Editor’s Note: In May, Meyer Foundation staff and several grantee partners gathered for Latino Challenges Toward Racial Justice, a two-day workshop by c-Integral designed for people who live in or work with Latino communities, and who seek to end racial disparities in our institutions and end racism in our society. Now, Meyer Program Assistant Alexis Martinez shares her insights following Latino Challenges Toward Racial Justice as both an attendee of the training and as an individual who has grappled with self-identification — a complex reality for many people of color who are often forced to fit within a Black/White binary.
Growing up in my household, I didn’t think much about what it meant to be a person of color or to identify as Latina, mostly because that vocabulary wasn’t present at home. My family discussions rarely revolved around race. My mom would tell me “Sos parte Chilena y parte Guatemalteca,” — You are half Chilean and half Guatemalan — and that was that.
As I entered the school system and began interacting with a wider group of peers, I began to experience an identity conflict. A number of my Latina friends would say to me that I am “Blanca” in comparison to their own skin colors. I have shifted between being called White and being called Brown all my life. Like so many, somewhere along the way I realized that being White was perceived as “better” than being Brown.
To this day, even as I proudly recognize my parents’ countries of origin in any personal interaction, I still find myself having to negotiate my self-identity both externally and internally.
In the United States, I am defined as a Brown person. I’ve come to realize that colorism has been a part of my experience before I’d ever even heard the word. While I struggle to fully recognize myself as a person of color, I realize that society has racialized my existence for me. In most settings, I have acquiesced to this racialization as a societal norm or inevitability.
In many ways, Latino Challenges Toward Racial Justice expanded my knowledge of what it means to be Latino/Latina/Latinx in the United States. Several of the topics we explored resonated with my personal experiences and provided me with new perspectives.
What’s in a Name? | The Black/White Binary
One of the core discussions we had during the workshop was around the terms Latino/Latina/Latinx (and other pan-ethnic terms like these) and how these terms have the ability to erase an individual’s national origin and struggles if used improperly. Blanket terms can strip away so much from an individual’s identity.
We also discussed the Black/White binary by exploring the question, “Where do Latinos/Latinas/Latinx people fall in the equation?” The conversation made explicit the ways we are pressured to identify as White (especially via television representation and other social media avenues in both the U.S. and Latin America), even when our skin color may be closer to Brown or Black. The topic of how we underwent the process of racialization was one of the most fascinating portions of the workshop for me.
Another complex issue we discussed was colorism in the Latinx community and how it results in Whiteness being treated preferentially. With limited options on forms that request demographic information, including the census, Latinx people have often opted to identify as White. As we discussed in the training, this is often because they don’t feel that identifying as Black represents them racially and/or is due to the Latinx communities’ internalized experiences with racism. This only further complicates demographic data as communities of color seek greater visibility and resources.
Tu sos Alexis Gabrielle Martinez Miranda, parte Chilena y parte Guatemalteca
In both Chile and Guatemala, I am considered particularly tall and “White.” I have been granted a certain kind of esteem for my apparent Whiteness, but also a discrediting of my identity when I am simultaneously perceived as not Brown enough.
During a visit to Chile, my grandfather explicitly expressed how happy my complexion made him. He was so proud that I was tall and White like my mother.
Admittedly, passing as White has made me feel significant at times. It’s made me feel, in not so pretty and poetic ways, that:
● I am seen and beautiful.
● I am heard and respected.
● I am better and privileged.
On those occasions I catch myself feeling a bit satisfied with being able to pass as White, I feel ashamed for thinking that being White is somehow better or more suitable in a particular context.
The flip side of this internal exalting of Whiteness is my external frustration at not being recognized as Guatemalan.
“You are not chapina. No way, you don’t look like us!” some have said to me.
They have essentially denied me my roots and my heritage that my father has passed on to me. And in moments like those, I find myself trying to legitimize my identity, my “Latina-ness.”
“Well, yes, I am half-Chilean, but I am also half-Guatemalan. These are my roots. This is who I am.”
As I mentioned, terms like “Latina” and “Hispanic” weren’t present in my home growing up. I struggle to remember that moment where I came to identify myself as one or the other. In some ways, I can see why my parents did not introduce this vocabulary at home; perhaps because cultures across nationalities are so different. It wasn’t appropriate to make Chileans, Guatemalans, and other nationalities, one monolithic group.
By doing so, it erases the individuality of what makes a Chilean a Chilean, a Guatemalan a Guatemalan. It lumped the obstacles that both my parents went through and all the unique values that shaped my upbringing and worldview. To be Chilean and Guatemalan, to say I am a child of both, rather than to just say I am a Latina, was something my parents really wanted me to tell the world.
Tu sos Alexis Gabrielle Martinez Miranda, parte Chilena y parte Guatemalteca.
Coming to Terms
When I find myself frustrated, I wonder, why do I feel the need to validate my existence?
I’m not just trying to validate my existence to others, but also to myself.
I don’t think my experiences are incredibly unique. Figuring out exactly what it means to be Latino/Latina/Latinx in the United States is an exercise in self-exploration that many have taken or will take at some point. How each person comes to terms with this will be influenced by their own journeys.
The question I ask myself is, how do I self-identify now in the U.S.’s broad terms? I realize I can’t answer this or begin fighting the long battle against racism without first addressing the racist thought patterns I’ve internalized.
When I do say “I am Latina,” I mean that I am a woman who appreciates and honors her heritage and the struggles her parents went through. They came to this country and built a life for themselves and provided opportunities for their children to thrive.
I am proud to introduce myself as a first-generation U.S. American, who is half-Chilean and half-Guatemalan. But presenting myself as Latina is a habit I’ve cultivated over the years. Even when I started using the term, I never truly knew what it meant. To this day, I struggle to self-identify racially and ethnically. I suppose the road to self-discovery is a lifelong journey — one that requires constant reflection, unlearning, and adjusting.