“If I am not what you say I am, then you are not who you think you are.” James Baldwin
We were discussing music in my seminar class and one of my students looked at another, both of them Latinos, and said, “I bet you listen to that Mexican shit!” and laughed.
What he said next, blew my mind. He said, “I don’t mind Spanish music, but I hate that Mexican crap.” My own laughter boomed through the mostly quiet classroom, surprising myself along with my students, who all looked up at me. Most shared my expression of “WTF” in response to what was clearly an idiotic statement, but a few looked at me with genuine curiosity as to why I found that funny.
What followed was a conversation that would have been a Trumpers wet dream and a cultural anthropologist’s nightmare. Basically Eli believed that Mexicans were different than other Hispanics because they sound so different, they’re music is so country, and they believe in weird things like Dia de los Muertos. I pointed out that they ARE different than other Hispanics, that all Hispanics are different than each other, but they’re still Spanish.
Then he said something that has been following me my whole life, “Yeah, but they’re not really Spanish, like you.”
I cracked my knuckles and educated the poor, ignorant boy about what is the difference between Hispanic and Latinos, about how anyone who was colonized by the Spanish, who had their culture usurped by them, all bore the dubious claim of being “Spanish,” though the truth is far more convoluted. Many of the other students joined in the conversation and added their two pesos, basically echoing what I was saying. Oddly (sarcasm), nobody could agree on whose culture was the most “Spanish.” I.e., who was the best Hispanic. Mexicans had too much native influences, like Dia de los Muertos. Dominicans and Cubans had too much African blood and practiced voodoo and Santeria, and so on. I asked about people from Spain, you know where Spanish actually came from. Apparently, they were too European.
Fortunately, the bell rang, because my head began to hurt. Actually, it was my heart. To see this sort of thought process among young Latinos so prevalent was painful, because I grew up with it. I remember when I got my first real nickname, not like the others that were meant to hurt, like “Fatso” and “Taco,” but it still managed to sting. It was “Chico,” you know, because I’m Hispanic. Where I grew up in Western, PA, people’s notions of what it meant to be Hispanic was very limited. Basically, amongst my peer group anyway, what we knew of what it meant to be Latino was gathered by watching Speedy Gonzales from Loony Tunes and Ponch from CHiPs. This wasn’t always a bad thing, when I told people I was Puerto Rican it was often met with a confused look and a question to the effect of, “Uhhh, is that like Mexican?” Once it confused a local good ol’ boy so badly he didn’t beat me up. Well, that day.
In the end, I was a brown person, and whether they thought I was a Nigger or a Spic, I wasn’t one of them. To other Latinos, because I grew up in a White neighborhood and didn’t speak Spanish, I wasn’t really Spanish. Not that any of this is new, it is literally the entirety of human history to exclude “Others,” be it based on race, religion, age, gender, hair color or sports team. We should celebrate our differences, because they’re awesome. Just because you enjoy a Day of the Dead celebration or Christmas or a Monster Truck rally doesn’t mean you belong to any group or another, or that you have to accept their belief systems, it just means you like different things, but some of us are only just getting that message.
I started teaching in a high school that has one of the highest ratios of Hispanics in the Northeast, and the two things I keep hearing are, “They need you,” from well-meaning adults who were thinking about the positive influence I’ll have on my fellow Latinos, and “What kind of Latino are you, mister?” from all of the students. I could tell they were excited to have me there until they found out I am not their kind of Latino and I don’t speak Spanish. Lo Siento, but in McDonald, PA, my family pretty much was the Hispanic population. I used to hate that my dad didn’t teach us Spanish or what it meant to be Puerto Rican. Now that I’m older and yes, the Spanish thing would have come in handy (especially now), I get it. We were going to be outcast anyway, imagine if I rolled up in McDonald’s, Puerto Rican flags hanging from my car’s rearview window, Salsa or Reggaeton blasting from a souped-up sound system, and speaking with a Spanish accent. I’d have been killed. Or at least beaten up more regularly.
Instead, I found out what it meant to be me. I discovered what it meant to be my kind of Hispanic: a mixed-race, half Irish, half Puerto Rican, all American, liberal country boy, and I’m damn proud of it. I ended up loving that nickname, Chico. I owned it and made it mean what I wanted it to, not what other people felt about it. And my students need to see that too. So while they may not want me because I’m not Hispanic enough, or I’m not the right kind of Hispanic, they need to see what it means to be a proud, professional Hispanic/POC/mixed kid in this country, at this time, and comfortable in his own skin.
Previously Published on Stupid Optimism