On Understanding My Conflicting Ethnic Identities

My name is Heather Henderson and I am white. Very white, in fact. I’ve got that whole pasty skin/ruddy cheeks/light eyes/blonde hair thing going on. My dad’s parents emigrated to the United States from Scotland and his entire family history going back even before the days of Braveheart can be traced to the little island of Britain. My mom’s side of the family, however, is a little more mixed.

Her maiden name is difficult to pronounce for most people, and her skin tone could only be replicated by me with several layers of spray tan. Her father, my grandfather, is Mexican. Born in the USA to a Mexican father and an American mother, but raised in Mexico. Even at 90 years old, he can transition flawlessly between English and Spanish and his most cherished memories are of growing up in Mexico City, working as a background dancer in the Mexican film industry and celebrating traditional Mexican holidays.

All this, and he does not identify as Mexican in any way. He prefers to call himself Spanish because he thinks it sounds classier and he used to tell people his family came from Spain.

Perhaps it is his own conflicted identity, and more importantly his role as an absent father, that led his own children to identify themselves more closely with their mother’s Irish-American heritage.

This has served only to make things more confusing for me. I grew up in a heavily Hispanic area in South Florida as one of the white kids. Most of my friends spoke Spanish as their first language at home, and while Spanish classes were compulsory in elementary school and my mother frequently spoke to me in her own brand of Spanglish, I never fully picked up the language. Not being a Spanish speaker made me a bit of an outsider in my hometown.

I grew up on a diet of Mexican and other Hispanic-influenced foods. My mother was always an excellent cook who drew directly from her experiences traveling to Mexico to visit relatives and even briefly living in Puerto Rico, where she too existed as an outsider who could never quite master the language.

I grew up identifying myself simply as white. I learned about my Scottish heritage from infrequent visits with my paternal grandparents, who were extremely proud of their home country. My mother and her side of the family were always more ambiguous when it came to discussing their background. After a few drinks at family gatherings, grandpa would never fail to start singing old folk songs en Español, and it was never a thing I questioned. Our house was always decorated with unusual and colorful knick-knacks like skeletons and voodoo dolls. My mother served me café con leche every morning starting around 1st grade and the default packed lunch for me was a quesadilla rather than a PB&J. This was my version of normal.

I didn’t start asking questions and learning about my family’s heritage until I was much older, when I uncovered some old photos of long-dead ancestors and launched an investigation into my genealogy. This brought me into contact with relatives I didn’t even know I had, including several cousins who live in Mexico and speak minimal English. It has caused me to question a lot about myself and how I should identify, especially how I fit into a society where stark lines still divide us by ethnicity.

I’m white and always have been. But I cringe at other white people who can’t even pronounce the word “jalapeño” or believe that Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexico’s independence. I make fantastic tortillas at home, I don’t consider Chipotle to be representative of actual Mexican cuisine, I don’t stumble over words like Xochimilco or Chapultepec, and sugar skulls have been a fixture in my life since long before they were appropriated as a trendy tattoo design. I have trouble fully identifying with the standard “white person” trope. I don’t understand why mayonnaise exists and I have never been inside of a mini-van.

But when I find myself filling out forms or applying for jobs, I always get caught up on that one question.

What is your ethnicity (check all that apply)?

Good question. I’m white. I’ve always been told I am white. Too white even. I don’t look or sound Hispanic. My name is as vanilla as it gets. I can’t speak much Spanish and I’ve never been to Mexico. I don’t identify with Mexican stereotypes or the plight of being an ethnic minority in America.

But at the same time, I feel pride in my heritage. I love the tradition of setting up an ofrenda to honor the dead on Dia de los Muertos. I am moved by the art and writings of Frida Kahlo (who also had mixed heritage). I do a lot of my grocery shopping at little tiendas where I stick out like a sore thumb buying bags of maseca and cotija. I can almost understand the comments that the other shoppers openly make about me in their mother tongue. (I recognize my name is always “Blanca” in those situations).

My ancestors helped build Mexico. I come from a long line of railway engineers who passed down tales of being robbed by Pancho Villa. Before that, Mesoamerican natives who had previously come across the Bering land bridge and settled in Mexico a million generations ago. But I have not lived the Mexican-American experience. My name and my appearance allow me to pass silently under the radar as just another white girl. I don’t know that I have the right to call myself Mexican-American or Chicana or Latina or anything other than just plain white.

I feel weirdly in-between two identities, like it isn’t possible to be both white and Hispanic. Like they fully contradict each other. And in a way, perhaps they do. You can’t reap the benefits of being white while also living the struggle of being non-white.

And so the question for me still remains,

What is your ethnicity (check all that apply)?

[X] I prefer not to answer.


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