An issue that is very important to me–and one that I hope to address directly, where relevant, here in my blog–is how wary I am of pointing to “the” Chicana experience, written in the singular. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again (and again and again): There is no one or correct way to be Chican@ (or Latin@ or any other ethnicity, as far as I’m concerned).
I constantly aim to disabuse my students of this idea, as they often come to my classes feeling that there is in fact some sort of “checklist” for what it means to be Chican@. Usually, the checklist includes things such as:
- Speaking Spanish as your first language
- Having one or both parents who immigrated from Mexico
- Listening to Mexican music, either norteñas and such or rock en español
- Growing up in a neighborhood that is predominantly Mexican or Latino
- Being able to unleash a fierce mariachi grito when necessary
These checklist items are necessarily born out of their primary experiences, as most of my students do relate to these sorts of things.
Most students…but not all. I am always interested to hear from those who come to my office hours and gingerly “confess” that they are biracial, don’t speak Spanish well and/or are not at all familiar with Mexican pop culture. They are always relieved to hear me admit the same things and that I don’t think they should let anyone else dictate how “Mexican” they are by such measures.
Morever, even those of us who grow up in the same family can end up identifying very differently from each other. I’ll share my own family as an example. I’ve written in the past about the fact that my parents were both born in the US to Mexican parents. However, my mom is much more bi-cultural than my dad, is fully bilingual and at every opportunity instilled in my older sister and me a pride in our cultural heritage. Nevertheless, even growing up with the same parents, we turned out quite differently.
My sister is someone who would never deny being Mexican American. That being said, though, her ethnicity is just not a part of her day-to-day self-conception. She learned Spanish in middle school and high school, but has forgotten all of it today. She has never once watched a tv show on Univision or Telemundo. She’s generally uninterested in anything that has to do with Mexico. We took family trips to Mexico when we were young, but for her these mainly evoke painful memories of her skin breaking out–which she claims happened as soon as she crossed the border–and nearly peeing in her pants because our relatives didn’t understand her English-language pleas for a bathroom break during one especially long road-trip.
I always say that I would pay good money to be able to go back in time to 1979 and see the look on her face when my mom explained that we would have to use the previous day’s underwear as a washcloth throughout our stay with our Mexican relatives. My mom did her best to sell my sister on the idea–”Just think: this way, you and your panties turn out clean!”–but my sister was absolutely disgusted. And for those of you who know my beauty-queen sister, who is a professional make-up artist and skin care expert and who wears false eyelashes just to run to the grocery store, you can imagine why I find this story so hilarious.
In short: for my sister, the only meaningful part of being Mexican is the delicious food. The other day, I posted something on facebook about trying a “Mexican vanilla” ice cream and she cheerfully commented, “Mexican vanilla? Kind of like me” (meaning, of course, a “whitewashed” Mexican).
By contrast, I am often thinking about what it means to be Mexican American. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I started this blog–to explore these issues and talk out my ideas on the subject. My teaching and research focus on the history and culture of Mexican American people. I teach students who are predominantly Mexican American. Race and ethnicity is one of the primary lenses through which I view the world.
I don’t know why exactly things turned out so differently for us. I think part of the answer may lie in the fact that my sister didn’t attend college, while I did. For me, those were very critical years when I became active in the Latin@ student group on campus and, through my coursework, I began learning to think more critically about race and ethnicity and acquiring a specific vocabulary to talk about these issues.
At the same time, maybe the college experience isn’t everything…because there are plenty of Latin@s who go to college and who also, like my sister, don’t really make ethnicity a centerpiece of their lives. So perhaps another explanation is that it boils down to the careers we’ve chosen: ethnicity and race are topics I have to think and talk about on a daily basis, whereas my sister is involved in beauty culture, and her success to some extent is predicated on down-playing ethnicity and racial differences (i.e. being able to sell beauty products to women across race).
When I tell my sister about race-related things that happen to me–those pesky microagressions, for example–she often will say, “God, that’s so weird–stuff like that never happens to me!” And I always think, “I’m sure it does, you’re just not aware of it.”
I guess when it comes down to it, our different experiences serve to demonstrate that the more you think about ethnicity (and/or race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.), the more likely you are to identify it everywhere, analyze how it is expressed and regulated in our society and understand how it impacts our interactions with others. It takes a lot of work, though, and of course it’s not always pleasant. But it’s work that has to be done and I’m proud to be in a position to play this particular role within my family. Because it’s my choice.