorted away from the screen and presented with books and a sketch pad. Yet, in the books that were meant to save me, I never encountered a heroine that looked like me. The artists I was taught about in my art classes at school were all white. I didn’t even learn about Mexican artists until this year. The only explanation I could come up with for this disparity was that maybe, just maybe, Latinos weren’t as capable as white people. I didn’t like the image America had provided me of Latinos. I was lost and straying far away from my task. How was I supposed to change the masses’ perceptions of Latinos if I didn’t even know what being a Mexican meant? Because of this, at a young age, I renounced my Mexican culture. The Spanish words that had sounded so beautiful to me only embarrassed me. I refused to speak the language whose words provided me with my welcome into this world. I hated the color of my skin, eyes, and hair. I hated the gold hoops I had been wearing since a baby because suddenly I looked “too Mexican.” And worst of all, I hated the fact that my mother, the queenly woman I had so admired, was not white. The duty my mother had so lovingly placed on my shoulders felt uncomfortable and misplaced; so I shrugged it off.
Middle school, if you do not know, is a festering petri dish for the worst kinds of immature behaviors. Children become aware of the differences between them and their peers and they react in the worst possible way; jokes. As if my idea of my culture couldn’t get any worse, I was suddenly presented with only the worst kinds of Mexican stereotypes. My response? I labeled myself a “Mexican White girl”. Yes, I was Mexican, but by slapping that “white girl” or “white-washed” label on me, I was successfully able to distance myself from the culture that I so resented. I made border and Mexican jokes, criticized the Mexican customs and ideas I had been raised with and even criticized other Mexicans in order to fit the new mold I had created for myself. I saw other Latinos doing the same thing so naturally I thought, “ Hey, I must be on the right track!” I became a renegade, unaware of the fact that I was contributing to the perpetuation of the terrible stereotype that had pushed me so far away from my culture. Because after all, if a person willingly defects from their culture, would one not assume that there was something wrong with the people from that culture?
It wasn’t until I had graduated from middle school that I realized the error of my ways. Life has a funny way of throwing whatever it can at you in order to prompt your growth. And, oh, it definitely did for me. My result? A new found appreciation of what it means to be Mexican. I like my Mexican features. My gold hoops dangle freely from my ears. Rusty from years of disuse, my Spanish is slowly coming back to me. I am proud of the sacrifices and challenges my Mexican parents went through in order to give me everything that I have. I am no longer ashamed of being Mexican and I gladly carry the duty given to me so long ago proudly over my head.
This shame however, has been replaced with a new feeling of anger. Why is it, that the country I live in presented me with negative images of my people, mi raza, that pushed me away from my culture as a child? When an environment causes a child to feel shame for who they are, does that not suggest that something is wrong? I am lucky. I grew up. However, I am still surrounded by people, adults even, that have not grown up. Hell, some jackass dressed up as a Mexican for Halloween at my school. I am still surrounded by the same stereotypes that plagued me as a child. People, to this day, still tell me that I’m “white-washed.” I was even told by a peer that my low grade in my AP Bio class was okay because simply being in the class as a sophomore was pretty good for a Mexican. I still hear jokes about Latinos, and have received dirty looks for speaking my beautiful español, and incendiary crazies like Donald Trump remind me that I, an American citizen, am still an outsider in my own country.
The young guy in my aforementioned anecdote reduced all of the years I spent in shame and everything and anything that makes being a Latino worth anything to a joke. A joke. A stupid joke. And I resent that. For a couple of reasons, actually. First, with that joke, he perpetuates a harmful stereotype of Mexicans. Secondly, I resent his comment because I am not a joke. My family is not a joke. Latinos are not a joke. And third, because this ignorant jerk, is wrong. So wrong.
Don’t believe me? Watch me. I’ll prove anyone who thinks otherwise wrong. But more importantly, watch me prove myself, a Mexican woman, right.