“But where are you really from?”: An insult disguised as a question. It implies that the recipient is not truly American, regardless of how they identified the first time the question was posed. I’ve been asked this question dozens of times since I started my undergraduate career. In my sophomore year, a classmate asked me where I was from, to which I simply replied, “Chicago.” This answer proved to be, of course, unsatisfactory. She continued to probe, asking me “where I’m really from” to which I replied, once more, “Chicago.”
Yet, she was determined. The color of my skin, to her, meant I must be hyphenated. After all, I wasn’t white, blue-eyed and blonde like her so I ought to be something else. She finally asked me what I am and I regrettably gave in to her curiosity. Exhausted, I didn’t want to explain to her the prejudice behind her inquiry. I didn’t know how to tell her that the homogenous group of friends she sits with was not indicative of what an American is. That not every American will bear her skin tone and have a name that she can pronounce. I could imagine her mind implode at this realization.
So I told her I’m Mexican-American. She was being nice, after all. I explained that my parents were born and raised in Mexico; they migrated to the U.S, where I was born, and raised me in Chicago. To this, she responded “Really? You don’t look Mexican.” And to make matters worse, she added “You look more exotic than that.”
Is it that Mexicans are not “exotic” enough because there’s so many of us that our novelty has been lost to white America? I felt dehumanized. I’m not exotic; I am not a rare bird or a tropical fruit. I am not a mystery to be solved or an object to be collected and fetishized. This was not a compliment. It was a backhanded reminder that I don’t fit the beauty standards, that I’m less normal and less human than white Americans. And since when is she, a white girl from Long Island, an expert on what it means to be Mexican? Did she want me to wear a sombrero, eat tacos and speak Spanish to prove myself?
I was furious, to say the least, but I didn’t get to respond. Class started, and I sat with the sour realization that, to an extent, she was right. I will never be fully accepted as Mexican nor American. I’m too Mexican to be American and too American to be Mexican. I’m a weird, impure hybrid, rejected by both sides of the hyphen. I live in two worlds but pertain to none and that is my bicultural paradox.
I soon realized I wasn’t the only one grappling with this contradiction. In fact, many Latinos call it the state of being ni de aqui, ni de alla — neither from here, not from there. The movie “Selena” became a source of comfort and validation. Selena Quintanilla, one of the few Latina celebrities not warped into a stereotypical narrative, was a true role model. Despite constantly having her Latina identity questioned for being born in the U.S., she was a proud Mexican-American icon. There’s a scene in the movie where Selena’s dad opens up to her about the struggles of being bicultural that perfectly captures my own experience. He talks about how being Mexican-American means having to work twice as hard. We constantly need to prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are and prove to the Americans how American we are. We need to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans all at once. Except, that’s impossible because biculturalism involves sacrifice. So instead, we’re left as neither.
My friends and relatives always point out that I’m not, in fact, Mexican enough. My Spanish will never be good enough, my ties to Mexico will never be strong enough. Spanish was my first language but I learned English in school soon after. As a result, I’ve butchered my native tongue with my Spanglish and slight American accent. At school, my diction and academic aspirations led people to accuse me of “acting white.” And, although I’ve been to Mexico countless times, I’ll never really know what it’s like to grow up there. My parents speak about their longing to go home, to a place of nurture, acceptance, and belonging. I long for that too, except that’s their homeland and not mine. I’m too whitewashed. I’m too tainted.
But, I’m not American enough either. This became evident when I came to Cornell. At home, I was surrounded by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. My lighter complexion and my “acting white” made it so that I was too American. Here, it is the complete opposite. There is the obvious: the color of my skin, which excludes me from the everlasting reign of white supremacy. There’s also my slight Spanish accent that reveals itself every so often reminding everyone of my “otherness.” I never even knew I had a Spanish accent before. My friends mock me for not knowing the English translation for basic words like “recogedor” (dustpan) or “estropajo” (scourer). Yet, I only ever heard them at home. Then there’s my lack of pop-cultural knowledge. I didn’t grow up with Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. I grew up with Vicente Fernandez and Tigres Del Norte.
So, what am I?
I’m not sure you’re ready to hear it.
I transcend dichotomies and borders. My hyphen is not a separation, it is an integration. I am not conditionally Mexican and conditionally American. I’m always unapologetically Mexican-American. My heritage runs through my veins in the way my upbringing runs through my mind. I am a new culture. I am Chicana y soy hecha en America.
Lucy Contreras is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column, Lucy Dreams, runs every other Tuesday this semester.