Question: “Where do you come from?”
Response: “No no, your parents, what ARE YOU?”
(I knew very well what they meant and I could feel the color in my cheeks rise, the heat collecting in my belly…then the butterflies.)
“I am Mexican.”
It took me 17 years before I could say…JUST that…without the prologue:
“I am Spanish.”
In school I used to pray that no one would ask me to be more “specific.” It was like I had just admitted a handicap and if I qualified it any further that small encumbrance would somehow become a fatal fault.
I grew up in a very small town. Where everyone waves “howdy” in the morn’ and you leave your front door unlocked. And yet, the first African-American family to moved onto my block in 1986, received a burning cross and racial epitaphs spray painted all over their home, as a welcome. It didn’t take long for even a child to recognize that different is wrong.
I remember looking at all of the blonde-haired-blue-eyed girls with envy, sure my life would be different if only I looked like them. Of course I was wrong. Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with majority opinions on beauty…with one exception, when the majority is the ONLY opinion, and where I grew up I saw no alternatives…looking in the mirror was like looking at a different species….I looked strange, like I didn’t belong.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I am not after sympathy…I am simply setting up a truism…we learn to favor what we KNOW….This is Zajonc’s Theory of Likeness: we can become conditioned to prefer that which we are exposed most to. And as with ALL social psychological theories this one seems like common-sense and yet if we think about the wider implications of such a theory…it is SERIOUS, and explains A LOT..about who we are and what we THINK we prefer!
At 17 I moved to NYC…and found that the myriad of ethnic/racial/political/sexual/gender/class/etc. differences in one relatively tiny city caused an expansion on my previously narrow view what is “likeable”.
“This is amazing!” I thought…as people in NYC recognized me for being “different” and yet found it acceptable and even desireable. It was the first time in my life I felt attractive and began to develop a pride for my own heritage as well as the different cultures of others.
This feeling of individuality and acceptance simultaneously is something that I think is unique to NYC and perhaps other cities with such diverse populations, and as appealing as it is it also contains its own manner of internal-criticism and even racism.
In NYC I quickly rediscovered those old feelings of shame and self-consciousness…because while the overall Latino Community accepted me with open-arms as a “member”…within that group there existed familiar hierarchies just with different qualifications. Skin Tone. Hair Texture. Accent. Country of Origin…and while ALL are acceptable within the larger framework of what it means to be Latino/a, you also have to accept your suggested place within that hierarchy.
And surprise, surprise…being labeled as “SPANISH” seemed to reign over all placements and yet it does NOT apply to a single Latino subgroup, as by definition Hispanic/Latino/Latina refers to those of Spanish and INDIGENOUS descent, and more often than not it is more of the later! And yet…we all speak of ourselves as: SPANISH! Imagine my confusion at coming full circle, learning to love the ethnic differences within me only to realize that I was STILL being asked to deny my heritage, now BY my own heritage.
I can only speak from own own experience, however I am sure that many racial/ethnic/sexual/political/class/social/gender/etc. sub-groups in NYC experience similar judgments as those I have observed. And yet as insidious as these biases they may seem to an outsider, it may be that they are also necessary in terms of strengthening ANY minority community as a whole…everyone has their place. It’s an interesting dynamic…and dilema.
And in reality this phenomenon is only a reflection of the values and prejudices that mainstream society/media places on us…beliefs we consume and integrate into our psyche…again I do not altogether fault these systems, my only point being that we should be AWARE of these processes and more importantly the consequent effects on who we are…because if the only acceptable self-reflection is a lie, then perhaps we need to reconstruct our reality…starting with our own views of SELF: