Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A White and Latina Woman who Doesn't Speak Spanish Fluently Studying in Latin America

Note-  I wrote this piece for a weekly required diary for my Spanish class here.  It is posted both in the original Spanish and in English because I feel it speaks to the identity issues I begin to explore in the piece.  This is the English translation.  When I was translating it to English, I became aware of how much more deeply I could probe these ideas and therefore how far I have to go in my dominance of Spanish.  On the other hand, I feel that the Spanish version is much more elegant and expresses more directly what I wish to say, even though I was thinking a lot in English when I wrote the original.  I will observe this while keeping in mind that I also thought I was a great writer in English in the fifth grade.
The translation is almost exact, for the purposes of communicating how I write in Spanish, as well as for the sake of my time.  (Hi finals week!  Should probs go back to that paper now.)

My skin now is darker than when I arrived.  My hair is dark and long and thick, my eyes brown and small as always.  I always say  I look more like my self identity- which is to say, Latina, Mexican- in the summer. 

Only one fourth of me is Mexican.  I will never speak the language like a native and my parents and grandparents do not speak Spanish either.  I grew up in a suburb full of white people.  I was the second darkest in my Kindergarten class, even though I have white skin.  In high school, there were more people of color, but I didn’t consider myself to be automatically a part of them.  My Mexican great-grandparents met in Minnesota.  My grandfather changed his name from Miguel to Mike.  But I remember days with my big family, with tamales and love, and I know the history of my Mexican family, and I want to return there and learn more.  I will never forget my mother insisting “You are Mexican, you are Mexican” almost every day of my childhood.  Not German, not Irish or Norwegian (which I also am), Mexican.  And I am.  But it is complicated.

Images of Ethnicity in Ecuador:

“Where are you from?” he asks.  The question is easy and normal here because there are many people passing through, and obviously I’m not from Ecuador- when my skin does not give it away, my Spanish does.
“The United States,”  I answer.
“But where are you from originally?” More specifically?
“But where are your grandparents from?”  Oh, that’s what this is about, I think.  He has noticed I look Latina and wants an explanation.
“But you aren’t Chinese?” I guessed wrong, apparently.  Goodness, this again…

The next morning in the hostel, a man speaks to me in rapid Spanish.  I only understand one word- habitaciones (rooms).  He repeats it again.  When I look at him funny, he says, “Oh, you don’t work here!  I’m sorry.”  In less than 24 hours I have been Chinese and Ecuadorian.

But when speaking about the topic of my ethnicity and the interest the whole world has in it, my friend says, “I don’t understand.  You just look white to me.”  But other students have asked me about my ethnicity. And no one asks if you just look white.

Is What They See What I Am?

It is a bad thing that many mixed people have to explain to people (mostly white people, and for me, mostly males) why they look “different” or really, why they are not white; that people think it is okay to ask super personal questions to strangers just because they aren’t white.  But the thing that bothers me the most isn’t the questions.  It is when the other person tells me what I am.  It is more than that I want to self-identify.  I think I want to appear Mexican because sometimes I feel like it is the only thing that I have of this part of my identity.  Clearly this isn’t true because the identity of and with my family exists independently of appearances (for example, my cousin is blonde)  but sometimes I feel like I am not Mexican at all, except in the sense that my appearance belongs to my Mexican family.  I cling to this.

So when someone tells me that I don’t look Mexican, of course I do not like it.  Mostly it is because it is none of their business.  I’m not sure why people feel like they have to comment on the appearance of others all the time, especially in regards to race and ethnicity.  But really it is because I want to self identify— AND I want to look like my self-identification. 

Why?  Why does it matter what other people think?  Because it is important.  In the world of race, a social construction in the first place, the only thing that is important is how you look.  If I look like a person from China, people are going to treat me like I am Chinese.  If I look like a white person, I will receive all of the privileges of being white.  The way that other people see me is part of who I am, though I do not like it sometimes.  My identity cannot just be my self-identification, even though that is confusing enough.  It also includes the opinions of other people. I am reminded of this often here, as a white and latina woman who doesn’t speak Spanish fluently studying in Latin America.  It makes me think a lot.

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