My dad was Latino, and my mom is white. I’m a tall guy with black hair and olive skin. I’ve often been asked if I’m Italian, Indian, Pakistani — and I tell them I’m Latino. I don’t speak Spanish, and I don’t know what all the Mexican-food items on the menu are.
This didn’t preclude me from torment! I played on a baseball team in high school where I was nicknamed Mexican, Dirty Sanchez, Beaner, and Wetback. Yay, me.
I love my Granny because she calls me mijo and tells me stories of her life. But she is kind of the one who decided our family needed to be “American.” That makes me sad. She had to cut off a piece of herself because she thought that the pain of being different would be eased for her children.
I feel lost, like I’m neither — not in one camp or the other or even both. Papi, I’m not sure what my question is, and I’m sorry about that. It seems desperate, doesn’t it? “You’re a Latinx writer, please validate me, be my Obi-Juan Kenobi, and tell me how to be Latinx!”
I play Dungeons & Dragons. I learn songs on the guitar. I enjoy a good meal. As a person, I am more than just my heritage — I imagine everyone is. But there is a massive hole, a gap, and I’m not sure if there’s a way to ever get it back. Maybe I’m not meant to.
Latin-X … cept Not Really
I found a lot to relate to in your letter. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, so I’m happy to share my thoughts. When it comes to something as nebulous as identity, “thoughts” are kind of all I have on tap. I can’t tell you who or what to be, even if that’d be a fun power for me to have. Anyway, take this with a grain of margarita rim salt, eh?
I think one thing a lot of Latinx get caught up on when it comes to identity is that we’ve been conditioned to couple lived experience with “authenticity.” There are a set number of things a “real Latinx” must do: speak Spanish, look a certain way, have certain skills (cooking, dancing, balancing enormous fruit hats on our heads, etc.). To lack any of these would make you less authentic, and thus “less” in general.
This is a weird way to look at the facts of your life, LNR. We are, at all times, regardless of how we may feel about it, complete beings: the sum of our experiences, our thoughts, and our feelings. We move through the world, and the world responds. If you feel you are not “really” something, that’s probably because you’re trying to negotiate your truth with a messy, imperfect human construct that’s rooted in ideology, like race or authenticity.
These structures aren’t here to make us feel better about anything, and some would argue they were created with the specific intent to exclude rather than include. If you were slotted in a more concrete “brown person” box, you might feel more certain about your identity, but only because you’d concretely be treated worse.
Here’s my take on the situation. Your Granny feeling the need to assimilate into another culture to avoid discrimination is pretty “authentically” Latinx. It’s a part of the overarching, vaguely defined Latinx experience, a piece of the mosaic you’ve contributed to because, well, you’re Latinx and it’s your life. You speak a lot about loss, but loss itself is a tangible part of a journey, as real of an heirloom as Spanish or a tamale recipe may be. It has shaped you in some way. That’s about as genuine as you’re going to get.
No one can take your heritage away. It’s in your hands. You’re holding it. The words you use to describe it may change, and your understanding of it may shift, but it’s yours. If you’re still feeling some kind of guilt, then I think one thing you and I could do is use our experiences to build solidarity and compassion for others.
Under our wide “Latinx” umbrella, there are Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, Afro-Latinx, undocumented people, impoverished people, and all manner of realities that are pushed to the margins. Race, colorism, citizenship, and other silly human ideas inform those realities and disproportionately harm some while benefiting others. So before worrying if those structures hold the power to validate us, let’s look out for our fellow humans first, LNR. That would be a pretty authentic thing to do!
Or, I don’t know. Here’s a shirt I made with a concha on it. Wear it around and call yourself a Mexican. It works for me.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on January 14, 2020.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Preorder JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, out June 8, here.