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Sweeney: My genes are Latina but my jeans say ‘white’

I have found that there are few things that I can say that shock people more than these two words: I’m Latina.

I am the product of a Salvadoran mother and a half-Castilian father. This resulted in brown eyes, dark hair, freckles, and light skin. I grew up knowing bits and pieces of the Spanish language from my bilingual mother teaching me as a child and her parents speaking it almost exclusively in their home.

Both of my grandmothers possess a common pride in their Latina female identity, one being an excitable Salvadoran woman and the other a very reserved Spaniard one. Going to the home of my grandparents on my mom’s side meant authentic Salvadoran cooking, avid conversations in Spanish, and music blasting through the house. Visiting my Dad’s parents meant the opposite end of the spectrum: a beach house, large family, and going out to nice dinners.

But when people look at me, they do not see those elements of my identity. I fail three of the crucial “categories” that would permit people to not be surprised when I tell them my ethnicity: a Spanish last name, being bilingual, and expansive knowledge of Latin culture.

When someone reads my name, they probably will not expect me to be Latina. We have become accustomed to knowing ethnicity in the form of name recognition more than any other identity marker. Roughly eight times out of ten, the question that follows my statement of ethnicity will be how well I can speak Spanish. Other times, the conversation segues into one that I have trouble following because there is an assumption that since I am Latina, I know certain things about different aspects of my culture. Unfortunately (and somewhat embarrassingly), I do not.

I like to think of myself as the modern representation of three Latina women and their cultural pride. But I must admit that being Latina is only half of my identity, and I am not as avid of a student of that cultural history as I could be. I do not spend time reading or watching things in Spanish. I took three and a half years of Spanish in school and have been to Spain, yet my grammar is probably some of the worst you will encounter. I do not follow in my mom’s footsteps, like I know she wishes I would, and join the Latin American groups at my college campus. I have kept a safe distance between my heritage and myself.

I think that this is partially because my home was always an English speaking one that did not spend a lot of time discussing my Spanish culture. It was just always there, and I tended not to notice. I only recently began to really discover my underlying pride in being Latina. The other reason is because I have always been terrified that joining any sort of Latin American association would be too hard. I cannot speak Spanish enough to carry on a solid conversation, do not have the same relationship with my heritage, and I honestly feared that I may be too “white” looking for people to accept me. I have since then made friends with people who are in these groups and found them to be fantastic, accepting people. But I still harbor the fear that actually joining an organization would just be too awkward for me and everyone else.

In many, many ways, I am more Americanized than anything else. While my childhood was infused with a sense of culture and different languages, I spend more time in a cliched American fashion. I like shopping at a lot of mainstream stores and know a lot of American pop culture factoids. And the other day, I joked to my boyfriend that I had Starbucks for breakfast that morning as we were walking into Panera for dinner. I am not trying to assert these things as being anti-Latina characteristics or solely “white” qualities, but they do serve as examples of how mainstream American living is more dominant in my life.

While I have my set of problems that exist due to my complicated relationship with my Latina identity, I will not feign that I have the same life experience as that of Latina women with dark skin. I am still nestled within the comforts of my light skin, which allows me the opportunity to discuss my ethnicity when I want in a way that women with darker skin cannot. This is something that is often overlooked when people discuss the way that people of different ethnicities go through life. There is no set Latina experience, and the multitude of factors that contribute to what makes me who I am all affect how my life plays out.

While I will inevitably struggle with defining how my ethnicity will influence my identity for years to come, I recognize that it is all a process. I am only in my 20s, and I am still learning how to blend all of these aspects together in a way that no longer makes me feel like I have to choose just one of them in order to be accepted.

1 Comment on Sweeney: My genes are Latina but my jeans say ‘white’

  1. Rodger D'Andreas // August 15, 2014 at 8:22 pm // Reply

    This is a great self-reflective article, Katie. I very much enjoyed it and have had many similar experiences and feelings.

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